Gift of the Givers’ founder and CEO Imtiaz Sooliman says Covid-19 has “outsmarted” South Africa, and it is now better that the country learns to live with the virus.
The day the national lockdown was announced in March “was a disaster” as it created the ideal environment for the coronavirus to spread among people and to other parts of the country, says the CEO of the largest non-governmental disaster response organisation in Africa, Gift of the Givers.
“My fear was that the moment they made the announcement [of the national lockdown], everybody went to the shopping centre: there was no masking; no hand sanitisation. Everybody wanted to get their products or their food rations for lockdown,” Imtiaz Sooliman, a trained medical doctor, says in a serious tone.
“But at that point, I made the joke or the point that the virus started smiling because we actually opened an opportunity for the virus to intermingle with all people.
“Now, if you want to fight a virus that’s already active in the country, that day was a disaster, because everybody was on top of each other: not one-meter distancing, actually touching each other with hands and fingers and face and everything.”
Speaking to News24 in a virtual interview from his home in Pietermaritzburg to maintain social distancing lockdown rules, Sooliman says Gift of the Givers has spent more than R60 million in humanitarian aid since the start of the coronavirus crisis in South Africa.
Sooliman and his 140+ staff in South Africa have either been working from home, to avoid being infected by Covid-19, or have been working in teams to ensure that if a team member gets infected, the entire organisation isn’t affected.
With the 99 names of God Almighty inscribed in a picture behind him on the wall, which includes “the Most Merciful, the Compassionate” and “the Most Kind and Righteous”, Sooliman says his organisation has thus far helped to deliver water across the country, set up more than 30 Covid-19 screening tents at hospitals, and bought personal protective equipment, and surgical gloves which have become increasingly scarce due to the pandemic.
Gift of the Givers have also distributed more than 70 000 food parcels since the start of the crisis and supported 150 soup kitchens, going into communities past midnight – accompanied by police – to give the hungry food to eat.
As one of his three cellphones beep with staff asking for advice, Sooliman – who proudly explained that he has slept, on average, four hours a night since the beginning of the crisis in mid-March – says Gift of the Givers also bought six Ilex machines, at a cost of R200 000 each, which can deliver four Covid-19 test results in 45 minutes.
A Covid-19 test result typically takes a couple of days to be processed in South Africa.
He used the machines to set up Gift of the Givers’ own testing facility, and gifted two machines: one for Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg to use for urgent testing, and one for a Covid-19 researcher.
Sooliman says he is also working urgently on acquiring additional Ilex machines for Cape Town due to the high number of infections there.
“One of my guys in the minister [of health]’s office phoned this morning to get more information on the testing machines – the meeting went on for 45 minutes past schedule,” Sooliman says, who was awake since before dawn attending meetings.
Dismissing a notification on his phone, Sooliman says the 10-week national lockdown forced too many everyday South Africans to become reliant on the state.
“There are hungry people: a person calls, ‘Please. I’m a foreign national, I stop all my business, give me food. My five-year-old hasn’t eaten for three days’,” Sooliman says, adding that he can’t ignore these kinds of calls.
“People who could manage for themselves are now dependent on food aid and social grants or social support, because they were, you know, forced – not by their own will – to stop working because of the virus.”
And despite the economic devastation the national lockdown caused in slowing down the virus, Sooliman says social distancing rules put in place by the government are in any case not being adhered to, so it might be smarter to just reopen the economy and learn to live with the virus.
He says the initial lockdown might have bought the country some time, and helped health authorities prepare, but now it’s time to allow people to earn a living.
“We did our best; we did a lockdown: the virus spread everywhere. You can see it’s not working with our lockdown.”
“Covid-19 has already outsmarted us. It’s all over in the area; it’s spreading everywhere. And the reality is we now have to deal with: how are we going to manage it.”
Fifty-eight-year-old Sooliman started Gift of the Givers, Waqful Waqifin in Arabic, in 1992 after he visited a spiritual teacher in Turkey.
He was referred to the teacher, Sufi Sheikh Muhammed Saffer Effendi al Jerrahi, by his Afrikaans neighbour William Muller who was a French professor at the university in Pietermaritzburg.
At the time, Sooliman told Muller that he hadn’t been to Cape Town yet, so why would he go to Turkey, to which Muller responded: “What God wills happens; there’s a time and a place.”
Sooliman says it was during his second visit to Turkey that the teacher gave him the instruction to start Gift of the Givers.
“He said, ‘My son, I’m not asking you, I’m instructing you to form an organisation. You will serve all people of all races, of all religions, of all colours of all classes of all cultures, of any geographical location, and of any political affiliation. But you will serve them unconditionally.
‘You will not expect anything in return. Not even a thank you. In fact, expect to get a kick up your back. If you don’t get a kick up your back for what you do, regard that as a bonus’.
“And then he said, ‘this is an instruction for you for the rest of your life’.”
Sooliman says he counts this day as a miracle as the teacher spoke to him in Arabic, a language he is not capable of speaking, but he understood every word.
After he returned from Turkey, three weeks later, at the age of 30, Sooliman started his first humanitarian project in the civil war in Bosnia, Europe, and gave up his medical practice.
This year marks 28 years since he started Gift of the Givers.
From there, the organisation has worked in over 43 countries, including Haiti, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, where they helped in the aftermath of wars or disasters such as drought, flooding and earthquakes.
Locally, they have been involved in providing humanitarian aid after the devastating fires in Knysna in 2017, responding to flooding in KwaZulu-Natal and providing animal fodder for farmers in the Eastern Cape during the ongoing drought, among others.
In 2010, Sooliman received the Order of the Baobab, one of the highest honours a South African can receive for service to the country, from then President Jacob Zuma.
He says the entire Gift of the Givers is privately funded through individual or corporate donations.
“Our existence is a miracle.”
Sooliman says despite Covid-19 crisis, when most companies have been forced to close, they have been exceedingly gracious.
“They’ve closed down and yet they’ve come back and said: ‘Look, doesn’t matter what we’ve earned or haven’t earned, now’s the time to give’.”
Companies who recently donated include Walmart, Coke, Capitec Bank, Standard Bank, Isuzu, Hyundai, Ford, and Woolworths.
Despite the long hours of weeks, and days he spends away from his family, a seemingly jovial Sooliman says he doesn’t grow tired from doing good.
He says because he is privileged enough to be in a warm house during winter (“I hate the cold”), and to be fully clothed (in all black for the interview) and fed, he remains committed to helping others.
“I keep thinking, what if my child was on the other side? What would I do if my child was on the other side? I would move heaven and earth to help that child, my child, so every other child is my child too.”
He says he doesn’t have a retirement fund as Gift of the Givers is his life’s purpose.
“People like us, we don’t retire – we work until we die,” Sooliman says smiling.
While he is aware of the need to prepare for an influx of Covid-19 patients and the threat the virus pose to his own life, Sooliman says he is not afraid of dying as Islam taught him “when your time is up, it’s time up”.
“So, people ask when I go to a war zone, ‘aren’t you going to die?’ I say I can get knocked coming out of a house in Pietermaritzburg and get shot or get hijacked. So, it can happen anytime,” Sooliman says.
“So when you have that kind of belief system, you know, you can’t really stress about the future.”