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Inclusive Society Institute Annual Lecture 2021

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman

Copyright © 2021 Inclusive Society Institute

50 Long Street Cape Town, 8000 South Africa 235-515 NPO All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the permission in writing from the Inclusive Society Institute DISCLAIMER Views expressed in this report do not necessarily represent the views of the Inclusive Society Institute or its Board or Council members. Author: Olivia Main Editor: Daryl Swanepoel

Introduction by Vusi Khanyile

Chairperson of the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute’s (ISI) work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, economic development and equality, through a value system that embodies the national democratic principles of a democratic state.

Noting the divided and oppressive past of our country, the institute undertakes a range of activities that seek to make a contribution to those processes that move South Africa towards being a more inclusive society, which promote development of its people, its economy, and contribute to national coherence.

The ISI does this through a number of activities and programmes which it runs on an annual basis. These include policy research and analysis aimed at developing public policy and, more importantly, assessing its implementation. The institute also runs democracy training programmes, which focus on equipping political and civic society formations, so that they are empowered to fulfil their democratic responsibilities.

In addition, it publishes a variety of peer-reviewed reports, occasional papers, academic papers, and a periodic journal under the professional guidance of a group of professors and academics.

The institute has also established a vast network of relationships with similar bodies across the world in order to improve international solidarity. It arranges a series of dialogue events throughout the year, where people from civic society and political establishments, as well as policy experts and researchers, are drawn together to engage on policy development and democratic processes.

The ISI’s annual lecture is one of the newest arrows in its quiver, having recently hosted only its second annual lecture. The keynote speaker at the first event was Judge Albie Sachs, who spoke on public ethics, morality, democracy, social cohesion, and how South Africa is measuring up to the 1994 vision. For the second, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of the Gift of the Givers Foundation, spoke on the same topic, but from the perspective of a pragmatic approach that needed to underpin sustainable development.

Annual Lecture presented by Dr Imtiaz Sooliman

Founder of the Gift of the Givers Foundation

The themes running throughout this lecture are spirituality, monarchy, and ethics and about the organisation being a microcosm of what South African society should be, and how it operates.

The Gift of the Givers Foundation isn’t a conventional organisation; it came into being in a very spiritual manner, in 1986. I moved to Pietermaritzburg in 1985 when my internship working at a hospital ended – unfortunately, there were no posts to study further in the field of internal medicine – and opened a private practice in January 1986. The spirituality of Gift of the Givers, which would only be established six years later, began to flourish at that same point.

An Afrikaner from Pretoria, William Muller, who had just returned from America on a scholarship, also moved to Pietermaritzburg that same year. This man, who speaks about 13 languages, accepted a post at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, to teach French. He met a butcher in town and in conversation, Muller asked him if he knew of a good local doctor. Coincidentally – and in spirituality there is no coincidence – the butcher was my neighbour, and so I met Muller and over a period of time we developed a friendship.

He insisted that I meet a spiritual teacher he knew from Istanbul who he’d stumbled across in America during a period when he was depressed. Muller was walking the streets when he noticed a man watching him. He says he felt an immediate connection with the man and decided to follow him. The man entered St John the Divine, a church in New York in which people of all religions – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, among others – were following a spiritual teacher who was from Azhikkal, a celebration of God’s name, in India.

Muller described it as an amazing sight. It showed an understanding, a maturity, calmness and respect between religions, very much out of line with what’s shown in the media, where great antagonism between religious groups is portrayed. In 1985, the holy man from Azhikkal passed away, but Muller met the new spiritual teacher, from Istanbul, who travels to America two or three times a year, just before he returned to South Africa.

I joked with Muller about not even having the chance to see Cape Town in South Africa, let alone Istanbul in Turkey. To which Muller simply responded that the next spiritual point would occur when it was meant to; that point came five years later.

Nelson Mandela was released. The government was having talks with the ANC. The country was trying to re-enter the global arena. At the same time, in 1991, a massive cyclone hit Bangladesh. I was fortunate enough, under no organisation name, to get permission for aid to be taken across into Bangladesh on a ship chartered by the South African Navy. And then out of the blue, I received a call from a trucking company in Pietermaritzburg asking whether I needed any trucks from Turkey on my mission to Bangladesh.

At the end of a long journey, my wife and I landed up in Turkey. Not speaking a word of Turkish, we travelled to meet a spiritual teacher, on the other side of the Bosphoros, who was a disciple of the teacher in Istanbul. After a boat ride, we arrived on the other side and after struggling to hail a taxi, happened upon a man – in a city of 15 million people spread across Europe, Asia and the Middle East – who knew exactly where we needed to go.

After a tour of the city, that evening we finally arrived at the spiritual place. And we were both stunned.

This was a time post-Gulf War – a war which polarised civilisations. Senator Huntington spoke about the clash of civilisations. The Gulf War was perceived as a fight between Muslims and the rest of the world, between the East and the West. And coming from apartheid South Africa, it was even more shocking.

We came from a place of prejudice, of stereotypes, of racial and religious conflict. And we found ourselves in a Muslim holy place where there were Jews, Russians, Hindus, Americans, where everybody was welcome and accepted. A spiritual teacher noticed the shock on our faces and, unlike the normal greeting from a stranger – How are you? Where do you come from? How was the trip? – he asked: “What do you see?”

I responded: “People of all religions, all colours, all places where there is no friction, in a Muslim holy place.” The teacher then said: “That’s right. All [hu]mankind is one single nation. The God of all [hu]mankind is one. We just call him by different names. Any teacher, imam, priest, rabbi. Anybody else who promotes extremism, violence, terrorism, discord, conflict, is not a man of God. Do not follow him. Any person who preaches love, kindness, compassion, and mercy is a man of God. Follow him.”

Such was the teaching. We witnessed the possibility of harmony, respect, and understanding between people. It opened our eyes to something totally new. Coming from a country with an apartheid past, we were prejudiced, steeped in stereotypes, and viewed other people as not like us and disliked certain people. But in that instant, all of that lifted away. There was no anger, no hate, no discord; there was nothing of that nature left. Our minds had been cleared. We returned to South Africa and a year later, the yearning arose to go back to that spiritual place.

On 6 August 1992, on a Thursday night, when I was back in Istanbul at the spiritual gathering, the most incredible thing happened after the zikr. For those who aren’t Muslim, a zikr is a chanting of God’s name, which one would find in all scriptures, in a certain combination. In our case, in Arabic, we say to God one and only, kind compassionate, merciful, all knowing, wise, cherisher, sustainer, nourisher, greater, evolver, among others.

When it was over, at 10pm, the spiritual teacher leading the chanting, sitting in a corner of the room, suddenly got up and looked at me, simultaneously making eye contact and looking heavenwards. And then he spoke to me in Turkish, saying: “My son, I’m not asking you, I’m instructing you to form an organisation.” He told me what the name in Arabic should be, which when translated, meant ‘Gift of the Givers’.

He instructed me: “You will serve all people of all races, of all religions. All colours, all classes, all cultures. Of any geographical location and of any political affiliation. But you will serve them unconditionally. You will expect nothing in return, not even a thank you.

“In fact, in what you are going to be doing for the rest of your life, expect to get a kick up your backside. If you don’t get a kick up your backside, regard it as a bonus. Serve people with love, kindness, compassion and mercy. And remember, the dignity of man is foremost.” A concept that is highly relevant to South Africa, where the dignity of man needs to be urgently addressed. In effect, if someone is down, do not push them further down, but instead hold them up, elevate them.

“Caress the head of an orphan.” And there are thousands in our country. “Wipe the tear of a grieving child. Say words of good council to a widow. These things are free, they don’t cost anything. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Provide water for the thirsty.” All relevant to South Africa.

“And in everything that you do, be the best at what you do. But not because of ego, rather, because you are dealing with a human life, human dignity, and human emotion.” And then he continued to say in Arabic that the best among people are those who benefit [hu]mankind. He repeated this three times and said: “Listen very carefully. The emphasis is on the word [hu]mankind, not Muslim, not Arab, not Indian, but [hu]mankind. Unconditional.” And that is the motto you will see on all our shirts, trucks, and branding. That is the motto we have been following for 29 years.

Then he imparted the most important message of all. He said: “My son, whatever you do, is done through you and not by you. Do not ever forget that.” That was the highest spiritual message. It made it clear that Gift of the Givers was going to be an organisation led by spirituality.

It is not a conventional organisation. I didn’t simply get up one morning and start gathering people to form a committee, write a constitution and a founding principal, and start delivering water and food. I had no intention to form an organisation. I was called to Istanbul without warning, given an instruction, given the name, given the broad categories of what I had to do. And the broad category would be to serve all of [hu]mankind unconditionally.

But one does need some kind of structure. So, first of all, I asked him how it was that even though I didn’t speak a word of Turkish, when he spoke Turkish, I was able to understand. He responded: “My son, when the hearts connect, and the souls connect, the words become understandable.” I then asked him what he meant by this instruction. After all, I was a doctor in private practice with three surgeries in a place called Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. When was I supposed to do what he was instructing me to do? He said, simply, that I would know.

And for 29 years, I have known what to do, how to do it, when to do it, what not to do. The moment I walked out of there, the inspiration came: respond to the civil war in Bosnia. That same month, in August 1992, our first mission was not a basic one such as a feeding scheme, but instead we went headlong into an international war zone. We took in 31 containers of aid and another eight in the November after that. By February, we had started designing the world’s first containerised mobile hospital.

In responding to that disaster, the message was clear that in essence, Gift of the Givers was going to be a disaster response agency which would work internationally, and also locally, with the understanding that all people should be treated equally with an open heart and an open mind. As a result, we connected with Johan and Gert Van de Wetering of Afrit Trailers in Rosslyn, Pretoria. They had already built three units – sterilisation, X-ray and a theatre – for the Defence Force. We thought, why not a whole hospital?

So, we came together to design a containerised mobile hospital. We worked as a team, with no conflict and no race, colour, or religious bias. That hospital was then loaded onto the SAS Outeniqua, shipped to Trieste in Italy and from there across into Mostar. On 1 February 1994, CNN filmed the hospital, stating that the South African containerised mobile hospital was equal to any of the best hospitals in Europe.

The world understood the engineering capabilities of South Africa back then. And South Africans believed in the capabilities and skills they had to offer. We built that hospital – 28 state-of-the-art units, each one totally independent – and it was taken across into Bosnia. In addition, we took a generator, a patient bus and an ambulance, and ten containers of back-up supplies. In my business, you always have to be prepared for any eventuality; you have to be forward-thinking. We provided enough supplies, sutures, IV fluids, medicines, swabs, and enough diesel fuel required to run a hospital for one whole year. If there was a lockdown for 365 days, that hospital would still have functioned.

I encouraged them to move the equipment out of the container into a fixed hospital building when the time was right and when it would be more practical. In 2005, we were invited back to Mostar by the Bosnian president to visit the military hospital, to where all the equipment had been moved. And the same doctor we put in charge of the hospital in 1994 was still working there. The doctor reminded me that I had said they would be equipped to perform any operation in the theatre, except heart surgery. He then introduced me to a lady who had had shrapnel in her heart that was removed in the very same theatre that we had provided, and to her four children, who were delivered after that operation in the same hospital.

The question is: Do we as South Africans understand that we have the skills, the Ubuntu, the spirituality to not only identify what it takes to save lives and offer help and healing to other nations, but we can also apply all this locally? Do we want friction, discord, and corruption or health, healing, and equality? That’s what my teams are all about.

Until 2004, although we had designed the world’s first container mobile hospital, Gift of the Givers had not evolved yet to offer its own medical team, food, blankets, medicines, tents, water, etcetera. Then, on 26 December 2004, a tsunami struck about 13 countries including the wealthy resort area within Thailand, and Indonesia, which hosts a vast number of factories catering to the West. We responded with aid.

India, however, remained totally independent. Although the Andaman Islands were affected, they didn’t want anyone to have access to the military base there and so, refused any aid from outside.

The Sri Lankan president made an appearance on world TV pleading for assistance. At the same time, Harpoon, on the north-east coast of Somalia, in Africa, was also affected. A fishing village was destroyed, but nobody was interested in Africa at the time. So, we stepped in for both countries. In order to develop this continent, we as Africans have to work with each other. Inter-trade relationships, sharing of information, opening of our borders; we have to nurture that relationship. We can’t have rife xenophobia and widespread crime. It’s a fine balance – there are criminals in all societies, but we need to work on reducing it and increasing cooperation and collaboration.

Within 48 hours we were the first team in the world that responded to the disaster in Sri Lanka. Within five days we delivered R7 million worth of aid, partnering with local corporates in the country. We flew planes with supplies from Dubai and India, and chartered planes from Colombo to fly aid across all the regions that were washed away by the tsunami. And we were the first agency in the world to be given land to rebuild houses in Sri Lanka.

In Harpoon, the logistics were much more complicated. But for the first time in our organisation’s history, we had a primary health care team. We treated the people in Harpoon and built a medical centre for them, which is still functional.

In 2005, after our trip to Bosnia in July where we met with the president, in August we received news of a famine in Niger. Children were dying in numbers. Gift of the Givers responded again with a primary health care team. When we arrived in Niger, an announcement was made that we were there, and thousands of people streamed in for treatment – because it was free, and it was a medical team from South Africa. Our teams are a microcosm of the country, a mix of Hindu, Christian, Muslim, black, white, whoever wants to take part. Everybody respects each other on the trip; everybody is professional. Religious dialogue for the purpose of understanding each other is encouraged. Not for conflict, or to point fingers and be hurtful, but to gain a better understanding of each other’s cultures in order to respect each other’s point of view.

We noticed that it was only mothers with their babies that were coming for treatment. No adult males, no teenagers, no kids above the age of five. We couldn’t understand it.

As we walked among the patients in the queues, we realised there were too many to treat them all, so we had to triage patients – only treating those in immediate need first. The amount of trust and faith these mothers had in our medical team, people they didn’t know, from a place faraway, was phenomenal. Eventually, they all had the same reaction; they understood what we were doing.

That evening, sitting at the dinner table with people from the president’s office, from DIRCO, the media, Thulasizwe Simelane from eNCA started speaking about the three to five children that were dying in the village per day. I stopped him, saying I knew very well what was happening.

When the teams arrived, the villagers knew we were limited in number, that the resources would be limited, so they made a personal sacrifice. They decided that no males, teenagers, or children above five would join the queue, only babies that they perceived to be sick would come. Those mothers in the queue who were turned away walked away, because they understood that their child may be fine or have another five to seven days, whereas another child may only have a few hours. And they did this with no guarantee that the team would be there beyond seven days or that a new team would show up to replace them. It was through that generosity of spirit, true spirituality, ethics, and sacrifice that they walked away from the queue to give us the space to deal with those that were extremely sick. And we saved every single child that day.

Two months later, it was time for a new evolution: the Gift of the Givers added a trauma team for enforced trauma rehab. A monster of an earthquake hit Pakistan on 8 October 2005. It didn’t just hit one city, it hit right from Rawalpindi to Muzaffarabad, the entire north-west region, up to the Indian border, the Kashmir valley; it affected everybody.

We worked very closely with DIRCO on this. They spoke to the Pakistan government. The First Secretary was there to meet us as we landed in Rawalpindi. As we landed – our mixed teams of all races and all religions working together to save lives – the Pakistan General came up to us and thanked us for coming to help his country. He said there was no point going to the site of the earthquake, that we could use the Cantonment Hospital in Rawalpindi as a base, but there were no helicopters available to reach the people in the mountains, the only way was by road. Our teams were in shock; they couldn’t understand what he was talking about, after all, they were there to help with the earthquake victims. I explained what the General was telling us: there was nothing left at the site of the earthquake. The hospitals were gone. The medical personnel, gone. There was no backup support, no infrastructure, water, generators or electricity. In essence, we couldn’t do anything to save anybody there.

What we could do, was bring those people walking around injured into the hospital and stabilise them. But we had to make our own plan to get there. Which was fine – it’s better to steer clear of red tape and bureaucracy in any case. We checked out the airport and fortunately came across the American Air Force. There was a moment of hesitation – as we all know, Muslims carry a stigma in America, and in fact all over the world – but the meeting in Istanbul had opened my mind. So, I approached a big black guy standing at the base and struck up a conversation. It turned out he was also originally from Africa – we had a common thread. I explained that we needed a helicopter to send rescue teams into the mountains. Within minutes, he had three helicopters from the American military ready to leave.

One team went to the mountains, while the other teams headed to the Cantonment Hospital in Rawalpindi. The moment we walked in, we were hit by the stench of death and chaos: gangrene, kids left alone, no parents, no IV lines, medication or disinfectant. We contacted the General and asked what was going on. We were told that the hospital was actually shutting down.

The other teams from the northern countries who were walking around the hospital couldn’t understand who we were or where we’d come from, because of our diverse mix of colour, race and religion. We told them we were from South Africa, which they didn’t believe; they thought all South Africans were black. I assured them we were very much a rainbow nation. Then came the insults, that being from Africa we must be there to get something out of the situation because we are always on the lookout for a freebie, standing there with our begging bowls. I said to them: “My friends, you will eat your words!”

I approached the Chief Officer with a medical shopping list and a promise that if he could get the items to me within 24 hours, the South African medical team could turn the situation around. In less than 24 hours, a hospital that was shutting down was converted into a functioning 400-bed emergency hospital, thanks to our medical team – doing seventy-five operations a day, saving lives.

As a result, in 2006, the then president of Pakistan gave us a Presidential Award for our service to the people of Pakistan. We sure showed the north, who ended up having to use the same facilities that we set up. There was no anger in it, but we made our point – that South Africans are not to be underestimated, that we have the capabilities, the strength, the professionalism to offer quality services. This says a lot about our universities, medical schools, professors, academics, teachers, and about what we can achieve if given the opportunity.

We’re very proud of that and what we achieved. It was the first time we had ever sent in five teams: we had family health care, trauma medicine, general surgeons, orthopaedic surgeons, anaesthetists, theatre nurses, ICU nurses. We had expanded our vision. The focus for Pakistan was to become an even better disaster rescue organisation. And we did it.

Back in December 2005, during the time of the Pakistan earthquake rescue mission, Carina Eksteen, a spinal rehabilitation specialist from Pretoria University contacted me, wanting to help the people in Pakistan, offering to fly there over the Christmas period during her leave time. A white Afrikaans Christian women wanted to spend her Christmas holidays healing people in Pakistan; I was so surprised by that. But she came and she helped people to walk again and won the heart of every single Muslim man in that hospital – in fact, of every person, from the patients to the doctors, the nurses, and the military. When she left, they all cried, including the military men! She also brought a patient home to South Africa who would not have survived and healed otherwise. And she rehabilitated that patient.

A month ago, I gave a talk in Durban. After telling Carina’s story, a woman sitting at my table on the opposite side said she had just called Carina. She said that the patient had stayed in her house, and she had looked after her while Carina had treated her. Now, 16 years later, I bump into this woman, who tells me that the child (the patient) recovered and got back to life. Was that just a coincidence? I think not. Once again it was spirituality at work.

Fast forward to 2009, when we added a new division. We brought in trauma counsellors when we went into Gaza. We had all of the above – primary health care, trauma care, post-op rehab – but for the first time we had trauma counsellors. What were we doing? Expanding the skills, the capabilities, and the experiences of the South Africans in the teams that we were taking around the world.

As I’ve said, they are mixed teams, everybody works together on an equal footing. The teams are gender and race balanced. We don’t choose the people in our teams on the basis of BEE, we don’t have to have a certain number of blacks, whites, coloureds, and Indians. I’m very blunt and clear about this; we simply don’t work like that. We work from a spiritual point of view: those who are drawn to us, come. They are chosen for having the best ethics and skills. If they are not a good fit, they’re out. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, or colour they are; we are a balanced charity, and we only accept the best.

After the Pakistan earthquake rescue mission, we decided we needed our own search and rescue team. Medical intervention is not the first line, it’s search and rescue first. Over the next five years, we gathered together the right people for the team. On 12 January 2010, I had just returned home from Syria, walked in the front door, when I received a call about an earthquake hitting Haiti. An estimated 250 000 people died in that earthquake within 40 seconds. An unnecessary number of deaths purely down to greed, corruption, poor architectural drawings, slapdash building without proper engineering and construction. It was a domino effect; buildings fell on each other, and people died. Not because of the earthquake, but because of a lack of ethics.

Within two hours our search and rescue team was ready to fly via France. DIRCO met with the French Consulate in Johannesburg and within ten minutes we had a Schengen Visa. We said we would give Air France the business, because the country had been good to us. We were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to get our teams to Port-au-Prince though, as we thought the airport would be closed. Air France gave us a written guarantee that they would be able to get us there. What airline in the world gives a guarantee in writing to get you to a certain place?

But I knew they were going to have a problem, so I made a call to the Catholic Society in Johannesburg. Even though there was a religious discrepancy, there was no hesitation from their side. Three hours later, they had organised for Catholic Relief Services to meet our team at Dominican Republic, and take them across to the compound in Port-au-Prince, where they would be shown around, as our helpers knew the area well.

My teams landed in Paris. The call came that there was a problem, Port-au-Prince airport was closed. My foresight was accurate. The teams then flew another two hours to the Dominican Republic – I had already made the arrangements with Air France. They arrived at the airport and were welcomed with accommodation, food, water, visas, and support across the border.

What does this story tell us? That intercultural, inter-racial, inter-religious cooperation is highly possible. It’s not a pie in the sky idea. And it can be achieved anywhere in the world. It just requires the right mindset, the right spirituality, and the willingness to cooperate, understand, and share.

On 20 January 2010, eight days into the earthquake, the South African team pulled out 64-year-old Anna Azizi from the rubble. She was alive – after eight days without food, water or medical attention for her fractured hip. The South African team achieved a first. No team in Africa had ever taken anybody out of an earthquake alive outside the African continent. And after eight days, another first. Most people had started to give up hope by that time.

The first words Anna Azizi said after she was rescued were: “I love God almighty.” We instilled hope and faith in somebody several thousand kilometres away from our home country. The second words were for her rescuers: “I love you.” Spirituality is all about love, care, and compassion. These are all the values a spiritual teacher instilled in me that fateful night in 1992. And its people with those type of values that join our organisation. We don’t look for them. We don’t go around head hunting and searching for freebies.

The medical teams from the northern countries on site at the church where the wounded were being taken didn’t believe we could become such a formidable force. We watched as certain organisations from the north operated on people, without ethics or morals. But as soon as our medical team entered the church, the paramedics got to work wiping the walls and washing the floors.

When the patients started arriving to be treated by my team, for the first time ever, my team broke down. The South African team are a group of highly sensitive, compassionate, and caring people. And there were children who had to have amputations because of the careless medical care they had received – for example, botched medical attention on a cut on the ankle became an amputation above the knee, on an injury on the hand became an amputation above the elbow, and so on. Us South Africans had to fix the unethical work of others.

All the medical teams ended up working together, and to their credit, the teams from the northern countries nicknamed us the “Dream Team” – the team you go to if you want truly professional help. A huge accolade to the professionalism, the skill, the Ubuntu of the people in our country.

So, search and rescue were now added to our services. And we have all the equipment a person would need for medical intervention and search and rescue. It’s highly sophisticated and easily portable. We don’t need big trucks and aeroplanes, the equipment can be carried in the cargo hold of a normal passenger plane and slung over your shoulders, if needs be.

Let’s fast forward to November 2016. In terms of how we operate I decided to kill all international marketing – not kill the projects but kill the marketing – because the media was too interested in the international projects. They were focussing all their attention on the excitement and sensationalism, and not on what we were doing as part of our own growth. I needed them to see that what we were doing locally was far more important than the international projects.

In June 2017, there was a devastating fire in Knysna. For the first time in the country, corporates that had never supported us before, suddenly understood what we do. Checkers, Shoprite came forward and offered us the carpark to operate from. We had been in discussions with them earlier in the year and had started building a relationship. We were concerned about where their shoppers would park, but they just said that wasn’t important and to use the carpark. We sent in two female project managers to run the entire operation. The people of Knysna came with their bakkies, forklifts, and rich and poor all worked together. We delivered 20 000 food parcels. The support came from all over the country – truck after truck, DHL transported tonnes of goods. And for the first time in our history, corporates gave us support: R20 million in three weeks.

We sent in our core fire teams, and our medical teams and specialists to help move patients from Knysna to George. We brought in advanced life support medics and ambulances. We fed 1 200 firefighters twice a day, also providing them with energy bars and drinks throughout. We delivered 20 000 food parcels, and blankets, diapers, etc. We brought in pet food, and fodder for the wild animals and farm animals.

We even brought in sugar for the bees. The Cape honeybee is the most versatile and resilient bee globally. It has survived beyond the lives of most bees anywhere in the world. First there was a drought in the area, which dried up most of the vegetation they survive on. Then came the fire, which burnt out three hundred beehives. Each beehive holds between 75 000 and 80 000 bees, so we had lost twenty-two million bees. The fire also burnt out the remaining plants the bees needed to feed on. The next best substitute, which is very expensive and the worst-case scenario, is a sugar solution.

We also ended up replacing the three hundred beehives that were lost to the fire and funding the growing of new crops and the pollen substitute needed. A research centre has been set up along the Garden Route that attracts a lot of students and professors. By saving the bees, people have the opportunity to gain experience more about them. Well, that was certainly something new, a new realm of rescue for us.

Immediately after that, we were called by the Western Cape Disaster Management. There was a shortage of water in Beaufort West. The dam was empty; it had dried up. And after 21 days of drilling into the ground, they had only hit sand, no water. We immediately called in Dr Gideon Groenewald, a geologist who works with us. He was in Worcester at the time.

When he arrived in Beaufort West, he assured us we would find water. Nobody believed him, but after only 24 to 48 hours later, we found it. It was a Friday, my Muslim prayer time. I sent him a message saying: “We will find water today!” From where he was standing, he looked up across the mountain to a white stone. He said to his assistant in Afrikaans: “Die wit berg [the white mountain]. There, we are going to find water there.” So, they took the rig up the mountain and managed to convince who the locals said was a very difficult person to give them the code on the gate to his property. The man had been waiting for their call.

They drilled five boreholes that delivered 18 000 litres per hour. From there the water was pumped into the catchment area of the Gamka Dam and from there into the town’s municipal water storage and into the rest of the city. We also drilled boreholes for the schools and old age homes. Beaufort West became the first major disaster we assisted with in that part of the world.

At the same time, we got a call to say Sutherland was in trouble. The sheep count was dropping drastically. They needed fodder. And suddenly out of nowhere, we became involved in fodder distribution. Millions of rand of fodder costing truck loads – transport costs were expensive then too. All the Afrikaner farmers in the country rallied together and started giving us free fodder, but we still had to pay for the transport, we had to find the money. One woman who helped us, Elizabeth Visage, arranged 160 coaches from Transnet to take free fodder from other parts of the country and bring it to Matjiesfontein, and from there all the way to Sutherland.

In June 2018, the call came through that all the boreholes in Sutherland had dried up. The sheep count was also dropping drastically again. The sheep count had been 440 000, but by 21 January 2020 it had dropped to an alarming low of 31 000. With Dr Groenewald and Martin Langman at the helm, we drilled 238 boreholes in Sutherland at our own cost.

Our coordinators, through Sybil Visage, organised a machine that produces fortified pellets, nutritionally enriched. We were supporting that project and at the cheapest cost in the country to the farmers, they now had access to pellets. For the first time that year, at the end of 2020, we were finally seeing the sheep count starting to rise. They were growing into big, healthy animals once more. Obviously, it would take more than just one year to get the numbers back up to where they were, but the turnaround had begun.

And with the sheep numbers starting to rise, farmers started to employ one or two more farm workers, which means job creation. We may have saved an entire region of Sutherland in the next year or two, simply by putting in boreholes, bringing in fodder, and producing enriched pellets for the sheep.

The province that has always terrified us is the Eastern Cape. It’s just such a vast expanse of land and the population is so spread out. In 2019, we received news from Makhanda that there was a water crisis. We got involved, and two and a half years later, we are still there trying to help sort out problems. We started by drilling boreholes in Graaff Reinet, Klipgat, Adelaide, Bedford, Middleburg, and a whole range of other areas in the Eastern Cape. As we were providing water, we were also spreading the water systems, and bringing in water tankers. Coca-Cola contributed a 34 000-litre super tanker.

In 2020, Covid-19 arrived and, of course, we got involved in helping 210 hospitals. It was very difficult to work with the government hospital systems. We had to break all the rules – there was no paperwork, nothing in writing – because we were dealing with an emergency situation, a disaster. There was no time to waste on bureaucracy. We just brought in the aid and gave it to the people who needed it: PPEs, thermometers, scrubs, reusable surgical gowns, hi-flow oxygen machines, medicines, masks, visors, sanitiser, whatever they needed, we provided it.

Then we started upgrading medical infrastructure, which is now our priority, because this brings dignity to people. You can’t go to a hospital that’s falling down and expect to heal. At the end of 2021, we injected another R30 million into infrastructure contracts and we opened up the Nkqubela TB Hospital, where the first upgrade was completed. We are also busy working on the Glen Grey and Butterworth Hospitals, among others. In addition, we have started drilling boreholes at the hospitals to remedy the water shortage.

Another crisis brought on by the lockdown is hunger. To date, we’ve given out about 400 000 food parcels, specifically related to the lockdown. In July 2021, we also responded to the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng with the delivery of another over 100 000 food parcels just to help remedy the fallout from that crisis. We’ve supported over one hundred schoolteachers, old age homes, and hospices for the physically and mentally challenged. Also, soup kitchens and gender-based violence structures – everybody has needed help. We provided counselling. We set up our own PCR testing teams. We had ten testing sites and mobile teams to help with PCR testing during the first wave.

We have to put the message across that as part of our growth, as part of our spirituality, we can’t keep saying everything is bad. Yes, government has made mistakes and there is corruption, but not everything and everyone in government is bad. We need to focus on the good. And that’s what we try to emphasise and teach as we go about our work. Within government there are a lot of good people wanting to do a lot of good things. They need the support of corporates and the public. And they need the support of the media, not to constantly run everybody down.

It’s the same story with the South African Police Service (SAPS). People say you judge a country by its education and by its health. I think that’s incorrect. Would you rather live in a country that has world-class education and health systems, but has uncontrollable crime, or one that doesn’t have the best education or health systems in the world but has no crime and is safe? Most people would be attracted to the second scenario. Which is why I keep emphasising to SAPS in our regular engagements that we need to fix the system. We work with them all the time – with the generals, the minister, the deputy minister, the provincial commissioners.

As part of spirituality, we promote the good of the soul. Even if there is some blot on the soul, you don’t speak about the blot, you speak about the light. And as you keep speaking about the light, the light gets brighter, and the blot gets dimmer. From a spiritual perspective, when you send that message out into the universe, people start becoming better human beings. It has been seen to happen time and time again in life. With a focus on spirituality, morality, ethics, compassion, and serving unconditionally, Gift of the Givers promotes the good in people and situations and helps people change for the better, physically and spiritually.

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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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