Project Owethu pioneering SAMHS work in “deep rural areas”

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South Africa’s senior military medical officer is “excited” about the Project Owethu initiative currently underway in KwaZulu-Natal’s uMhlathuze municipality as part of this year’s extended Armed Force Day (AFD) commemorations.

Lieutenant General Peter Maphaha, as surgeon general is commander of the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) and elaborated on Owethu (“ours” in isiZulu) for the Johannesburg-based daily The Citizen this week as AFD preparations moved ahead.

The three-star believes Owethu is an opportunity for the SANDF to go into some of the most marginalised communities in South Africa and bring them back to the mainstream.

“We do not do this alone, but in partnership with relevant arms of government such as the departments of Home Affairs, Health, Agriculture and Social Development.

“Some might ask why we are doing it and not the departments themselves. The answer is simple: the state’s resources are overstretched and in almost every case centred in bigger urban areas. It is difficult for them in terms of time, personnel and cost to get into deep rural areas.

“On the flip side, it is just as difficult for people living in those areas to reach towns and cities for the same reasons: distance, cost and difficulty of terrain. Often it is dangerous too with vulnerable people preyed on and ambushed by criminals.

“Project Owethu allows us to harness different disciplines in one project; we can bring departments to the people, but SAMHS can do much of the work ourselves. We can do medical procedures in the field that civilian doctors cannot like dentistry or cataract operations.

“We can reach places non-military people in vehicles made for urban environments cannot. And we can do so safely because we do so under armed protection of other SANDF arms, in this case the army.

“Project Owethu is about bringing hope, it’s about being a catalyst for change. AFD is about celebrating diversity, dedication and distinction of our nation’s defence force but, all too often after soldiers pack up and leave people have difficulty remembering the parade took place or why.

“AFD has taken place in each of South Africa’s nine provinces since inception in 2012, rotating every year. Not once has it reached into the deep rural areas in those provinces. This year will be different. We are focusing on child-headed households. You see them a lot in the deep rural areas.

“We will make sure the most vulnerable have a chance at life. Literally the opportunity to see for those blinded by cataracts, the chance to smile for those with crooked, broken and rotting teeth. We will attend to the needs of their livestock, vaccinating animals against transmissible diseases.

“We will help them access their birthright by obtaining vital documentation they might never have had, like birth certificates and ID cards so they can access the grants they are entitled to.

“For those who are of a recruiting age, we will encourage them to be part of the two-year military skills development (MSD) system which, in turn, will create breadwinners and transfer skills, so when finished they can either apply to join the regular force or return better equipped to find employment in civilian life.

“Project Owethu will not be limited to KwaZulu-Natal, nor is it a once-off intervention. We intend it to become an integral part of AFD.

“Project Owethu is not solely a SAMHS initiative or an SANDF project, but one involving different government departments at differing levels of government from national to provincial, municipal and district as well as relevant community organisations.”

“It is particularly important,” according to Maphaha, “to engage municipalities because they help identify vulnerable communities. They know the families in dire need, which allows us to target our intervention for the greatest possible impact.

“It was heartening to see the response of provincial government departments when briefed at the launch of Project Owethu,” he added.

Published with attribution and appreciation to The Citizen.