The South African Post Office strike, now in its third month, has hit publishers hard as subscribers’ magazines languish in a growing mountain of undelivered mail. Now business-to-business publishers are preparing to fight back on a number of fronts. One thing is for sure, though, they won’t be using the Post Office in future, which will cost the cash-strapped parastatal hundreds of thousands of rands in lost income. Glenda Nevill reports.
“The Post Office from our point of view has ceased to function and strategically we are urgently moving away from the Post Office distribution model. This is an opportunity for private enterprise and a great loss for the Post Office. Normally we would spend over R100 000 a month with the Post Office: this business won’t return to the Post Office after the strike,” says Anton Marsh, managing director of Now Media.
Publishing director of Interact Media, Rory Macnamara, says while advertisers and readers have been “very understanding”, publishers cannot rely on this goodwill lasting. Now a group of publishers in the same boat are deciding on a course of action that includes an official complaint to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), preparing documents to help businesses negotiate deals with private courier companies for hand deliveries and even legal action, if the need arises.
“We have a working group which will meet this Friday to finalise a distributor checklist so they can quote correctly,” says Macnamara, adding that Icasa is “obliged to take action even if it means taking SAPO’s licence away, which they can do. Whether they have the balls to do this is another story!”
Marsh says between 10 and 15 publishers were at the initial meeting of B2B publishers. “The committee to move forward on issues raised will be meeting this Friday to discuss the issues further. We should have our draft of our invitation to service providers by Friday. We also will be discussing the update from our consulting attorney on the submission of a complaint to Icasa, which the group is moving forward on,” he says.
Marsh explains that newspapers and periodicals are fortunate that they are specifically excluded from the Postal Act, which opens other delivery options. “Sadly this is not the case for other businesses which depend on the Post Office, such as direct marketing, mailing houses and printing works which are reliant on the Post Office functioning,” he says. “One of our service providers said they had to close their doors as they were reliant on direct marketing companies who were not being paid and therefore not paying our service provider.”
Macnamara says his company is doing hand deliveries where possible, bulk if possible and “encouraging our readers to go online where our digital publications are placed”.
But is this sustainable? “Digital copies, not really, as trade and technical readers hang on to the print copy, as our research has shown. Are the alternatives sustainable? I believe hand deliveries are if the distributors understand the huge business opportunity for them. This will become a sustainable solution and we, as IMD, are far ahead in changing [from postal] to street addresses,” he says.
Sandra Gordon, publisher of The Media magazine and The Media Online as well as several custom B2B magazines, says Wag the Dog Publishing has also moved to a hand delivery model. “We intend doing this in future across the country. Yes, it is a sustainable solution and it can be cheaper if properly thought through,” she says.
Gordon believes the demise of the Magazine Publishers Association of South Africa (Mpasa) has exacerbated the crisis but that there is “talk of resurrecting the old Specialist Publishers Association” that would lobby for the interests of B2B publishers.
Marsh says Now Media “had to take urgent action to update postal addresses to street addresses for hand delivery, find service providers to handle our deliveries going forward and use costly providers to sort out the backlog created by the Post Office in the short term. In addition, the interrupted service has caused concern with advertisers who are the bread and butter of our publications”.
Macnamara says he has held back November issues and “payment to SAPO as have other publishers in the hope that we can start a substantial push. Our readers and advertisers are being kept in the loop every step of the way”.
He says even if the strike ends today, “it would take the better part of the end of January to sift through the backlog. SAPO will employ temporary staff – again – and we will have a repeat of what we have now. More strikes because they are not full time. It does not take a rocket scientist to work this out”, he says.
In the meantime, members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) said in a statement that they were aware the SA Post Office has been “crippled by rolling industrial action”.
“Our members including members of some insignificant minority unions have been on a spontaneous unprotected strike to demand a 15% salary increment and the conversion of casual workers into permanent employees. This nation-wide action brought to a halt service delivery at many postal outlets in the country. Through this action, workers have demonstrated their determination to engage in whatever form of militant action in pursuit of what they are rightfully entitled to,” said general secretary Aubrey Tshabalala.
“As CWU, we believe an immediate resolution of this stand-off and impasse between workers and the management along the fair and reasonable demands and proposals we have put forward will be in the best interest of the South African public. The turmoil in the Post Office has continued for a longer period than anticipated and it is our people who have suffered a lot in the process. Critical mail has not been delivered; students have not received their learning material; small businesses (SMMEs) that use the Post Office have suffered and patients have not received their life-saving chronic medication. All of these have happened as a result of the gross mismanagement of SAPO and the incompetence of board members,” said Tshabalala.
Macnamara isn’t convinced that even if workers demands are met the Post Office will be able to deliver on its mandate.
“We started talking to SAPO as an industry three years ago. After a sudden flurry of promises and talk about the importance of us as customers, communications got worse and worse with neither the CEO Christopher Hlekane (now on extended leave) and the group executive Jamras Koti (now suspended), no replies or acknowledgements from either going back some two years. We must bear in mind that SAPO has had five major labour unrests during the five years. Government is peddling the lie that it is all about the last eleven weeks,” he says.
The publishers are in a state of “crisis management” and finding alternatives to distribute their titles. The Post Office isn’t in a position to help as it’s in a “complete mess”, says Marsh.
Icasa is responsible for reporting to the minister (Siyabonga Cwele) and are a key player in ensuring the postal act is carried out as outlined and intentioned. “From our complaint the to Icasa we will be outlining our situation as publishers, how the lack of the Post Office is affecting us due to non delivery of services, and how it is failing to meet its license obligations under the postal act – which it must answer to”.
“Our publishers group believes Icasa is the right channel, they report to the minister, so theoretically our complaint should get through to channel,” he says.
Democratic Alliance deputy spokesman on telecommunications and postal services, Cameron Mackenzie, has called on the minister to step in. “The absence of any reliable commitments from the SAPO on steps taken to end the current strike is a sad indictment on this organisation. Reports of damage to property and intimidation by striking workers is of great concern,” he said. He said Cwele should “immediately bring an end to the strike and mitigate any further damage by enforcing the 8-month old agreement to convert casual workers to permanent part-time employees as a priority; fast tracking the conversion process and communicating timelines to affected workers and ensuring an urgent return to work by employees to clear the accumulated 11 week mail backlog.
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