Postal Problems

(A Lesson on South African Bureaucracy)


I have a bunch of posts in the pipeline and as of yesterday the organization is closed for 5 weeks (yea December/January Merriment). I have received several requests for my new address and wanted to provide an update on the information.

Do I have a PO Box? Yes…and no. In a sentence I paid for a PO Box in Schnizeland but it cannot be accessed. If you do not want to read why I am address-less for Christmas 2015 feel free to exit now.

Ironically I have a brand new post office in the service centre 1000 meters from my house, but no PO Boxes are available (typical South Africa). The nearest PO Box is in Schnizeland, a 30 minute taxi ride away. I am frequently there for Municipality meetings anyways, so it is (supposed to be) convenient. Unfortunately right when I arrived, the post office changed the locks for the exterior PO Boxes. They have been waiting for the national office to send the keys for 3 months now.

That is where we are today. At this point I am not sure of a course of action besides waiting until after the holidays. If I do not get keys by the end of January, I may go down to Scotland and buy another box (even though that is out of my way and a couple hundred rand) as walking around Duke City’s taxi rank with potential parcels would be a security risk. Rest assured, I have to have a box (so can PCSA sends my passport with the official South African Visa for international travel…but that is another story) and there will be a chance to send your coveted snail mail.

Anyways, or the first month at site I visited the PO Box and the polite clerk refused to give me an address until they received the locks. Peace Corps requires emergency contact paperwork completed within 30 days of arriving at any site, and I finally had to pull the “I work for the American Government…not really but gives me clout” card. They agreed to give me an address so I could get the site locator form in, but I have no key to open the box.

At a glance people may wonder why this is a problem. Could they not just get one of the many Indian shops in Schnitzeland to make keys for the boxes? Or leave the boxes open and risk postal theft? This is where the most valuable lesson from my exchange student days in Botswana applies: Disregard preexisting standards of American or European efficiency, else you will be perpetually frustrated. Because bureaucracy.

South Africa is this interesting dichotomy of cultures that value bookkeeping (Afrikaaners and English) and indigenous  cultures who until record-valuing cultures established powerful governments, did not care about said bookkeeping. The other half is that corruption and identity theft are concerns here. For me to even access the address I had to provide proof of residence (handy letter from PCSA office) and my personal passport for identification. There is also no capability to cancel a registration.

The first month at site I visited the PO Box and the polite clerk refused to give me an address until they received the locks. Peace Corps requires emergency contact paperwork completed within 30 days of arriving at any site, and I finally had to pull the “I work for the American Government…Not Really but Provides Reluctant Priveledge” card. They agreed to give me an address so I could get the Site Locator Form In, but I have no key to open the box. I had problems paying with my card (Schnitzeland is not amiable to PCSA’s bank of choice), and I bought the PO Box 30 minutes before I had to run to Duke City for a meeting because the previous Friday the manager told me Monday morning was the time this could be done to meet PCSA’s deadline.

 The transaction was going well until the machine did not register my card. 2 tries and the manager demands that I go to the Caltex station a block away and obtain a few hundred Rand for the transaction (which is right next to the local taxi rank…not happening). I told them I was leaving and to cancel the transaction I would deal with it later. Instead of moving to the  5 people behind me in the que, the manger gives me an exasperated look while the clerk explains that I am now in the system and it cannot be altered. Nice Clerk saves the day by trying the card one last time…and success. Third time was a charm and bureaucratic equilibrium was maintained.

In a group-oriented culture that values power (amaZulu and a lot of the indigenous cultures), the customers are not the priority. It is the validation of every government official involved with a process that matters. With so many levels to appease, realities of a rural post office in rural KZN are not at the forefront of shakers 5-7 hours away in Pretoria. Does this sound familiar (cough the US)? This is not a situation with political parties, but it is the challenge of governing a large country in terms of geography and population. My bet is in Pretoria is that the Head of Department is thinking about how to reduce corruption and minimize security threats. Until they have the locks ready they will not send them because that risk is not worth it. The local office staffed by amaZulu are also trying to maintain their influence, and are not going to circumvent Pretoria and offer unsecure mailboxes.

Hence, this Christmas I have no PO Box, cannot switch my Pick n Pay Smart Shopper card to stop the onslaught of promotional mail probably hitting site 1.0’s postal box, legally leave the country, and am forced to wait until the holidays are over to figure out alternatives. I am done being upset over this, thankfully a PO Box is not one of my PC negotiables and there is more to service than snail mail. In the end it is an epic story to tell, unique to life in the Rainbow Nation. My adapted goal is to have a functioning mailbox by my birthday (you have 6 months Postal Service) and obtain an absentee ballot for the 2016 elections. My frustrations pale in comparison to the local staff. I am sure that if they had control, they would have fixed this a month ago (and not just because the annoying American keeps asking about progress…but PO Boxes are the core of postal services aka their job).

Ngiyabonga for the patience and for thinking of me. I am really fortunate to have people who like me enough to make the effort to send mail. I will be sure to share the address once I can open the actual box. In the meantime blog comments and e-mail work. When snail-mail returns as an option anticipate lots of responses, as I can send mail and buy stamps at the post office 1000 meters away (but not receive mail).

Oh, South Africa…

All the best and Shosholoza,







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