Imtiaz Sooliman, of Gift of the Givers.
South Africans who voted for peace when the country transitioned from apartheid to democracy also halted the July 2021 civil unrest while “traitors” lit the powder keg of a population ravaged by poverty and depression in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
These same citizens have now expressed their desire to work together to bring the country’s economy back from the damaging effects of state capture and recent disasters.
This was the candid and hopeful analysis Gift of the Givers Foundation founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman shared with business leaders at a meeting in Durban recently to discuss the rebuilding of the province.
KwaZulu-Natal is still battling to recover from the pandemic, July 2021 civil unrest and the April 2022 floods which caused more than R17 billion in damage.
Sooliman described himself to business leaders as a “disaster tourist” who has visited “some of the most messed up places on Earth”. He said South Africa’s population had garnered a reputation for “resilience” and standing together when it really matters — in this case to rebuild the economy.
“I have been to places where people from the same religion, same colour, same race and same group tear each other apart. So, as a people, we are far better off as a country than many people all across the world and one of the things that I have confidence in is our resilience and our ability to do things together.”
Sooliman said the July 2021 unrest was sparked after just a few “traitors”, not most people, saw a weakness in the population and exploited it – the impact of Covid-19 when workers had lost jobs overnight and families lost many loved ones in a short space of time.
He said the country had not yet recovered from the impact of the pandemic as it had emerged with the “swathe of mental illness” which had predisposed people to joining the unrest in July 2021.
“It took a lot of lives at one time. But, secondly, you died alone. That was the fact that we haven’t recovered from — your child could not hold your hand … There were families that lost eight to 10 people in one week. Those kids have been cancelled. Businesses just closed overnight; jobs were cut off. They lost it overnight,” he said.
“We had airline managers and hotel managers calling us and saying, ‘We have a smart house, we have German cars. We’ve got kids in private schools. We had to take them out of school and home school. We can’t pay for the house and the cars. We have no food in the house, can you give us a food parcel?’”
Sooliman said the pandemic had devastated all sectors of society, from the affluent to the poor, and people still had not recovered from the debt incurred during that period.
“So, what’s the worst possible thing that could happen after Covid? Civil unrest in KZN in July 2021. Any small trigger when you have untreated mental illness, you are inviting a mighty explosion,” Sooliman said.
However, he said the majority had stood up to resist the civil unrest just as people had “held hands” in 1994 to choose forgiveness for the oppression and injustice of apartheid, rather than vengeance.
He said people had decided that “’we will not burn the country. We won’t harm anybody. We will hold hands and we’ll pull this together” and “that culture is still inside them”.
“Right now, people are dying of starvation in the Eastern Cape. Are they burning the roads, the houses, the schools? No, they aren’t doing that because it’s better for them to sit with difficulty. It’s never going to happen. Why did they not do that? Because of a great political history itself,” he said.
He said Nelson Mandela had instilled a spirit of peace and unity when he embraced the emblems of the oppressor, including its iconic sport, and wore a Springbok rugby jersey at the Rugby World Cup in 1995. This spirit had remained with the country, across racial barriers. Even after the July 2021 civil unrest and looting, perpetrators who were affected by the floods had been assisted by those who had been looted.
Sooliman shared an anecdote where an investor some years ago told him that South Africa was a “crazy country” with “crazy people”.
“I asked him, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘You guys fight about everything. But when it comes to common issues, important issues, you all stand together.’ And that’s the difference that we’re sitting here having this dialogue.”
Sooliman said he had been involved in 173 public engagements in 2022 and 145 so far this year.
“Everywhere I went, business people, doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, just anybody, was sitting and saying, ‘How can I make things better?’”
He said South Africa could learn a lesson from Syria where citizens had taken control of its assets as “the country does not belong to the government”.
“You know what, the situation, when you go, you’ll see the economy where the business people are driving the economy. Take a country like Syria, divided into two places. You’ve got assets in the south, and you’ve got three independent groups in the north — there are no governments,” Sooliman said.
“But there are functioning cities, there’s lights, there’s water, there’s roads, there’s buildings, there’s medical services. They [the citizens] took ownership of their life into their own hands.
“And if you can look at what happened to governance … the country does not belong to the government … And when we do that, we take ownership of fixing things,” Sooliman said.
He said the first part of progress and risk management was “positivity”.
“A positive mindset is the beginning of success … But, at the same time, things cannot be built overnight. It takes time. Government doesn’t have a solution for you,” he said.
Four important qualities were needed to drive the success of the country — spirituality, morality, values and ethics — and they were in evidence in the conciliatory response of people during the recent disasters.
“To prove the concept of 27 April 1994, to prove that what they did in 2021 was not according to their [the population’s] culture, on 20 March 2023 the same [instigators] said, ‘We are going to shut the country down, take part in the protests and rock the country now. If you don’t lock your shop, there is going to be looting,’” Sooliman said.
“In Inanda and KwaMashu all black people stood outside the malls and said, ‘Dare do what you did in 2021. We will stop you.’ And’ in 2021’ it wasn’t the defence force, it wasn’t the police, it was the taxi drivers who stopped the unrest … and that event showed you, they needed to move masses of people into the malls to show they had power. But they had no power.
“And, finally, in March 2023 it was exactly the same as it was [in 1994], the government, SANDF, the RTI, SAPS, security companies and the public — black, white, Indian, coloured and foreign nationals all stood together. And, after the last flood, whoever the people that were looted the year before are the ones that came to help. It was the same quality of no vengeance, no anger, across all sectors,” he said.