DM168

SA PERSON OF THE YEAR

Winner: Imtiaz Sooliman of Gift of the Givers; Runners-up: Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo & The Vaccinators

Imtiaz Sooliman of the Gift of Givers organisation on August 9, 2011 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Nelius Rademan)
By Ufrieda Ho
20 Dec 2021 12

Sometimes staying the course of divine instruction comes down to chocolate, ‘China-fruit’ and a can-do attitude. Just ask Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder and chair of Gift of the Givers.

When Dr Imtiaz Sooliman hears his phone ring, he looks for it in at least four different places. That’s because he has four phones.

It’s no surprise, really, given that the founder and chair of Gift of the Givers says he knows where every single grain of rice is being delivered at any given time. It can seem like superoversight or micromanagement in overdrive, but for Sooliman the foundation’s work remains spiritual instruction, so there’s little room to drop the ball.

This year marks 29 years of the foundation, which translates to R3.8-billion in aid reaching people in need in 44 countries. Over the years the organisation has earned deep affection and respect. Sooliman has also racked up awards and honours, including the presidential Order of Baobab (silver), and this year he was named Social Justice Champion of the Year – an award coordinated by Professor Thuli Madonsela as law trust chair in social justice at the University of Stellenbosch. The Twitterverse nominated him for everything from president of the country to a Nobel Peace Prize.

He can take it or leave it, though – because his purpose, he says, is to follow instruction from a spiritual teacher he first met in 1991 in Turkey.

A year later this teacher’s mystical but divinely clear instruction to him was to start an organisation for unconditional humanitarian benefit for all people everywhere, not to seek recognition and to trust that the money and funding would flow.

“I don’t speak a word of Turkish, but I understood everything he said to me and when I asked him why it was so, he said to me: ‘When the hearts connect and the souls connect, the words become understandable,’” Sooliman says.

Gift of the Givers started with providing tents, clothes and food for people affected by natural disasters and conflict around the world. Since then, it has built up teams to target all kinds of needs. This has included drilling a borehole at Rahima Moosa Hospital in June this year, when water supply was interrupted for weeks. It has worked in drought-stricken areas in the Southern and Eastern Cape. It has even worked on producing enriched pellets for sheep feed in the Sutherland area, where farmers have battled to keep livestock fed.

“For the first time in four years, the sheep count is starting to climb and farmers are starting to employ farm workers again,” Sooliman says.

Gift of the Givers has always managed to give actual meaning to yawn buzzwords like “agility” and “pivot”. In these past two years of Covid-19, the organisation has supported 210 hospitals nationwide, provided infrastructure builds, sourced PPE and made oxygen delivery devices available. There are also smart networks to get equipment and supplies into rotation to reach as many people and facilities as possible.

With Covid-19 came lockdown and spiking hunger levels. The organisation has responded by providing more than 400,000 food parcels to date. “We’ve been involved in all the waves, we continue to be involved, we are going non-stop,” says Sooliman.

Even two heart operations in October and November this year haven’t slowed the 59-year-old who grew up the son of a grocery and clothing shopkeeper in Potchefstroom in North West. He says he helped out in the shop and was always a good, disciplined child – one of seven.

He went on to finish high school in Durban and qualified as a medical doctor in 1984 at what was then the University of Natal Medical School.

He didn’t specialise as he had hoped, though, so he ran a GP practice for some years instead. But his heart wasn’t in it and so he hung up his stethoscope.

In the years that followed, there would be about 15 minutes of political life too, when he was the head of the African Muslim Party that contested the 1994 elections.  “I actually was not interested in politics at all and I wasn’t even in the country when the party was formed. And then they pleaded with me to stand as the leader and so I did,” he says of his short-lived political life.

Leadership now is creating strong teams – all those people on his four phones, building networks and being the kind of person, he says, who doesn’t dwell on disappointment and doesn’t get upset too easily. But he has no qualms about calling a spade a spade.

“I can be brutal and very frank. I will say to politicians and officials: ‘You guys are bloody caught up and messing up the country when a lot of people are going hungry and suffering. You can’t say it’s very nice that you are corrupt.’”

Still he tries to see the good in people rather than their bad behaviour. He also hopes that doing more good becomes contagious.

It’s what he works to impart to his children too. He has two wives, five children with his first wife and one child with his second wife. The two households in Pietermaritzburg are just 800m apart, he says.

It’s family that gets him to sometimes sneak in a break, or get out to somewhere where there’s greenery.

For Sooliman though, holidays are not his thing. “I like to do it for the family but if I have time – and balance is not always possible – I prefer to watch action movies.”

It’s Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone and Steven Segal in action that makes for the good doctor’s guilty pleasure. That, his Tex bars and a handful of dried salty-sweet-sour “China-fruit” – hua mui.

Together they’re his recipe to recharge so he can get up each morning with gratitude and start all over again.

“People associate Gift of the Givers with hope. So, so long as we can provide that in some way – and sometimes it can just be a voice on the phone – then they can find their own way.

“I don’t look at what can’t be done. I look at what can be done – that’s where you can make a difference. If I focused only on what can’t be done I would do nothing,” he says. DM168

Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. (Photo: Freddy Mavunda / Financial Mail)

FIRST RUNNER-UP: DEPUTY CHIEF JUSTICE RAYMOND ZONDO

As then president Jacob Zuma so ironically proclaimed in his January 2018 statement on the establishment of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, “There should be no area of corruption and culprit that should be spared the extent of this commission of inquiry.”

Over the past three years, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo seems to have taken Zuma’s words to heart in his role as chair of the commission. South Africans watched as witness after witness took the stand, their testimony slowly chipping away at the mystery surrounding State Capture. Mounting evidence saw the once “almost untouchable” Malusi Gigaba pushed to explain himself before the public, while Ace Magashule’s political power base was gradually eroded by allegations of corruption, as seen in Stephen Grootes’s analysis of the commission for Daily Maverick in August.

Arguably the most significant outcome of the Zondo Commission thus far has been the arrest of Zuma himself. In a Constitutional Court judgment handed down on 29 June, Zuma was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment for refusing to obey the court’s order to testify before the commission. The commission has given those involved in corruption something to fear – consequences. Whether reputation, political clout or even freedom, there is now something for leaders to lose when faced with evidence of their wrongdoing. It is no wonder, then, that Daily Maverick readers voted Zondo and the staff of the commission as second runner-up. Their critical work has laid the foundation for a more accountable and transparent state in South Africa. But it does not end with Zondo. A lot more work needs to be done. – By Tamsin Metelerkamp/DM168

Professor Linda Gail Baker and Professor Glenda Gray, heading South Africa’s subteam of Covid-19 pandemic research advisers, arrive at the Khayelitsha District Hospital, where the first Covid-19 vaccination took place on 17 February 2021. (Photo: Xabiso Mkhabela)

SECOND RUNNER-UP: THE VACCINATORS

As South Africa started 2021 in the middle of a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections, not knowing that something much worse was to come, the country was also hit by the bad news that the AstraZeneca vaccine, trialled in South Africa among other countries, was not particularly effective against the Beta variant, which was dominant at the time. At the same time health worker casualties were increasing. Through immense hard work and quite a few sleepless nights Professor Glenda Gray, the president of the South African Medical Research Council, and Professor Linda-Gail Bekker managed to avoid delays in getting health workers vaccinated. They also devised the Sisonke trial – and got it approved under severe time pressure. They once again came to health workers’ aid with Sisonke 2 to organise boosters at the end of 2021. They had a lot of support from their colleagues in the medical field, who tirelessly explained, battled fake news and debunked vaccination myths, and the nurses and community workers at vaccination centres who continue to convince those who are scared and undecided. Other heroes in this field include the work of the Right to Care teams, who go to South Africa’s hardest-to-reach places to get rural communities vaccinated, and Jane Simmonds, who implemented a programme to reach the grandmothers in the pension grant line with life-saving Covid-19 vaccinations. DM168

***

DAILY MAVERICK PERSONS OF THE YEAR

Every year, Daily Maverick puts its mind to the question of who we should recognise in our annual Persons of the Year categories.

In the past, these decisions have been made after a bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but this year, we decided to do things a little differently. We had the bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but simply to arrive at a shortlist of nominees in each category. Using a new reader engagement tool called Hearken, we asked our online readers to cast their votes on who they think deserves the final nod. We also gave readers the option to choose their own candidate in any category in case they thought we had neglected anyone more worthy. The results were both expected and surprising.

On the whole, readers agreed with our shortlisted candidates, with a few exceptions. We had not considered Greta Thunberg as a candidate for International Person of the Year, but so many readers nominated her that she earned enough mentions to be a runner-up in that category.

Many objected to us only focusing on singers for our Artist of the Year and objected to the predominance of foreign singers in the category. Quite a few readers were critical of us leaving out African women and female contenders in general.

The journalists at Daily Maverick were mentioned several times as nominees for different categories of People of the Year – ah, thanks for the love, guys, but this time around we wanted to cast our net outside our inner circle.

The more than 800 readers who voted totally exceeded our expectations, because this was the first time we have opened People of the Year to readers’ votes.

Below are the categories. Read about the winners and runners-up in various categories below.

  • South African Person of the Year – a person who has had the broadest or most significant impact on the country as a whole.
  • Africa Person of the Year – a person who has made an outstanding contribution on the African continent this year.
  • International Person of the Year – a person who has had broad international impact or made an outstanding contribution this year.
  • South African Villain of the Year – there was no shortage of suggestions in this self-explanatory category…
  • International Villain of the Year – as above, but drawn from foreign fields.
  • South African Businessperson of the Year – not necessarily the person who made the biggest profit, but someone whose influence went beyond the balance sheets.
  • Community Champion of the Year – someone uplifting, defending and representing ordinary South Africans, often against all odds.
  • South African Polluter of the Year – individuals and entities which have succeeded in further dirtying our environment this year.
  • Our Burning Planet Heroes of the Year – the green warriors fighting for our planet’s survival.
  • South African Youth Champion of the Year – young people working to improve the lot of other young people.
  • Sportsperson of the Year – a sportsperson whose positive impact has been felt either on or off the field.
  • Sports Team of the Year – a team that has stood out from the rest in 2021 either on or off the field.
  • Artist of the Year – a hitmaker whose musical or social influence has towered above others.
  • Moegoe of the Year – someone whose behaviour perhaps falls short of Villain of the Year, but who has in some way acted idiotically.
  • Grinch of the Year – someone who qualifies as a spoilsport or killjoy. – Rebecca Davis/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 12

  • Agree with both respondents, excellent choice in Mr. Sooliaman (simply quietly getting on with the job saving lives) as well as the runner-up choices.

  • There cannot be any more worthy winner than Dr Sooliman, the quiet leader that is supported by a fantastic team of people that just get on with things and achieve really great results.

  • Really deserving and merit loaded choices ! On a whimsical note – could the ‘spiritual teacher’ he met in Turkey … have been Erdogan …. who shares with Modhi a vision of Trumpian greatness ?

  • Dr Sooliman, absolutely deserving!
    We applaude you and your team👏🏼. Next step, a must appear in TIME magazine like Allen Mask. Let us make it possible for him SANS!

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