LISTEN: Want your gift? Pay up

LISTEN: Want your gift? Pay up

The days of being sent a gift via airmail post from overseas and collecting it from your nearest post office without having to pay a cent are over.

Getty Images

Listen to Wendy on the topic below, or read the details under the podcast.

I haven’t been able to get the Post Office to tell me exactly when they starting charging the recipients of gifts from overseas a clearance fee before they’ll hand the parcel over, but it appears the implementation of it is is fairly recent. The amount is not outrageous - R24 for what the postal services calls a "small packet”  and R47 for bigger parcels - but the notion of paying to receive a gift when the sender has paid the delivery fees on their end, doesn’t sit well with many.

Mark van Rensburg, head of the SA Post Office’s mail operations, said the clearance fees were introduced in the 2011/2012 financial year, and have since “been incorporated in the Post Office's rates booklet”. 

“We have sent out a message to tellers so that they can warn customers about it upfront, and we have asked our salespeople who deal with large companies to draw their attention to this as well,” he said. "We will also tweet and Facebook it at regular intervals.”

I know from personal experience that the clearance fee hasn’t been charged for nearly that long. And Shelley Seid of Durban North agrees.

Shelley Seid's parcel

In April a friend sent her a gift from Thailand, a shirt he’d made her and four packets of tea. It was marked 'gift' and he paid the equivalent of about R250 to send it, airmail.

It took two months to get to her local post office - remember this was sent airmail - and then she was told to pay R47 for it, and no-one could tell her why.

"I’m really irritated,” she said. “My friend paid a lot of money on that side to get it sent over airmail and I don’t understand why payment has to happen on both sides. If I send something to him, he is not made to pay anything to collect it, so why’s it happening here?”

Shelley Seid's parcel

Good question. I did ask the Post Office and I’m still waiting for the answer.

And there’s a bigger problem. 

Gifts are exempt from hefty customs duty and tax. To qualify as a gift, a parcel must have a value of the Rand equivalent of no more than R1400, and we get only two customs and VAT free gifts a year. 

But I regularly hear from consumers who’ve been charged customs and VAT on parcels that quality as gifts.

Most recently, my sister Jill in Colorado, USA posted a small parcel, airmail, to my mother who lives in Durban, declaring its value as $30, which is well under the gift ceiling of R1400.            

As in Shelley’s case, it was two months before it was ready to be collected from her local post office, and then she was made to pay R272 in customs duties, VAT and a R24 clearance fee.

She protested that it was a gift but no-one was interested. Pay up or we hold on to the parcel, she was told.

I took up the case with the SA Post Office, and was told the customs and VAT were charged in error and my mom could apply for a refund.

What a schlep. And how many people simply pay up because they want their gift and feel powerless to contest the unjustified charges?

As for why airmail parcels are taking two months to make their way to recipients’ local post offices, they are getting to SA just fine; it’s getting them sorted and sent to the right post office branch that’s the problem.

Van Rensburg said two months for delivery of an airmail item was "not the norm”,  adding that the sorting centre was experiencing a three-week backlog.

“The SA Post Office has seen a 20% increase in items from abroad,” he told me, “and 40 extra staff members are now working at the Johannesburg international sorting centre to reduce the backlog.  We are also installing fibre optic cabling at the sorting centre. This will speed up the network response and rate of clearance considerably.”

So there you have it. 

If you’re expecting gifts from friends or family overseas, warn them that the declared value must not be more than the equivalent of R1400 to avoid you having to pay customs duties and VAT - and stand your ground if they try and charge you anything but that clearance fee on a parcel that qualifies as a gift.

Also note that perfume, booze and tobacco always attract customs duties, irrespective of the value.

For previous Consumerwatch shows, scroll through the channel below.

Show's Stories