News just in today via CEO, Chris Hlekane, is that the Post Office is ditching “snail mail”, which surprisingly apparently still accounts for 71 percent of its revenue!
Well, hello and welcome to the 21st Century!
The Post Office is very Rip van Winklely that way. I mean it has taken it 20 years to wake up to the fact that when it comes to communications, the rest of the world has gone electronic and virtual. Whether it will be able to play catch-up at this late stage is another question entirely.
For years I have wondered, as I have queued at various PO branches collecting my Amazon packages, just when the listless staff would finally wake up and realise that outside, to borrow a line from the Aladdin anthem, was “a whole new world/a new fantastic point of view”…
My local PO is like a portal into another time zone. Stepping across its threshold is the equivalent of being sucked through a wormhole and into some sort of purgatory where fellow travellers appear to be heavily tranquilised. Like that scene in the madhouse in Midnight Express.
Clients inch forward while PO staff – who take tea breaks on a remarkably punctual rotational schedule - move in slo-mo as if someone has accidentally pressed a sticky button on the remote and now we can’t turn it off.
Tellers needing to make the long and difficult journey to the storeroom at the back to retrieve a parcel, move as if trapped in treacle. In fact, I am convinced some of them use the opportunity to have a quick smoke, as there is the distinct smell of stale tobacco in the building.
I have a love-hate relationship with snail mail. I am of a generation that still enjoys hearing the plop of tangible physical matter in my post box (as long as it is not a bill). I do, of course, also enjoy the ping of a new email reaching my inbox but there is something so much more personalized and old-worldy about an addressed, stamped envelope.
For years my father led me to believe that very small people lived in red post boxes and whenever we posted a letter he urged me to “make sure the little man grabs it” when I slipped it down the chute.
I tried it on my daughter last week when we had occasion to post something to the City Council. I could tell she didn’t believe me but she did hesitate for a moment as she popped the letter into the box. It is the idea of it I suppose.
“Did you feel someone take it?” I asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my 21st Century child replied.
If there is one thing I won’t miss about the loss of snail mail it is the familiar stop-start buzz of my local postman’s scooter. My dogs hate him, as do all the dogs in the neighbourhood. He seems thick-skinned enough not to take it personally though.
Our postman, lets call him Albert, has been a regular on the route in my neighbourhood for several years now. One summer’s day, after hearing the familiar whine of his scooter, I trundled out to collect my mail.
Albert was particularly perky this afternoon. He removed his helmet and arranged himself like a casual Italian playboy on his scooter.
“You’ve got a great figure, you should wear hot pants,” he offered over the picket fence.
I felt like an extra in the opening scene of a B-grade porn movie but his suggestion was so preposterous and his demeanour so comical that I burst out laughing.
Albert, I do suspect, would be a postman who would love to ring twice, if I had such a bell to ring.
He has been helpful though. Finding me tinkering around under the bonnet of my car one afternoon he inquired as to what it was I was doing.
“Won’t start I replied. I’m not sure if it’s the starter motor or the battery at this point,” I replied.
“Turn her over let me hear,” said Albert still perched on his bike and cocking his head like an expert.
The car gave a click and then a listless whine.
“Battery, definitely battery. Go and buy a new one and put it in yourself. I’m telling you. I fix cars at home and it’s the battery.”
He was right and did save me the expense of having the car towed off somewhere to be diagnosed and repaired.
The imminent demise of something we take for granted often triggers momentary nostalgia. The end of snail mail made me lament, momentarily, the obvious extinction of the postage stamp.
Not that I have paid much attention to stamps. I lost interest after we issued the Mandela one in 1994 and very little else of interest afterwards.
As I child I did enjoy adding to my stamp collection which was quite considerable. I have no idea how I managed to procure stamps from Malawi or China, as there was no reason for me to be communicating by mail with anyone in those countries.
My father collected stamps and First Day covers. I would often find little squares of cut out envelopes floating in a dish as he soaked off stamps before drying them and placing them, with a special tweezers, in the transparent pockets in his stamp album.
If I have to be honest, my inspiration for collecting stamps was principally to find the illusive and valuable Penny Black, first issued in the UK in 1840 and said to be worth a fortune. Once I found it, I reckoned, I would be rich enough to flee Pretoria and head off elsewhere on my own.
I did manage to collect loads of beautiful stamps in the process and would find myself pouring over them with a magnifying glass. Since their invention in 1837, postage stamps provided fantastic and relatively cheap global marketing opportunities for countries.
The choice of subject also often revealed a country’s national character with the US, Britain, China and Russia often featuring gorgeously kitsch portraits of leaders. Then there was the commemoration of “achievements”, the first exploration of space, sporting achievements or the construction of remarkable structures.
I can’t see snail mail becoming completely extinct. There are still too many people in South Africa who do not have access to the Internet and instant electronic communication. But will our stamps be worth collecting and preserving?
Perhaps we will see some sort of hipster or steam punk revival in philately as postage stamps become increasingly rare and collectible.
Stamps could still provide a platform for counties to celebrate cultural, scientific, artistic and natural uniqueness.
Stamps are to communications what candles are to lighting a room. We might not need them right now, but one day, when there’s some sort of global traffic jam on the Internet, we might just have to start licking and sticking again.
Hark! I hear Albert outside…Must rush.