Whenever Imtiaz Sooliman writes letters, he always begins with the gentle words: Greetings of peace, says Janet Smith.
And His letters from Gift of the Givers are worth reading. They drop quietly into your inbox, but you can imagine that if Sooliman were penning them by hand and posting them, say, 100 years ago from a warzone, they would have the same truth. The same warmth. The same stamp of kindness.
This is the opening paragraph of his latest letter, sent on Tuesday:
“Hunger, suffering and immeasurable difficulty has not been restricted to one community only following the 18-week labour strike on the platinum belt.
“Whites and blacks, South Africans, our people, are suffering equally, directly or indirectly. White children and black children are hungry and collapsing; white families and black families have sold personal possessions that have taken years to acquire, at a great financial loss to themselves; some can’t pay rents, others cannot pay bonds; cars are lying idle as there are no funds for fuel; cupboards are bare, people are depressed, broken and hungry. Black and white are equally affected.”
Sooliman’s letter gives the lowdown. It moves pictures into your head. Over the past fortnight, Gift of the Givers has helped 7 000 families in the Rustenburg area with food parcels, handed out 13 000 hot meals and given 1 000 among the needy medical assistance.
This has been a R3.4 million assistance campaign to people who can’t yet give up their fight for a R12 500 wage: the number symbolising their martyrs at Marikana. Some of the people say to abandon the battle now would be like turning their backs on the bloodshed of their brothers. But the political edge – and even the reasons for the poverty – is not why Gift of the Givers is there.
While it, and not big capital, was looking after those in distress on the periphery of the mines, it was also wrapping up operations after Super Typhoon Haiyan swept happiness away in the Philippines. It was in Somalia, where the hunger crisis is as cataclysmic now as it was in the 1970s, but without as much attention. It has been in Zimbabwe and Limpopo, helping the poor there after the floods. It has been the only link Yolande Korkie has had with her kidnapped husband, Pierre, in Yemen.
And Sooliman’s organisation was right here at The Star in the centre of Joburg last week too, coralling homeless men, women and children waiting in long lines around the blocks of Pritchard and Sauer from late afternoon.
Working with our paper’s Operation Snowball, Sooliman’s organisation helped more than 2 000 people from about 6pm, just as the chill crept in. The disabled were brought to the front of the queue, some without limbs, in battered wheelchairs. Then the elderly came, then the women and children.
Babies’ lashes fluttered, eyes wide, at the operations whirling around them.
Then the men, who had stood patiently until they were told they could move forward, stepped into our warehouse in an orderly line.
My children and other children were in the lines of volunteers who handed out food, clothing and blankets for more than two hours with the gracious from Gift of the Givers. The upliftment of volunteering happened in different ways, mostly through embraces and fists against fists.
If you drive through the city streets at night, you’ll pass the dormitories of the pavements. Cold bodies, wrapped against the concrete, lie side by side in the shadows.
It’s not quite Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. We don’t yet have shacks on the kerbside, but it’s hard. These are the people Sooliman’s zeal helps.
“The wheel of fate turns,” wrote Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak Al-Jerrahi in the Irshad: Wisdom of a Sufi Master. It’s one of Sooliman’s favourites. “None of us knows what is to be: what great wealth may be doomed to extinction or how many, now despised, may rise to heights of dignity and honour.”
If you haven’t done it before, please join the good people next time. See what happens to your heart.
* Janet Smith is executive editor of The Star.