Insightful, fearless, uplifting – Gift of the Givers founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman on SA’s looting locusts

It is often during times of great adversity, that we witness the extraordinary strength of the human spirit. Dr Imtiaz Sooliman founded the Gift of the Givers Foundation in 1992 and has spent the last 29 years dedicating himself to providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief. BizNews founder Alec Hogg spoke to Dr Sooliman about the crisis wreaking havoc in South Africa right now. Dr Sooliman shares an incredibly insightful view of the four categories of persons who are fuelling the riots and the looting. What really hits home, though, are his stories about ordinary South Africans who have united to defend themselves and each other where the government has dismally failed its people and its citizens. Describing these events, Dr Sooliman says; “It’s an incredible thing. I’ve never seen anything like this in my 29 years of working in disaster in South Africa.” – Nadya Swart

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman on rumours that his warehouse was looted:

Well, actually, it’s not true, number one. And secondly, it’s actually not my warehouse either. It’s a warehouse that was used by a person who was a volunteer – a business person who used to work with us in the Port Shepstone and South Coast area. He used to do deliveries and distributions. He would call us and say, ‘People, I need [you] here, can you help?’ So we would send him supplies in advance. He would park it off in that warehouse and within a day or two he would deliver it. Now, unfortunately, in January this year; the volunteer, his brother and his father – all three succumb to covid. I lost all three of them.

And as a result of that, we couldn’t use the warehouse anymore. We had no supplies in there. We only came to note it ourselves when we saw the post on social media and we saw our signage in that warehouse. We realised they had put a sign inside the warehouse, but actually it wasn’t our warehouse. The tragedy of this all is that he had served the people so well and yet people found it appropriate to come and loot the warehouse and eventually they even burnt it.

On the impact that the current looting crisis in South Africa is going to have on the demand experienced by the Gift of the Givers Foundation:

Yes, it’s already coming, you know. When it started on Sunday, it was OK. Monday it was fine. And then suddenly the calls started coming in. Strangely enough, from private hospitals first and then public hospitals saying, ‘We have two nurses on duty, our patients are hungry, we can’t get oxygen to them. What do we do? We don’t have enough staff. Can you help? There’s no place, we don’t know where to access food. Everything is closed. There’s no transport. The roads are closed. What do we do?’ Medical workers calling and saying, ‘We can’t get to work. Our patients are suffering.’ So the first call was from hospitals. Then within 48 hours – on chat groups – our calls flooded with one request; ‘Our babies need milk.’ And some babies need a special type of milk depending on the type of conditions they had, because nobody was prepared for this and nobody had supplies. So that was the second request. By the third day; those old people, people who are ill, 84 years old, 74 years old; ‘We’re hungry. We have no food in our house.’ And then all at the same time, very wealthy people, expensive homes and ordinary people and all types of people; ‘Where do we access basics like milk and bread and those kinds of items?’ And then the clammer just grew. People wait in desperation; ‘What do we do? How do we get it? When do we get it?’ 

On how the Foundation responds to these calls:

Well, you know, the advantage of having the group chat is that it’s very resourceful. Someone will put a post; ‘We need milk powder, we need baby stuff – how can I get it from somewhere?’ Somebody else will say; ‘Bread is available from somebody else.’ Thirdly, someone will say; ‘Milk is available here. Here’s a list of pharmacies that are open.’ Or, ‘I’m a pharmacist, I’m open in a certain area. Give me the list of things that you want.’ You will find that around the country, those kinds of messages go out. But quite often, by the time we found it, the guy’s already left – or you can’t get the stuff or he doesn’t have the stuff that you want in his stock. He doesn’t have it. And he can’t get it from the wholesaler. And unfortunately, in terms of medicines and medical supplies, large numbers of chemists were destroyed and even pharmaceutical wholesalers were destroyed. The other thing is, while people are putting out these lists, something even greater happened. The guy would say or the lady would say; ‘Please, I can drop it off or you can fetch it at a certain point, there’s no charge. Two breads per house, or one or two milks per house – there’s no charge. Just tell us how many you need.’

On the purpose behind all this and how he sees it developing from here:

Well, we have to look at (there’s) four categories of people involved in this. The one is the pro-Zuma camp, who said they are setting this thing up because it’s a political issue within the ANC. Then came the criminal element; the looters, the ones who took this as an opportunity. Thirdly came the most dangerous of all; the agent provocateurs. This thing was not done spontaneously. This was well driven, well organised. And it’s clear. I call these people traitors. They are people who are trying to destabilise the country. Nobody attacks pharmaceutical industries which help people. Nobody burns ambulances and attacks paramedics. Nobody stops hospital workers and nurses from going to hospital to give assistance to people of all races. Everything done here was negative in the interest of South Africa. And you’re saying you’re just doing this for the people of South Africa – there’s something seriously wrong with your narrative. So you are the traitors.

And the fourth one is cannon fodder. Ordinary people who are hungry, many of them are hungry – that’s a fact. We witnessed that over the last 15 months. And opportunists. Guys who are driving Mercedes, BMW, 4×4’s – rushing in to cash in on the TV’s and all those kinds of items. Pure opportunists, but not dangerous. And you have a woman with her child and all types of people – students, university students – all cashing in on the opportunity. Again, not violent people, but opportunistic in what has happened. Now, if you look at all of this; the narrative started when people started defending themselves where the government has dismally failed its people and its citizens. You find people sort of defending themselves.

And the third force then used that as an opportunity to divide and rule and create the hype around race and bring racial conflict to support their aim. Fortunately for the country itself and the maturity of the people on the ground, several of the leaders among the community from all racial groups stood up and said, ‘We’re not going to accept this.’ You would find that black, white, Indian and coloured will stand together and say, ‘We’ve got to defend this. This is not acceptable.’ People in different parts of the country said; ‘This is not acceptable. And what was the turning point when the Taxi Association Association said, ‘We will not allow this to happen, no more malls are going to be attacked.’

Your question is, from a religious point of view, what has happened? It has united South Africans in an incredible way. I’ve never seen so much goodwill and support for each other. Where communities were looted, people are saying, even among those communities, the hungry people; ‘We need to go back and help them.’ Where people are so forgiving and want to help each other and have said; ‘We need to stand with each other, make things available, go to the informal settlement, see what their needs are.’ An informal settlement of people will come forward and say; ‘Do you want us to be part of the barricade? Do you want us to help and protect to make sure the looters don’t come inside here?’ It’s an incredible thing. I’ve never seen anything like this in my 29 years of working in disaster in South Africa.

On whether there’s an upside to all the chaos and destruction:

There’s a great upside. You know what? South Africans are not going to be used again to be divided along racial lines and any kind of issue that tears us apart, whether it’s race or anything else. The sentiment and the narrative from all groups is coming that we must stand together. And what is absolutely encouraging is when the culprits started calling in their numbers, there’s a few of them saying; ‘We want to help.’ Now they’ve taken a big knock. Many of the companies, the malls have been destroyed, shops have been destroyed, chain stores have been destroyed. It is those same chain stores – Woolworths and Checkers and others – calling and saying; ‘Look, tell us what you need.’

Banks calling – Standard Bank, Rand Merchant Bank – saying; ‘What do you want” Just tell us.’ They’ve taken a decision. Like Standard Bank phoned me last night; in thirty seconds, they approved R15m. And it’s that kind of sentiment that’s coming from corporations to say; ‘We need to help our people who are in difficulty.’ People are saying; ‘Where can we access medicines, what can we do?’ Doctors surgeries have been burned. [A] blood bank was raided. Pharmacies [have been] affected. And people are saying; ‘You know what, we’ll stand together, we’ll support each other, we’ll put up funds, we’ll hold each other’s hands and we’ll go forward.’ Incredible. I’ve never seen anything like that.

On how people can help:

Well, right now, the most important way is financial contributions. That’s the best way right now. We don’t want to have full warehouses. There’s still an element outside us trying to loot. So we need to give it another day or two for more of the troops to come in. There’s only about 800 on the ground in KZN. They have approved 5,000. I don’t know when the other ones are going to come. But once things are more secure, then we can take items in. But in the meantime, stock is available, things can be done. Distributions have started, we’re starting with hospitals. We’ve already started with hospitals and old-age homes, orphanages, places of safety. We’re busy distributing there. Many individual groups are busy with different communities and trying to help with bread or milk or baby milk powder.

But to answer your question – the first one is cash contributions. Corporates can call us directly. We can speak to them directly and a lot of them want to make contributions in a big way. In fact, the other thing that has happened; a lot of corporates have called and said; ‘We have so many staff in this province, KZN province, can you help us get stuff to them? We can’t reach them. They can’t get the stuff. We’ll provide the funding.’ That’s another option that has been taken and a lot have called for that purpose. My bank details are on our website and the toll-free line is available if people want to discuss further – 0800 786 911. Or if they want to call me directly – 083 236 4029. When we’re ready for the more bulk donations, we are preparing special warehouses, we’re waiting for clearance for people to give us those warehouses. We’re looking at planes, helicopters, small planes, shipping. And one additional point – South Africans from UK, Ireland, Denmark, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Dubai have all called, already starting campaigns to support us.

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