The Gift of leadership

South Africans are as good as, and often better than the rest of the world. Our main problem, says Gift of the Givers founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, is we don’t believe in ourselves.

Dr Sooliman was the speaker at the fifth Archbishop Thabo Makgoba  Development Trust Annual Lecture on Values Based Leadership at Rhodes University’s Eden Grove Lecture Theatre on Thursday night, 3 October 2019. Previous speakers have been Professor Thuli Madonsela, Former President Kgalema Motlanthe, Former First Lady Mrs Graca Machel and former MP Dr Makhosi Khoza.

The story of the genesis and growth of the Gift of the Givers is well known. This week, Sooliman retold his extraordinary spiritual journey and the effect it has had on people around the world in their most desperate need, using it to give body and colour to basic leadership principles.

Africa’s biggest disaster relief organisation had its origins during the dying years of apartheid, and the start of the political and social crisis into which the Gulf War propelled the world.

Sooliman is “Doctor” not only thanks to an honorary doctorate awarded by Rhodes University in 2016, but because he qualified as a medical practitioner.

1986 was the height of apartheid repression, when successive states of emergency were imposed to quell the forces of resistance.  During this time, pushed into private practice because of structural barriers to further qualifying as a specialist physician, one of his patients – a white Afrikaner – told him he needed to see a spiritual teacher, in Turkey.

“I haven’t even been to Cape Town – how am I supposed to get to Turkey?” Sooliman retorted.

In short, through an extraordinary series of chance happenings (however, he says, “there is no such thing as coincidence”) he met Sufi master Muhammad Safer Efendi.

The Gulf War in January 1991 felt like the end of the world. “It felt like a massive clash of civilisations,” Sooliman said. “West against East, Christian against Muslim.”

And as the world went mad, Sooliman received the instruction from the Turkish teacher to found Gift of the Givers, on the principle that “the best among people are those who benefit mankind”.

For the past 27 years, the organisation has been Sooliman’s life and their website record that they have delivered R2.1 billion in aid to 43 countries around the world, including South Africa.

Sooliman’s leadership model carries the organisation’s spiritual origins.

“Over the past 27 years I’ve done things it is not possible for a human to do,” he said. “That’s because they were not done by me but through me.

“Be the best you can,” he says. “But do it without ego.”

Among the organisation’s extraordinary achievements was designing and deploying to Bosnia the world’s first and largest containerised mobile hospital, in 1992.

“It was better than many European hospitals,” Sooliman said.

Gift of the Givers’ first interventions  were food and medicines, along with their medical teams.

Trauma, post-operative rehabilitation, search and rescue (they famously brought out alive a 64-year-old woman buried for eight days under rubble after the earthquake in Haiti, among other miraculous rescues). Their work has extended to include primary health care and building houses after disasters.

Sooliman recounted the organisation’s mission to Somalia in 2011, when millions of people were displaced by war. Explaining a queue leading to a tent in a photograph inhispresentation, he said, “Those are not people registering for treatment. They are being checked for suicide bombs.”

He described the heartbreak of parents on the terrible 400km journey to the refugee camps forced to decide which child to leave behind to die on the road so the others could reach the camp and the possibility of survival.

“There, 10 000 children a day were dying,” he said.

And this was another lesson in leadership.

“There’s always someone worse off than you,” Sooliman said. “Here in South Africa we have so much to be grateful for.”

Throughout his talk, Sooliman highlighted the extraordinary capacity of South Africans to work together to solve problems. The problem with South Africans, he said, was they don’t believe in themselves.

“We’re always looking for solutions outside, but we have them right here.”

That included having the world’s best doctors and search and rescue experts, among others.

Gift of the Givers relies on a willing South African and worldwide network of volunteers and contacts at all levels and much of this is down to the ease and conviction with which Sooliman interacts. With the authority of the organisation’s actions behind him, the man who connects with ordinary people, greeting them by name months after meeting them face to face, also has hotlines to presidents and even the Pope.

“Our modus operandi depends on where we’re working and the resources they have,” Sooliman said.

Where there are resources but not enough doctors, Gift of the Givers brings in their teams. In the case of the Bosnia intervention, they brought in an entire hospital.

Here in Makhanda, the Gift of the Givers’ provided water – both truckloads of bottled water and distribution by water tankers as emergency supplies and the drilling of boreholes for a longer term supply.

Most recently they’ve deployed response teams to Adelaide and Graaff-Reinet, where the towns’ supply dams are empty, to provide emergency supplies of water and drill boreholes.

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, in this writer’s admittedly limited experience, does not often express anger. But there have been two notable occasions in the past six months.

First was during the controversy over Makana Municipality’s appointing service providers to drill boreholes in the area, following Gift of the Givers’ intervention here (which included drilling a number of boreholes).

The second was during his presentation at Rhodes this week, when he spoke of what had been happening at hospitals in Haiti in 2010. The most common urgent surgical intervention after an earthquake, Sooliman said is amputation, because people’s limbs get trapped under rubble.

He spoke of the heartbreak of having to perform amputations on children.

When the South African medical team arrived they found unqualified people had been performing amputations – “an extremely complex surgery” Sooliman said. “They had been sent there to operate on those people to get experience.”

The trainees didn’t know what they were doing, so many operations went wrong and the patients – mostly children – were ending up with gangrene that needed further amputation.

“They didn’t care,” Sooliman said, referring to the organisation under whose auspices the trainees had been operating.

“It wasn’t their children so it didn’t matter.”


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