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Nuzzle on your tongue

At any given week’s end there is bound to be a stamp fair. It seems the quieter hobby of interactive philatilising is now bigger business than ever. As the president of the South African Philatelic Dealers’ Association (Sapda), Paul van Zeyl says stamp collecting is a passion South Africans refuse to grow out of.

What does this obsessive soaking off and mounting of cancelled tokens amount to in the community? Van Zeyl says it is a way into literacy, the jolt into knowing that the real world extends outwards and on, indeed, to the limits of the postal system and the desire to capture it.

Much has altered in the haven of postage stamps since I spent my youth ticking off images and pricelists in a Stanley Gibbons catalogue. Then my country’s stamps featured little more than heraldic hartebeests in tandem, flouncing ostriches and orange trees. But still one dreamed of turning up a Cape of Good Hope triangular, probably the most famous stamp ever issued after the original Penny Black.

Learner collectors nowadays have StampWise in Pretoria as their assembly point. There, in a cooled vault under strict security, all of South African postal history is on display.

Holding her famous place is that triangular of a large-hipped lady athwart an anchor, designed by Charles Bell in 1853. But why was her frame that shape, when, by convention, all other stamps were rectangular? The answer is part of stamp lore: for innumerate sorters to distinguish between colonial local mail and overseas mail.

Apart from exhibits, StampWise sells mint sheets of new issues.

Most commemoratives that come and go never make it over the regular counters these days, for they evidently cause administrative hassles for postmasters. Few customers know that

the recent 25th anniversary of the Soweto uprising was marked with that famous photo by Sam Nzima (with a dove on a book superimposed); that currently it’s the music of South Africa we celebrate; and that for a mere R1,50 the wreck of the Grosvenor may nuzzle on your tongue.

Specialists come from all over to buy our stamps, especially Chinese wanting images of Nelson Mandela. And South African stamps have never been ignored overseas. In 1869 the first sheets printed for the ZAR in Germany were brought up by dealers and never reached that Transvaal Republic.

Poor distribution at post offices means those touching commercials for the land go undisseminated abroad. But after seven years of moistening that standard white rhino in the vanishing fauna of the sixth definitive series, Philatelic Services in Pretoria has indeed been splashing out with the come-hither colour of our newly found tourist good cheer attractions. It all makes a change from celebrating dour Calvin and his Reformation, as the service’s Setempe magazine makes gloriously clear. So the new dazzling definitive series is now up and rolling, the purple-crested lourie tops at R20, replacing the old bateleur at R10.

This weekend’s stamp event is the trade show held by Sapda in the Rosebank Hotel. These are the directions in which to specialise: thematics (collecting Father Christmases or Mahatma Gandhi); postal history (this year it’s Robben Island); and used postcards, which makes one a deltiologist. Sample exhibits on show are of the newly popular field of social philately, which opens out micro-histories of whole families and their dusty trunks of old correspondence.

The second Sapda 2001 Rosebank show is on in the Melrose Room of the Rosebank Hotel, Johannesburg, on October 12 from 11am to 6pm; October 13 from 10am to 5pm;

and October 14 from 10am to 3pm. Admission is free.

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