Landlord persuaded to halt efforts to push post office out of Bishop Lavis
Pressure from residents and an eleventh-hour intervention by the Bishop Lavis Development Forum have prevented the closure of Lavistown Post Office.
Closing Lavistown Post Office would affect thousands of pensioners, disabled people and others from Bishop Lavis, Kalksteenfontein, Valhalla Park, Sidneyvale, Nooitgedacht, and the Freedom Farm and Malawi camp informal settlements from collecting post and paying accounts.
It would have also deprived of an income several small businesses that rely on pensioners and others drawing South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) grants to purchase items at their small stalls.
For now, residents can breathe a sigh of relief. The South African Post Office (Sapo) and the landlord have agreed on extending the lease on a month-to-month basis, Sapo spokesperson Johan Kruger confirmed. Residents are worried that this “fragile” agreement can be terminated at any minute, leaving thousands out in the cold.
The Lavistown Post Office faced closure after Sapo fell behind on rental payments. It owes the landlord R165,000.
Michael Hoffmeester, Bishop Lavis Development Forum (BDF) spokesperson, said the threat of closure came as a surprise to the forum and residents.
“At no stage were the BDF or residents informed about the closure. We heard through the grapevine two weeks before it was due to close. We were told the closure would have been Friday, 19 November,” he said.
Recognising the enormity of the problem, the forum had demanded a meeting with both Sapo and the landlord.
A Sapo document titled SA Post Office, Post Office of Tomorrow indicates that the Lavistown Post Office branch made a loss of R1,126,497 in the 2019/2020 financial year. The landlord issued Sapo with a summons due to an outstanding rental amount of R165,000.
The document further states that a decision had been taken to amalgamate nearby post offices to curtail costs.
The bleak financial position of the Lavistown Post Office is indicative of Sapo’s broader woes. The state-owned entity recorded financial losses of R1.76-billion in 2019/2020 and its current liabilities exceed assets by R1.94-billion. The situation is so dire that Sapo owes the Receiver of Revenue R600-million in outstanding pay-as-you-earn contributions and has failed to pay company contributions to its staff medical aid, jeopardising their medical cover.
Hoffmeester said the forum arranged an urgent virtual meeting on Monday, 15 November with Sapo management, the landlord and members of at least 40 organisations in the area.
“Lavistown Post Office is a piece of nostalgia in the area. The post office has been in the area for over 50 years and started in a council home in Kasteel Street. This year the Bishop Lavis community is celebrating its 70th year of existence and the post office is part of that history. It is a place where we as children walked to with our parents and grandparents to collect our letters,” Hoffmeester explains.
Had the post office been closed it would have adversely affected the disabled, elderly and poor in the community, he said. Closure was not an option and Hoffmeester said the BDF was instructed by residents to stop the closure at all costs.
“By closing our post office, Sapo wants to relocate the service to the Charlesville Post Office, about a 3.1km walk for residents. Most of our people don’t even have taxi fare to take a lift to Charlesville.
“Walking the 3.1km will place the lives of thousands of residents in danger. Valhalla Park is a red zone [for crime] and a lot of residents walking past Valhalla Park will be robbed of their pension or Sassa money,” said Hoffmeester.
The fight, Hoffmeester said, was about a critical service to the communities of Bishop Lavis, Kalksteenfontein, Sidneyvale, Valhalla Park, Nooitgedacht and the Freedom Farm and Malawi camp informal settlements.
Seventy-year-old Susan Stefanus can’t remember how long she has been drawing her pension at the post office, buying stamps and posting letters.
“I will be heart-wrenching if the post office closes its doors. Where will I go? I don’t have taxi money to travel to Charlesville Post Office. It will be a very dark day for old people and especially those in wheelchairs.
“I can’t even walk 200m and how am I supposed to walk 3.1km to Charlesville Post Office?” Stefanus told Maverick Citizen.
Another pensioner, 67-year-old Henry Oliver, recalled the day the first office opened more than 50 years ago in Kasteel Road as clearly as yesterday.
“I remember walking with my parents to Kasteel Road to collect our letters and pay our bills. Closing the post office in Lavistown will bring about irreparable damage. We as the elderly and the sick will be the hardest hit.
“I know what it’s like to be robbed in a taxi. I was once robbed at gunpoint inside a taxi and had my cellphone taken. Taxi drivers in Bishop Lavis are forced to pay protection money,” Oliver said.
If the post office closed, he said, the elderly would be robbed in taxis or while walking to the Charlesville Post Office.
For Stiena Walters, 74, drawing Sassa grants is a time when old friends, families and those you haven’t seen in ages sit down on a bankie, rub their wrinkled hands, cry and share precious moments.
“With the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of residents appreciate the Sassa days because it is a time I’m going to see my brother, old school friends and for that moment feel a sense of belonging,” she said.
Small business operator, 55-year-old Martin Benjamin, said: “Days when people draw their pension or disability money is like a market day for us. For more than 10 years these payout days have provided me with an income to sustain my family. Without the Lavistown Post Office, I’m definitely going to struggle to put food on my table.”
The Bishop Lavis Development Forum had wanted to meet the property owners, FPG, but the landlord was unable to do so. Instead, it informed the forum that it had been engaging with Sapo to come to an agreement on securing its tenancy.
On Friday, 19 November, Kruger confirmed that Sapo had come to an agreement with the landlord and the post office would remain open.
“The lease expires at the end of November and the rental will be done on a month-to-month basis,” said Kruger DM/MC
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