The strike bound South African Post Office (Sapo) has been badly damaged. And not by greedy workers and belligerent unions, but by mismanagement, corruption and a total lack of planning and foresight.

Terry Bell South Africa, Public (PSI),

zapiro post office strike

A near three-month strike is not a cause, but a symptom of the malaise.

This is the widely held view within the labour movement. And, on the evidence over recent years, it is wholly valid.

The unions have protested about looming disaster for the better part of a decade, while accepting ideas to modernise and adapt the Post Office to the digital age. It has also been pointed out that the way the Post Office is structured, with its banking arm, PostBank, providing a potential honeypot that could be dipped into, is part of the problem.

But, despite union protests, dating back to 2008, nothing was done. Corruption allegations came to a head in 2010 when the unions discovered that management was employing 8 600 casual workers at an annual cost of some R350 million while the hourly rate paid to the labour brokers was more than double the pay received by the workers.

“We want to know what are and were the links between the brokers and management,” says Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) general secretary, Aubrey Tshabalala. He is supported by South African Postal Workers’ Union (Sapwu) general secretary, David Mangena who notes that there is considerable evidence that “buddy-buddies” benefited at various levels from management largesse.

In 2011, the CWU lodged a complaint with the public protector about fraud, corruption and general mismanagement in the Post Office. When nothing happened after nearly two years, the union complained and there were allegations of chicanery.

However, Public Protector Thuli Modonsela explained that the delay was the result of inadequate resources and the fact that her office is inundated with complaints. The investigation into the Post Office is now complete, is undergoing review, and should be tabled within weeks.

Also underway is an investigation by the Special Investigations Unit into allegations of serious mismanagement and corruption that includes the “unlawful appropriation or expenditure of public money”. It was ordered earlier this year under the watch of former postal services and communications minister Yunus Carrim,

This week, Carrim’s successor, Siyabonga Cwele also moved into action, apparently brokering a deal that had management offer workers a 6.5% pay rise for this year. Until now, Sapo management has maintained that there is no money for any increase and the unions have been pressing for negotiations.

“But the issues of pay and conditions should come through negotiations at the bargaining council between unions and management,” says Mangena. There is some concern that government may — as happened in 1999 — dictate a pay rise level. Sapwu members are now discussing what their attitude and reaction should be to the latest developments.

While Cwele’s intervention was, in general, cautiously welcomed, there was some cynicism expressed. This because it came in the wake of a leaked audit report last week that revealed probable fraud of R10 million over the past year and the fact that Sapo board members had received R4.6 million for attending 22 meetings.

“But we estimate as much as R2.1 billion has been misappropriated over the years,” says Tshabalala. He argues that the administration of the Post Office must be tightened up and the existing services expanded and the range increased.

“We need to preserve the Post Office as an essential public service, particularly for the poor and people in rural areas,” he says. In this he has the backing of Sapwu, Cosatu and most of the labour movement.

Former Post Office advantages in banking, money transfer, mail box provision and parcel delivery have already been eroded, with the private sector providing generally more expensive and less easily available alternatives.

“Which is why need to maintain this public service, especially for the rural poor,” says Cosatu spokesperson, Patrick Craven.


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Terry Bell

Cape Town, South Africa-based journalist commentator and author specialising in political and economic analysis and labour matters.

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