September 21, 2010

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.


hoimir said...

hi sine! post offices vary enormously (probably not only in south africa) from totally disinterested to very friendly and helpful.

i for one have lost stuff: anything knit- or kid-related just vanishes. friends knitted beautiful thingies upon arrival of our daughters: not a single item made it to my postbox :( whatever i knitted for them disappeared as quickly. boo.

that makes for my favourite post office poster slogan: "we delivers. whatever it takes". however they never say when or where...

as for empty postbox syndrome: maybe you should try . it's a volunteer's website, very trustworthy and his system guarantees that after you've written a postcard to somewhere in the world, you will get one back from someone else. (i honestly have no shares but i just love it) definitely a cheer up in my postbox!

hope your stay here will be long and happy. all the best from pineslopes :)

Firephish said...

Nice blog. For what its worth post gets delivered daily to my house in johannesburg (yes i have a post box!)

Sine said...

Thanks! I suppose this might have to do with living in a fenced in estate, probably too cumbersome to have mail service come in every day? Or do people not WANT their mail delivered because they think it's not safe in the post box? Maybe I should install one and give out my street address and see what happens... Always thankful to receive tips like this!

Alex Fotios said...


Been in Joburg for the past 3 months. I agree with most of what you say.

Getting a PO Box, at least in my area (Fourways), is currently a problem. There are no PO Boxes available and although they are supposed to be installing more the exact date of that is not known (I was told some time next year).

My understanding is that PostNet also offers PO Boxes although I am not sure if these can be used as virtual SA mail addresses for any kind of post or can only be used as delivery points for PostNet mail only.

I don't think that leapfrogging over physical mail would ever be a good idea given that you'd miss out on the great service of getting stuff bought online delivered to your door (or at least to your local Post Office).

I currently find the problem of not being able to order stuff online from international sites like ebay and amazon and get it reliably delivered the most irritating.


Sine said...

Yep, not being able to order online would be one of my biggest gripes about South AFrica, especially now living back in the US and taking advantage of it daily. Buying even simple supplies like dishwasher tablets but also hard to find items off Amazon is so easy and convenient, and buying that kind of stuff in Joburg was always an adventure in and of itself. But then again, it gave me some great stories. So - you gain time by having domestic help, and you lose time by running inefficient errands. But you have great weather and smiling people around you:-)

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Thankfully (as later posts have explained) online ordering is now easier than it used to be in SA. The downside of course is the expense, but depending on what you order international shipping is always expense. Although, Stackry (amongst other services) offer a more streamlined and cost saving approach.

I guess sometimes you have to stop and think about life before online ordering (assuming you are old enough). For me I spent the first 20 years of my life without it and looking back I can't say I suffered much. Although we did have mail order.

The corruption of the SAPO doesn't make much sense, though. It is not what I would call a skilled occupation so why not have a "all thieves will be immediately fired" policy. With such massive unemployment I would think they could get some decent turnover going and eventually build an honest workforce. Maybe it is a cultural thing. I would like to know what the SAPO was like in the pre-democracy days.

Sine said...

Very good point re SAPO, I've always wondered the same thing in general: which such high unemployment in SA, why aren't people more afraid to lose their jobs due to stealing? You'd think you would want to hang on to your job at all cost. It must indeed be a cultural thing in that stealing is so widespread that it has almost become accepted. Of course the police also being mostly corrupt doesn't help as nothing ever gets prosecuted.

Re online ordering, it's funny, I just graduated to the pinnacle of online ordering: I used Amazon Prime Now for the first time yesterday. Had read that they have that available in our area now, 2 hours free shipping, and $8 for 1 hour, so just had to try it out. My son said he needed shampoo, and so I ordered it. It had to be a $20 oder so we ordered quite a bit of shampoo, and indeed it was delivered by a Ueber-style driver within an hour and a half, on our doorstep. Amazing. I haven't yet checked what all is available for this service, but it is mind-boggling. What's funny too is that in South Africa you've actually had this kind of service for much longer. Because the postal service is so unreliable, pretty much every important document or package gets delivered by courier, usually on motorcycle. So maybe we have SA to thank for this now coming here. And of course Amazon's relentless drive to be at the forefront of new services, wanting to push the boundaries. I can't imagine it is even close to being profitable at the moment, but they just want us getting used to it and then paying premium for it.