By persuading the government to allow the Post Office to distribute social grants CEO Mark Barnes has put the organisation onto a modernisation track. Picture: FILE PICTURE
By persuading the government to allow the Post Office to distribute social grants CEO Mark Barnes has put the organisation onto a modernisation track. Picture: FILE PICTURE

There are not many people left in SA who willingly step up for public service. This is especially so when those people have skills and far more lucrative opportunities in private business.

Mark Barnes, CEO of the Post Office, is one such person. Barnes has stepped out of his role as a private equity investor to run the Post Office for five years at the behest of Cyril Ramaphosa. He is halfway through that mission and he has given the Post Office what few imagined possible: a business case for the future.

By persuading the government to allow the Post Office to distribute social grants he has put the organisation onto a modernisation track. There will be money available for infrastructure investment and the Post Office has been able to start putting in better electronic systems. It is due to Barnes’s vision that the Treasury granted it R2.9bn in the October medium-term budget.

Barnes’s big idea when he took on the job was to convert the Post Bank into a fully fledged lender able to both take deposits, which it does now and make low-cost loans to poor people. With this space occupied by unscrupulous lenders and expensive, profit-making operations, this is a role that could be socially valuable. There will be debate of course over whether the state should run a bank, given recent experience with other state-owned companies. But Barnes has made it a debate worth having, and a way has been opened for the Post Office to begin to provide government financial services other than grants.

But the problem of efficient mail delivery has endured. The mail delivery business is by its nature loss-making, expensive and in decline. It is expensive to deliver declining quantities of mail to far-flung areas. But as countless letter writers to this newspaper demonstrate, this is still a vital service that citizens want and need.

The Post Office aspires to universal standards that require that 92% of domestic mail is delivered in five days. At the start of this year, progress was being made and a rate of 87% had been achieved.

But the organisation has been under severe financial pressure. In 2016 trade unions were persuaded to take a wage freeze — unheard of in the public sector, either before or since. But by this year, with other public servants continuing to get inflation-busting increases, workers got fed up. Asking staff to continue to work in these conditions and in buildings where the heating didn’t work and the window panes were broken or where they competed with rats to sort the post, couldn’t be tolerated much longer. 

A two-week strike and a go-slow caused the mail service to back up fast. With more than 2-million new items coming into the system a day, by the end of the strike the backlog was 45-million items. As the strike ended other problems were kicking in. Unpaid creditors were withdrawing equipment such as vehicles and forklifts.

Barnes said in August he would “clear the floor” by the end of September. That deadline has been missed, and many of the public remain frustrated. But progress has been made. The backlog is down now to 7.5-million and some people are getting their letters.

But it’s not good enough. The public expects better. The belief that the Post Office can and will deliver a good government service has been kindled. The fact that it has not yet achieved means that Business Day will continue to ask questions about progress made.

Should the Post Office succeed, Barnes will achieve more than just an outstanding public service. He will also prove that it is possible to turn around an ailing government institution and empower it to deliver a good quality service. But to do so takes iron-will and determination.