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 “Helping people, strengthening families and building communities…!”
 By Capt Ntokozo Ntshangase, photos by Cpl Mabelina ‘Manana’ Mokoatle, 5ASU

The South African Air Force (SAAF) Spouses Forum, under the leadership of Mrs Afrika Msimang, spouse to the Chief of Air Force, Lt Gen Zimpande Msimang, converged at SAAF College to redefine and strengthen the role of spouses in the military, particularly in the SAAF. The event, which was second to none in the SAAF since the dawn of democracy, occasioned from 06 to 07 November 2015.


Mrs Afrika Msimang, spouse to the CAF, addressing the delegates at the SAAF Spouses Resilience and Reconciliation Programme

The event, which was attended by approximately 50 delegates from all SAAF Bases/Units, was designed to achieve many aspects, namely: to create an open and vibrant platform for spouses to interact and foster credible networks, to inspire each other and share common experience and to discuss matters relating to internal/external deployment.

Mrs Msimang explained that the rationale behind the theme; Resilience and Reconciliation was informed by the desire to forge unity and speak in one voice. For her, it is only through unity that spouses could “consciously contribute to the honouring of military families”. Moreover, she argued that unity could inspire patriotism and a sense of duty towards the country. This was on the premise that “the family that is satisfied and feeling cared for, is most likely to make personal sacrifices towards a strong defence”, she said.

The event was intentionally conducted to expose the spouses to the military culture and practices. Members (spouses) slept in military tents, shared the ablution facilities and also participated in a drill. For most, the environment was unfamiliar and therefore, uncertainty and expectations came naturally. However, as the programme progressed and new relationships formed, members adjusted and began to view the situation as an adventure. The utilization of tents, according to Mrs Msimang was specifically meant to “give the spouses a perspective of the conditions and sacrifices [our] partners are exposed to when they are deployed”. The roll-call on the morning of 07 November at 05h30 served to “deepen the member’s understanding and appreciation of obeying orders and teamwork”.

After the familiar assertive voices of military instructors, which demanded uniformity, teamwork and time management; focus shifted and allowed for more informative and educational interactions. There were presentations from Social Workers and Chaplain, as well as motivational talks from prominent public figures.

The two-day event emanated from the visible need to address challenges and conflicts that families and/or relationships encounter when one member is deployed or coming back from deployment. The programme sets to equip and empower the spouses on how to deal with associated difficulties. Separations (deployments), according to Chaplain Merentia Mutshekwane from SAAF Headquarters Unit, are not easy and could tear families apart. She reckoned that frequent visits to the concerned members could help to identify and address prevalent problems. “When you are alone in your circumstances, every solution is a problem and a burden. When you are in the company of people with similar problems, you realize that all problems are not obstacles and circumstances are not permanent situations”, she added.


SAAF Spouses Resilience and Reconciliation Programme

These sentiments were echoed by Mrs Natanya Barends, spouse to the Officer Commanding Air Force Base Hoedspruit, Col Andre Barends. She assured other spouses that SAAF community cares. “You are not alone. It is fine to seek support and help from others. There is always someone out there to listen and talk to”, she said. Furthermore, she elaborated on how AFB Hoedspruit spouses participate in community outreach programme in order to ‘nurture and empower others’. The Base spouses forum, according to Mrs Barends, is making noticeable strides in the nearby communities. She explained that they (spouses) often embark on a 12 hours fun walk to encourage and promote the spirit of unity, sharing and giving. The resultant proceeds are then given to the most destitute families around the region. At Drakensig, the Base residential area, spouses have an opportunity to visit the ‘House of Ruth’ where they could be assisted in many aspects, including; trauma counselling, abuse, family challenges, skills development (cooking lessons, sewing, etc) and scripture reading and prayer.

Air Force Base Bloemspruit spouse community was represented by Mrs Gina Stevens, spouse to Cpl Melvin Stevens. For her, the programme was a game changer, it was inspirational and exactly what the doctor ordered. “I am a new person”, she confessed. What stood out for her was the importance of symmetrical communication within the family, including constant communication with other spouses. She proposed that such an event should be done regularly at Base/Unit level. She attributed the AFB Bloemspruit spouse’s activism, although at a relatively slow pace, to the leadership and guidance of Mrs Msimang.

In an attempt to fight and minimize family conflicts caused by long distance relationships, the SAAF Spouses Forum is currently studying the feasibility of an Information Technology Centre where spouses will be able to stay in touch with their loved ones. The centre will be tested first at AFB Waterkloof and later be introduced at all SAAF Bases/Units for easy access.

The Chief of Air Force, Lt Gen Zimpande Msimang with Chief of Air Staff Operations, Maj Gen Wiseman Mbambo and other SAAF Senior Officers graced the event, not only to support their spouses but also to show commitment and determination in the realization of an Air Force that inspires confidence.

 

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