Carol Paton Writer at Large

The Post Office remains snowed under by a backlog of mail accumulated in July’s strike, with 16-million items on the floor at depots around the country.

CEO Mark Barnes promised in August that he would clear the backlog by the end of September after a two-week strike in July led to a 38-million backlog of letters and parcels. But that deadline has now been missed and the public remains frustrated, prompting a recent letter writer to Business Day to remark that to call it snail mail “would be an injustice to snails”.

The writer had recently received an airmail letter from Dublin postmarked April 18.

Barnes said on Thursday that the backlog had been cut down to 16-million in major sorting centres. “Should the rate of clearance continue, we expect all domestic mail items to be up to date by end of October at the mail sorting centres.”

For the past two years the Post Office has been battling to keep basic equipment such as vehicles, forklifts, bags and pallets on the ground as creditors withdraw their services due to unpaid bills. These difficulties had made clearing the backlog from the strike more difficult.

“The Post Office had to revise its transport route to optimise and save costs, and this has resulted in some final delivery destinations being serviced only on alternate days. As a result, some of the items dispatched from major sorting centres may not be delivered as yet ... Sapo will endeavour to continuously keep our customers informed, through the media,” the company said in a statement on Thursday.

The company also said that it was taking steps to improve the processing of international items at the main post office centre at OR Tambo airport, which receives 250,000 new items a day. This includes sending mail to other depots and plans to extend working hours to 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

The Post Office is hoping for good news from the medium-term budget policy statement later this month and has applied to the Treasury for a R2.7bn loan guarantee to pay outstanding creditors. A recapitalisation of R3.7bn paid by the Treasury in October 2017 was also used to pay creditors and pay off debt.

As part of its turnaround plan, Barnes also hopes to persuade the government to reinstate an annual subsidy for the Post Office as much of its business – the delivery of mail to far-flung areas – cannot be undertaken profitably. The subsidy was withdrawn in 2011, because according to minister of postal services and telecommunications Siyabonga Cwele it had been incorrectly reflected in the Post Office’s financial statements as a profit.

In its last set of annual financial statements tabled in parliament last week, the auditor-general expressed doubt about the company’s going-concern status, saying that it was unable to generate sufficient revenues to finance its costs.

Barnes’s plan for a turnaround includes diversifying the business of the Post Office by using the infrastructure of the Post Office to provide other government services, such as social grants, and to provide low-cost banking to the poor.