Indeed, mankind is in loss,
Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.
Why do we all love a hero? Maybe it’s because we are all fundamentally good natured, a strong “fitrah”.
Why are most of our heroes dead? Or fictional? Or distant? I don’t have a clear answer for this, but there are very few people celebrated as living heroes. Acknowledging a living hero would compel us to commit to him, or his cause. A dead or distant hero only requires our nostalgia, not any real effort. A hero that is alive is hard to dramatize with great tales that preserve only their best, and exaggerate.
One of my own living heroes, maybe one of my biggest, is Hoosen Essof. Hoosen was, until last week, the head of SANZAF Gauteng. He has resigned after 20 years with the organisation on account of him soon relocating, for a while.
The first time I met Hoosen was in my first year of work. I had heard of SANZAF but was not too familiar with the organisation. What was immediately striking to me about Hoosen was his composure. I was fresh out of university, still with a fair amount of ideological arrogance and a narrow, mostly untested perspective. Most damagingly I had the familiar sense of bewilderment that all young adults have, how to mediate an adult life that requires pragmatic compromise whilst still retaining some pious aspirations.
Hoosen engaged with me through all this noise, as an adult, as an equal, without any condescension or resistance. The ability to sincerely engage others is something I have seen as one of Hoosen’s most admirable traits over the many years since then. Whether speaking to a donor, a recipient, a board member, a work colleague or a newly met stranger, Hoosen’s manner is consistently warm without being sentimental, engaging without being imposing, and always, always stimulating.
Hoosen is the consolidated individual, one of a rare and privileged breed who has both found and lives his reason for existence. He has a firm faith, a natural trust in God, and a humble spirit, completely devoted to uplifting those in need. He shines through the qualities of the sunnah, he is innovative, consultative, strategic, tactical, he is sincere, he is inspirational, he is respectful and he is even tempered.
I cannot see how anyone without this firmness of faith would be able to do the work he does. As the head of a religious charity, there are two main stakeholders that need to be managed, donors and recipients. Donors are rightfully demanding in their expectations of how funds are applied, recipients are by definition in dire need. A faith based charity brings with it the additional fervor of religious zeal, not to mention the specific requirements of the religious law. Hoosen was able to manage all sides, with more success than I would have expected of many. In spite of modernising procedures, he was always able to elevate the necessary sense of humanity required in this work.
Another aspect I greatly admired about Hoosen was his appreciation for ideas, he had an ever-open mind to listen to a new idea, or input on an existing one, regardless of the quality of this input (I know this because he was ever patient with my genuine and abundant naivete). From attending a course in business school, reading about social enterprise in Bangladesh, and speaking to anyone who had any ideas on social upliftment, Hoosen was tireless in his curiosity. This was what set him ( & SANZAF) apart in his role, his pioneering spirit.
Of all of SANZAF’s various drivers, the one that captured me as an everlasting loyalist is their mission for their work to be about development welfare, not just welfare, bringing to mind the incident where the Prophet SAW gave a needy person an axe to become a producer, not to remain a recipient. It is this mission statement that drives Hoosen’s enthusiasm and energy, in his time at SANZAF great strides have been made, and we have witnessed an organisation grow by aspiring according to the Prophets words “He whose two days are equal in achievement is the sure loser” .
Development work needs the even temperament and long distance mindset, results are slow and incremental, but sustainable and exponential. This also means that highlights are not as frequent, and spotlights not as bright, but it does achieve enduring transformation of recipients.
A leader is of course only the face of a much larger force, the people he works with, and the context in which he operates. Hoosen did not merely understand this, he imbibed it, continuously developing and caring for those he worked with. He nurtured relationships outside of the organisation, across traditional divides, with mainstream media, universities, think tanks and thought leaders. This all came naturally to the man who was guided by the steady compass of his divine mission.
Some of the SANZAF initiatives I am familiar with include the bursary program (90%+ pass rates), Entrepreneur Program (60%+ success rates) and the vegetable garden projects. All of these have as their underlying aim to transform people from being zakat recipients to being zakat donors, and have successfully achieved this. This is not Hoosen’s sole doing, but as the leader of an organisation he has played an invaluable role in supporting and co-ordinating the teams that have given life to these programs.
I have had the unique but not exclusive privilege of observing the board that Hoosen reports to, some of whom comprise the founding members of the organisation, and it is evident that Hoosen epitomises the ethos of SANZAF. This is an ethos of taqwa above all else, but also progress, much of what SANZAF has pioneered will embed itself in our community as the norm in times to come. This includes BEE accreditation, publishing of audited financials within 60 days on its website, NQF certified training courses, industry expert led bursary interviews, industry expert led entrepreneur evaluations, public education courses on zakat, individual case monitoring to transform recipients to independence, open door policy to the public to discuss any SANZAF/zakat related topic.
From a personal point of view I will remain always indebted to Hoosen, for showing me that heroism is possible in real life, without a cape, without the generous blur of nostalgia. But mostly I am grateful for how he made me feel, him, a real life hero, speaking to me as an apparent equal. I disappointed him continuously. In engaging with me Hoosen ignored the fact that I always came up short both in intent and execution, he ignored my deliberate and inexcusable neglect, he never showed fatigue from entertaining my short lived thoughts, my deliberate and unapologetic avoiding of meetings. In a sense I think Hoosen is able to tread so well in personal relationships because he looks through the personal particulars of a person, he looks through everything in its tangible form and keeps his sights on the Divine. With his eyes on Allah, Ahad (the unitary), and Samad (the constant), the frustrations and joys of life are framed in their rightful place.
It is this firm and natural understanding of his purpose that reflects in Hoosen’s life, he never needs to manipulate, cajole, or pander, because his aim is higher than the immediacy of the short term, and his mission is larger than the people he meets. Working with a person or group of people that espouse your ideals, and share your perspective is perhaps lifes greatest joys. Words fall far short to describe the sense of intimacy borne out of a meeting of minds, but this is what I found in Hoosen and those around him.
Fortunately for us all, Hoosen, you leave behind a battalion of equally great heroes in your team, and the ever wise board behind them. Everything I have written about you is applicable equally if not more to those who work with your, the staff and board of SANZAF.
Hoosen, my hero: