Why South Africa Needs a Better Postal Service to Become Great

A recent article, Why the Post Office Makes America Great, caught my attention.

For the author, arriving in the United States from Turkey many years ago, it was culture shock par excellence to discover reliable postal rates, a service you’d even gladly surrender your passport to, and a country dotted with libraries full of books free for the taking.

I know all about this kind of happy culture shock, where everything around you seems like a wonder, a fantasy that can’t be real, though my teenage eyes when first arriving in America as an exchange student did not zero in on such things as reliable postal service and libraries. After all, we had plenty of that in Germany. I was awestruck by other sightings, which I’d breathlessly report in my weekly missives to my parents back home: drive-through restaurants, cordless phones, and the priest coming over for dinner with a paper bag full of oysters in his one hand, a six-pack in the other.

Twice more I’d arrive in the United States after that initial baptism. The first was at the turn of the millennium after two years in Singapore, which didn’t prompt any big cultural revelations. Perhaps because I was too busy with two small boys and our daughter on the way. My biggest cultural adjustment was trying to figure out how to get through the day without my trusted live-in housekeeper.

It is the memory of our most recent return to U.S. shores when we returned from three years in South Africa in early 2013 that had me nodding in agreement with the author. I underwent plenty of reverse culture shock then, mostly also with that sense of innocent wonder. The abundance of shopping, the vast parking spaces, the cashless economy. But my singularly biggest experience of reverse culture shock occurred when standing – you guessed it – in line at our local post office. There were 3 people in front of me, and one of them was griping about the terrible service.

postbox in South Africa
An emblem of South Africa’s dysfunctional postal service. Photo taken at Valley Shopping Centre, Dainfern, 2012.

Are you insane? was what I wanted to shout at this grouch. Do you have any IDEA what great service you actually get, at such little cost? Here I was standing in line with a return from an online purchase. All I’d have to do is wait for probably less than 10 minutes, and the thing would be on its way without me having to shed another thought. It would get there with absolute certainty, my account would be credited, and I could go on with my life.

I won’t have to tell you about the alternative. This is a blog about South Africa, so you must know. You’ve dealt with the disappointment of a promised Christmas present never arriving, of ordering a book on Kalahari.com that you then have to spend 4 precious weeks of your life to try and track down, you’ve stood in line at the post office for 40 minutes to renew your vehicle registration, only to find out that “the machine is broken, so sorry.”

The South African Postal Service (SAPO) is in a dismal shambles. I’ve documented my experiences here and here. I know it’s anecdotal, but my Christmas card experiment from a few years ago paints a pretty accurate picture, tables and all. South Africa was dead last, by a wide margin, in delivery times and success rates.

As the author of the above article so eloquently states, a country needs good infrastructure to be great. And, all the gripes of its citizens notwithstanding, America has good infrastructure. Perhaps not the best roads and airports – after all, you have to keep investing in those, and, gulp! raise taxes – but in comparison with all the other countries I’ve called my home, even Germany, American government services work well. I have a 4-month start-to-finish citizenship to show for it.

Businessman Mark Barnes recently got appointed to head SAPO, so I have hope. Turning around its postal service might be the first step in making South Africa the great country it deserves to be.

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