SA Army Engineer Formation key part of Welisizwe bridge initiative

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The role of the SA Army Engineer Formation is pivotal in ensuring the success of the Welisizwe bridges project, which will see Cyril Ramaphosa put the presidential seal of approval on a batch of new bridges in KwaZulu-Natal tomorrow (31 January).

Spearheaded by the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI), Welisizwe currently sees the deployment of 82 Sappers from 1 Construction Regiment working to build bridges in rural area susceptible to flooding, Mohale Mataha of SA Soldier reports.

“By prioritizing the construction of bridges in flood-prone regions, this collaborative endeavour aims to fortify the local infrastructure, facilitating improved access and mobility for residents and minimizing the impact of natural disasters on these communities,” his report reads.

According to The Presidency, Welisizwe bridges are part of “rural infrastructure investment” that will see 96 bridges built in the current (2023/24 financial year) using a R3.3 billion allocation in KwaZulu-Natal. Eleven of 22 bridges are complete with Ramaphosa set to preside over a handover ceremony at the Ngilanyoni sports field in Umgungundlovu District’s Mkhambathini Municipality. The initiative, according to the handover invitation, eliminates “the suffering and negative experience of citizens having to cross dangerous rivers to access schools and social services”.

The Engineer Formation involvement in the rural bridges initiative, while not officially stated, is believed to stem from its World War II stock of Bailey bridges. This has unofficially been exhausted with the Sappers sourcing stock from local and offshore manufacturers.

Last October, DPWI Minister Sihle Zikalala told those attending a Port St Johns Welisizwe bridge commissioning that seven Engineer Formation soldiers oversaw work at each bridge site where five artisans and 40 workers, recruited as part of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), are hands-on. Skills transfer in areas such as welding, earthworks and soil retention takes place on all Welisizwe sites.

“The Department of Defence (SA Army) has committed to providing assistance with regards to construction vehicles, construction machine operators, artisans and the expansion of military temporary bases where necessary,” he said then.

While not stated as such, the involvement of military engineers in the Welisizwe bridges initiative could be seen as an Operation Chariot endeavour. This operation is, according to the Joint Operations Division, to provide disaster support and humanitarian assistance.