THE GATHERING 2022
‘South Africa is not falling apart’ — Gift of the Givers’ Imtiaz Sooliman tells The Gathering 2022
Can you imagine life in our country without civil society? Civil society organisations play an indispensable role in South Africa; the strength of our civil society sector is immense. Four of South Africa’s leading activists have highlighted the need for harnessing optimism, and the importance of understanding that the country belongs to its people.
“We’ve all come here because we love our country and its people, because we know our country’s in a crisis and because we think there are solutions. But there are people in our country who don’t wait to find solutions; who go out and get into the trenches and try to fix the problems,” said Mark Heywood, activist and editor of Maverick Citizen, during a panel discussion on the new action required when the system is broken, at Daily Maverick’s flagship event, The Gathering.
Hosted by Heywood, the panellists stressed that hope is not lost, and that solutions to fix the various problems that plague our society must come from individuals in every community in South Africa.
Gift of the Givers founder, Imtiaz Sooliman says there’s no denying the country has been traumatised in the last few years. The Covid-19 pandemic caused major havoc, and fear was instilled in the people of KwaZulu-Natal with the July 2021 riots and the devastating floods in the province in April this year. On top of this, the country has protracted rolling blackouts, and what seems to be a never-ending stream of corruption.
“These are things that have affected us. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world or the end of the country,” said Sooliman.
“I’ve been to countries where people of the same faith, same religion, same colour, same nationality, have torn each other apart,” he said. “And they’ve tried to pick up the pieces from their hardships and their difficulty.
“We are nowhere near that.”
Sooliman emphasised that it’s important to understand that South Africa “is not falling apart.”
However, he said that this does not mean we do not have challenges and difficulties. “But it’s nothing that we can’t fix, and we’ve proven that in everything we do.”
Fixing the public health system
Our health system is imploding and has been buckling for years. Heywood asked Lydia Cairncross, the head of general surgery at Groote Schuur, if it can be fixed and what the role of activism is in trying to mend it.
“When you have a society in distress — that washes up at the doors of your health system,” said Cairncross. Part of the reason our health system is buckling, Cairncross explains, is because hospitals are dealing with the effects of a society that is in a deep social and economic crisis.
“In the winter months we see the victims of shack fires, we see the bleeding ulcers of youngsters on Tik and other drugs, we see the gunshot injuries from the violence happening in our townships, we see the malnutrition amongst our children because of lack of food,” she said.
Under this type of duress, every health system would buckle, and many health systems would break.
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But Cairncross maintains that our health system has “tremendous potential”, and that South Africa has some of the best medical and surgical specialists and training programmes in the world.
“We have a tremendous health human resource”, she said. Fixing the health system requires getting the right people into the right places, and training leaders of health facilities “to make a space for talent to shine through” and to enforce accountability.
“We have the people, we have the passion, we have the talent, we have the commitment. We need to just fix the system so that it can release that potential,” said Cairncross.
Power to the people
The resounding theme of the panel discussion was that the country does not belong to the government; it belongs to the people living in South Africa.
“The power lies with the people, not with the political parties, not with the politicians,” said president of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondol, S’bu Zikode.
Echoing Zikode’s remarks, Sooliman said that we have relegated the responsibility of the country to the government, but “the country does not belong to the government” — it belongs to the 60 million people in South Africa.
When we understand this, Sooliman says, “we take ownership of the country.” The solutions, according to him, lie in South Africans’ standing together.
Solutions also arise when people realise that there are good people within the spheres of government that need to be encouraged and supported, concurred Sooliman and Zikode.
Imtiaz Sooliman of @GiftoftheGivers says the country does not belong to the government, “it belongs to you and me and every other South African”. #TheGathering2022 Public Interest panel @dailymaverick pic.twitter.com/0OJLWXNOvA
— Victoria O’Regan (@ToriOregan) November 24, 2022
There are millions of people in our country who are denied dignity on a daily basis, through hunger, access to housing, access to quality education. The panellists agreed that the common purpose that must drive solutions to the myriad of problems in our society, “is to return the dignity of people in South Africa.”
Abahlali baseMjondolo’s Zikode says — government or no government — “we have a responsibility to humanise the world”. Zikode says it’s crucial that in finding solutions together, “the poor and impoverished are not viewed as troublemakers, but positive people who are participating in the constriction of this country.”
“We want to see a just and equitable society, based on respect and dignity for all.”
There are leaders and individuals with ideas and solutions in every corner of South Africa. Heywood pointed out that we tend “to talk about people, not with people.”
“In some ways — with no disrespect to this Gathering — where are the poor in this conversation?” Heywood asked.
As a society, Sooliman argued that we need to drive four guiding principles that would save South Africa: “spirituality, morality, values, and ethics.” DM