NOMPU SIZIBA: Gift of the Givers has been working tirelessly during the Covid-19 pandemic to help South Africa cope, and continues to do so during the current third wave. Earlier my colleague Ryk van Niekerk spoke to Gift of the Givers leader and head, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: While it seems as if the government is failing to properly formulate and implement a strategy to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, the NGO Gift of the Givers has been doing life-saving work all around the country to assist hospitals, healthcare workers and communities affected by the virus. This includes drilling boreholes to ensure a stable water supply at the Rahima Moosa and Helen Joseph hospitals in Johannesburg, the supply of oxygen concentrators to health workers in the city, assisting the government to get the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital operational again, and providing food and supplies to severely affected communities.
On the line is Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the head of Gift of the Givers. Imtiaz, thank you so much for joining me. Do you ever think that you are doing the work the government should be doing?
Dr IMTIAZ SOOLIMAN: It happens all the time. On the one side yes, we understand that government doesn’t have enough resources. Secondly, when they have the resources quite often the people don’t know how to do things, and they tell us quite straightforwardly or humbly, look, we don’t know how to do this. And of course sometimes there’s a wastage of money and there’s no proper budgeting.
I think the biggest problem is that the government system of how to do things is a mess. I’ve told them on several occasions that you can’t have disasters and take weeks to have a meeting, fill in forms and speak to different people in different departments. That’s not on. The reality is that when it comes to urgent stuff, government is not geared up. Its doesn’t have a system to fix things urgently.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: But is it only a question of money? I’m going to talk about your funding model in a minute. You seem to identify critical projects that need to be undertaken. For example, you sank two boreholes at two hospitals in Johannesburg because there wasn’t a proper and stable water supply in the area. That is quick and easy to action, but government is not doing it.
Dr IMTIAZ SOOLIMAN: That’s a problem. I don’t think people understand the difficulty on the ground and the reality on the ground. The problem is too many civil servants are just committed to the office. They don’t understand the bigger picture. Also they seem to be static in their thinking – okay, the water has gone, maybe it’ll come back in four or five hours. It can’t work like that. They need to know how.
On May 28, Professor Coovadia calls me from Rahima Moosa Hospital – I know him personally – and he says, “We need bottled water.” I was busy with many projects so I said, “Okay, somebody needs bottled water.” He called me and we sent it to him. On Monday he calls again and says, “We need bottled water.”
That’s when I said, “But what’s the problem. Why do you need bottled water? Are you in hospital and don’t get water?” He said, “Yes, we haven’t had water since May 19.” I asked, “What happened?” He tells me, “The infrastructure’s not working, and our pumps are not working.” And they’re not sure – the CEO is trying to speak to the water department, Rand Water, Joburg Water and the City, and nobody can give a clear answer. Nobody gets back over three days. They don’t really know what the problem is.
So I said, “If that’s the case and you’ve got an interrupted water supply, then you need a borehole. In fact, every hospital in South Africa should have a borehole. Like every hospital, it should have a generator for surgery and ICU and for emergency.” So he said, “Look, yes, if you can go ahead and find and do a borehole for us we will be very, very grateful, because it’s not only us, That’s when I got a bigger shock.
He said, “It’s 12 areas around us that don’t have water.” I asked, “For the same period of time?” and he said, “Yes, it comes and it goes”.
He said, “People are actually coming to the hospital for the water, when we ourselves don’t have water. In the meantime, water tankers has come up and down, but it’s not enough. We need help – 30 000 litres a day in Rahima Moosa alone.” That’s when we stepped in and said we’d do the borehole. Our geologist, Dr Gideon Groenewald, actually spot-sighted the borehole from Namibia, and told us to go to a certain spot in the hospital. He was spot on, 18 000 litres per hour.
And then while we were there Helen Joseph [contacted us and] said, “Can’t you do the same thing for us? We’ve also got a problem.” Then it struck me that on May 12, we had sent water to Helen Joseph Hospital. So it seemed that the problem [had existed] longer than from May 19; it was from before that.
Of course, you have to be proactive. People have to understand disasters, they have to understand urgency. I always tell government: “Three things you don’t understand: urgency, emergency and disaster. That’s not in your vocabulary.”
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Trust me, I also live in the area and that problem has been one that has been many years in the making and happens regularly.
Gift of the to the Givers is an interesting organisation. My perception always was that you were the first guys on a plane when there was a foreign natural disaster. But now it seems as if your focus is squarely on South Africa.
Dr IMTIAZ SOOLIMAN: The problem was that the media covered only international trips. It always seemed that we didn’t do local stuff. The local projects were far bigger than the international stuff, but they were not fancy. They weren’t sensationalist, the simple stuff. So you didn’t get that much traction.
So in November 2016, I took an active decision to kill all international marketing. I didn’t kill the projects. I just killed the marketing and said, “We’ll increase the marketing on the local projects.” Soon after that in June/July 2017 came the Knysna fire. When the country, and especially the corporates, saw [our] capability locally, they stood up and started taking notice.
Soon after that – almost four years ago – we were supporting Sutherland and the Northern Cape with fodder just to help the animals and save the farmers.
And then in September/October Beaufort West said they’d no water. They called us in, Gideon Groenewald again did his magic. We found water and we started pumping water into the Gamka Dam pipeline into the centre of Beaufort West.
And then came 2018 and we helped Cape Town City for Day Zero. We moved in 300 containers of water from Durban, Joburg and other places in the country, by ship and by road into Cape Town.
While we were busy with that, Sutherland called and said, “Everything is collapsing here. Sheep are dying. We had 440 000 Merino sheep and the numbers are falling.” The numbers eventually fell to 30 000. Thousands of people were laid off. The sheep were dying and we moved in and drilled 233 boreholes to save the sheep and help with water in the area and also provide fodder.
While we were doing that, [we heard that] the area that had been neglected was the Eastern Cape. In 2019 we got a call from Makhanda in the drought area and we got involved with local support for Makhanda.
And of course in 2020 came Covid-19 – and that was a huge, huge intervention throughout the country. That’s when the entire country, all the corporates, everybody took notice of how strong we are locally. In fact, for the first time a lot of international organisations and companies started calling us.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: How do you pick the projects you get involved in?
Dr IMTIAZ SOOLIMAN: It’s very simple. For international, it’s easy. That’s the easiest one. You get a call. The head of state has to make an announcement to say, “We are in crisis. We need international support.” And then you see who the countries are that they normally deal with, and will the countries nearby manage. Is the disaster containable by just countries nearby helping? If it’s not, if it’s something really big, like the Haiti earthquake, like the tsunami of 2004, like the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, it’s in things like that when it’s very, very big – or the bomb ammunition explosion that took place in the Republic of Congo in 2012 – when you see big ones like that, you realise they’re not going to manage and you are on stand by. Inevitably it comes: “Please help.”
And now over the years, because we’ve built such a reputation, quite often the embassies of those countries call us directly and say, “We know what you guys are capable of, we’ve tracked you in the South African media for so many years, and we’ve got this problem and we’ve got that problem, and we’ve got this disaster. Can you help?” Quite often it comes from there.
Locally we managed the fire. In most cases, we wait for disaster management to call us. They tell us, “Look, we can put out the fire, but we need support for the firemen.” It was a big fire in Knysna. We supported 1 200 fire-fighters twice a day for three weeks. And then they would say, “Okay, now we need some help with housing or sheeting or food or this, that and the other.”
Disaster management would call us first, and quite often the community leaders themselves will call us. So when it comes to disasters, be they fire, rain, storms and massive destruction, we get calls. We can see it, we track it, it’s in our country. It’s easy to see what’s happening. And of course the big damage we had with when they had Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, with massive damage in the whole of KZN, we responded to all because it was massive damage. You didn’t need to wait for an invitation. You knew people needed help and it was easy to work it out. Of course we are on the ground in all countries, we are everywhere, everybody knows us.
And then there was the farmers’ drought, drought with the people hungry, hunger was blocked out. It was just huge. The calls come and because we move on the ground ourselves we can see how urgent the need is and where it is.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: How does your funding model work, and how many people are involved with Gift of the Givers?
Dr IMTIAZ SOOLIMAN: Locally we’ve got 90 full-time staff. Overseas altogether we’ve got about another 400. A large component of those staff are in the hospital that I run in the north of Syria; we’ve got 235 staff in that hospital. And then we’ve got staff in Yemen, in Malawi, in Somalia, in Zimbabwe and all over. In South Africa we have 90 full-time staff. Of course they are not staff, but for disasters we have medical and search-and-rescue volunteers. There are 220 of them on standby. We don’t need them every day. We need them when there’s a disaster. So we’ve got 220, and that number is probably going to go through the roof now after Covid-19. So many, many people are on standby and many people want to work with us in our nice, full-scale hospitals and want to work with us and travel with us.
So that number is a huge amount, and it’s across all disciplines – primary healthcare nurses, general practitioners, theatre nurses, ICU nurses, anaesthetists, orthopaedic surgeons, general surgeons, obstetricians, paediatricians, [physicians] in emergency medicine, pharmacists, dieticians. It’s a range of disciplines. We require all of those, depending on the type of disaster we respond to.
In terms of the funding model, there is no model. We don’t go for money. We don’t ask people for money. We just announce our projects and people come to us and say “We want to fund you.” We’ve done that for 29 years. We’ve never, ever gone to somebody and said, “Look, I’m phoning you, I’m sending you a brochure. I’m calling you, I need some help, we’re going door to door.” We don’t have any fundraisers. There’s nobody on the road. Nobody calls anybody.
But we’ve got a corporate and a government department manager. Corporates call him and say, “Look, we want to fund you, but can you give us something in writing as to what you guys do?” We do that. Then it’s: “Here’s so much money. Can you give us a report back as to what you’ve done with the money?” We’ve got somebody who deals with corporates, deals with government – not that we get money from government – but deals with corporates and gives them what they ask in terms of giving to fund a particular project. And because we’ve got 21 different types of projects, most corporates, especially since Covid-19, have been saying, you know what, you guys are a one-stop shop. You guys have a NPO status. You are a non-profit organisation. You guys have got disasters, you have education, you guys have a whole range of different things – it’s just easier to work with your guys.
NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Dr Imtiaz Sooliman. He’s the founder of Gift of the Givers.