Founder and chair of disaster relief group ‘Gift Of The Givers’, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman has won the prestigious award for ‘South African of the Year’ presented by the Daily Maverick newspaper. 

The Indian-Origin had started the foundation in 1992. Since then, the group has been responsible for the delivery of life-saving goods and on-the-ground support to innumerable people, collectively valued at some R3.2 billion, in more than 43 countries across the globe, including South Africa.

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The philanthropist was inspired by his spiritual teacher whom he met in Turkey in 1991. It was his divine instruction to him to start an organisation for ‘unconditional’ humanitarian benefit for all. 

He told the Daily Maverick, “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.'”

Speaking of his childhood, he recalled how he used to help out at his parents’ grocery and clothing shop and was always a disciplined child. He later finished high school in Durban and qualified as a medical doctor at the then University of Natal Medical School. 

The 59-year-old also had a brief political stint as the head of the African Muslim Party which contested the 1994 elections, about which he said, “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.”

His foundation’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the lockdown, has grown sporadically. The group has provided over 400,000 food parcels so far, and its efforts are only expanding with time. “We’ve been involved in all the waves, we continue to be involved, we are going non-stop,” he said, even as he underwent two heart operations this year. 

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Sooliman’s work and social service has not just earned him respect and admiration of thousands, but also several awards and accolades, including the presidential Order of Baobab (silver), and the 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. 

At the beginning of its journey, ‘Gift of the Givers’ had started with providing tents, clothes and food for those impacted by natural disasters and conflict around the world. Today, its efforts span a wide arena of humanitarian and relief services, even, for instance, producing pellets for sheep feed to help struggling farmers in the Sutherland area. 

Sooliman, father of five children, says that instead of looking at what ‘can’t’ be done, he chooses to look at what ‘can’ be done – and this is where you can make a difference.

“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, he tells the Daily Maverick.