Postal Service in South Africa

I think I’ve already mentioned that our houses here don’t have mailboxes. There simply is no mail service to your house. Please take a moment and reflect on the comforts of daily mail delivery, right to your doorstep. I know it is very fashionable in the U.S. to bash government and taxes, but I’m sure most Americans would be very offended if they had to retrieve their mail somewhere else like I now have to, whatever the tax rate. I will come back to this theme when I discuss the local public libraries!
Anyway, one of the first things you do when moving here is to apply for a PO Box, for an annual fee of R249. These boxes can be found pretty much anywhere. Most shopping centers feature a battery of them somewhere to the side, where you can drive up and get your mail.

I’m told we were somewhat lucky to get one close to our house so quickly, as there can be wait lists. I’m also told that the South African Post Office (SAPO) is not very reliable, but so far we have not had any problems (unless you consider a lack of speed a problem). Nothing has been lost (that I know of). And they do have very beautiful stamps! When I tried to find out more about the reliability of SAPO, I came across news stories about Amazon blacklisting it in 2008, as the only African country, due to heavy theft (which, according to those stories, a postal spokesman, when asked about it, blamed on those boxes having “Amazon written all over them” and therefore being very tempting). However, none of these reports were from what I’d consider reputable news sites, and at any rate I could not find any reference to blacklisting on Amazon’s international shipping page, so if there was a problem I would say it must at least have improved. (Although, curiously, I was only able to access Amazon’s Africa shipping page through a proxy server, something that has happened to me here for Pottery Barn and the Johnson County Public Library sites as well, making me feel like I’m a Chinese dissident sneaking an order for sofa cushions past the authorities…)

I digress. As I stood in line at the post office yesterday (closest to Dainfern Estate there is one right by the Broadacres/Cedar Rd gate, or in Valley Shopping Centre by the Dainfern College gate), I was struck by the realization that post offices all over the world are exactly the same. They are all very drab, there is usually some kind of counter in the middle with stacks of various forms, a pen dangling off a chain nearby, and you find yourself facing 5 windows but only precisely one is actually occupied by a not very fast moving attendant. So while waiting you are forced to study the walls and find yourself reading and re-reading the “complaints filing procedure” and “how to make the post office a crime-free zone.” A poster featuring the South African post office mission statement made me chuckle: “We strive to be one of the top 10 postal services in the world.” Really? Number 10? I would say even the third best is probably not very well loved amongst its people, so isn’t shooting for tenth a little bit of a low aim? Then again, if the competition involves delivering mail to people’s doorsteps, maybe number 10 is a definite step up!
On the bright side, I don’t have to go to the post office very often. And, come to think of it, not to our PO box either. We go about once a week and half the time find it empty. I’m almost ecstatic when I do find the bank statement or the pest control invoice, which I think are the only two items sent to us by mail. All financial transactions are accomplished (once you have your bank account!) via electronic funds transfer (EFT), and that alone cuts down your flow of letters drastically. By the way, I have to take a few minutes here and, in the spirit of fairness (since I’ve done my fair share of complaining about all the things that have been difficult here), praise the South African banking system. It is way ahead of the U.S. in many aspects. Trust me, you won’t find many countries where people still write checks, but Americans do it quite happily.
But back to my goal of educating other expats. So you’ve made sure you have your PO box, wonderful. Now, if you want to send more important or time-sensitive mail, you might want to take it to PostNet , an affordable private parcel and letter service. They have offices in most shopping centers, the Broadacres and Fourways Mall ones being the closest to Dainfern Estate. If you mail an international letter via PostNet, it will be shipped to London on the next plane, and then enter the regular U.K. Postal Service there. This keeps the rate for a regular letter down to R22 (about $3) and ensures delivery in about a week. (I hope they made sure the U.K. is ranked somewhere at the top of postal services).
Fedex and DHL of course are options as well, and they DO deliver right to your house, but they are expensive. Another option for your local mail is one of the myriad courier services operated by motor scooter. This is how our Movies4Africa  DVDs are delivered and picked up.
All in all, I would say your mail delivery does work fairly well in South Africa. But receiving and sending mail seems to be a much smaller part of life here, propelling us much farther on the path to a paperless world than we’ve ever been. It might be one of those areas where the developing world leapfrogs the first world when new technologies emerge.