With more than 24 years of experience across different sectors in a number of local and international organisations, Eltena Rethman is an expert in the NGO landscape.
Having grown up in a township in a working-class family, Rethman’s circumstances were anything but easy. As a child, she lived and witnessed trauma and abuse, which she believes allowed her to develop empathy.
Seeing the way her “swartskaapie” (black sheep) brother was treated by her family and community, and his subsequent descent into drug abuse and then prison, is an experience that shaped her future.
Later on in her career, Rethman would go on to run counselling and rehabilitative programmes in juvenile prison.
Today, Rethman heads up training and communications at Community Chest of Western Cape. Heading up both departments does not come without a packed schedule, but this suits Rethman, as she says she thrives on adrenaline and pressure and enjoys a good challenge.
Most days, Rethman’s day begins at 3am when her family is asleep. As a mother of two boys, Rethman keeps firm to her commitment not to take out her laptop when her children are awake.
“Being in humanitarian aid, I don’t want my children to say I had so much time for other people and I never had time for them,” she explains.
Initially without a matric, Rethman took on a part-time job to complete her schooling. She has never stopped studying since. She holds various qualifications in education, business management and development studies.
Now at age 47, Rethman is completing her master’s in education and was selected to present at a conference in Senegal later this year. Her findings have already been published in an early childhood development book, and she hasn’t even completed her degree.
Rethman strongly believes that education is one of the variables — but not the only one — that can change your life.
In her twenties, bright-eyed and eager to see the world, Rethman quit her job and took up au pairing in Belgium. The first of many trips abroad, she says travel opened her mind and changed her worldview.
Rethman hopes that girls from townships can get the opportunity to travel and have access to life-changing experiences. For her, travel and experience are other important variables: “As much as education and knowledge shapes who we are, your environment is your biggest teacher.”
During her honours degree, Rethman became blind in her left eye. She then had to learn to adapt to her world as a partially-sighted woman. While this was difficult, she realised that her adversities are her strengths and this only whetted her appetite to do more.
In the future, Rethman hopes to achieve her doctorate in education. She also aims to influence decision-making at a societal level, particularly for women like her. She envisions collaborating with other successful women to form a mentoring and support network to make meaningful change.
Rethman hopes this network can give women from marginalised backgrounds and women with disabilities access to resources and a safe space to develop emotionally, psychologically and physically into their best selves.
“I want to see other women rise above their circumstances and environments, whether it’s gender-based violence and abuse or their home situation,”
Rethman is driven to open doors for these women in townships, providing them with the support she needed when she was younger.