Like many South Africans, Reneé Thompson was raised in a strong, woman-led family. Between her widowed mother and a close circle of aunts, she learnt the strength and determination of women to build collectively for the benefit of themselves, their children and the greater community. With that foundation, it is no surprise that her career has become more and more centred on women and community building.
Thompson began her working life as a civil servant in Cape Town. After 16 years, and having attained a senior position in the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, she decided to return to academia and non-governmental work. Now, alongside completing her PhD in public development and management, she runs her own consultancy called Thompson Trust, which specialises in parliamentary monitoring, government and regulatory affairs, stakeholder management and communications.
Alongside her professional and academic pursuits, her passion project is the NGO called Susters4Life, which she founded with her sisters in 2019 in Worcester, where the Thompson sisters spent part of their childhood. Susters4Life focuses on the empowerment and up-skilling of women in the community, with a special focus on women who are escaping abusive and exploitative environments and living situations.
The NGO provides a number of programmes that focus on empowerment and education. It also offers trauma counselling, a 24/7 WhatsApp support line, advocacy and special interest lobbying. By way of up-skilling, Susters4Life has programmes that include small-scale production of goods such as reusable pads and masks (projects that include sewing and fabric printing), soap making and professional mentoring, with a focus on entrepreneurial practices and self-sustainability. Together, these different programmes seek to create spaces of safety, collaboration, healing and community for women who are marginalised by their circumstances.
Partnerships with Brother printers and Elna sewing machines have given the Susters4Life participants access to the tools needed to learn a skill and earn a living. During the pandemic, these partnerships, and the resources they offered the organisation, were especially effective.
The provision of domestic sewing machines that the women could take home meant the sewing programme could be decentralised to accommodate working from home, and still provide women the structure and means for income generation that is so critical to their survival. In addition to producing masks and reusable sanitary pads, the women could take on piece work and alterations for additional streams of income. Upcoming partnerships include the piloting of a data-less personal security app that seeks to fight gender-based violence through collective engagement.
Ultimately, the work Thompson does through Susters4Life is about women relying on women to collectively circumvent the structures oppressing and inhibiting them. By creating the networks of support, empowerment and governance that centre women’s perspectives, she believes that we can overcome all societal ills and attain the quality of life we all deserve.
Reneé Thompson’s inspiration lies in the strength and determination of women to build collectively for the benefit of themselves, their children and the greater community.