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Reneé Thompson, 43

Founder and managing director
Thompson Trust and Susters4Life
Worcester

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.

Author - Anita Makgetla
Tshepo Mathabatha, 38

Tshepo Mathabatha, 38

Having spent her formative years at a girls’ boarding school, the importance of sisterhood runs deep with Tshepo Mathabata. She seeks opportunities to uplift and empower women in multiple ways, including at her baking business Tea O’Clock, by serving on the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa and in her work as an etiquette coach. “I gravitate towards working with women,” she says.
Spending her childhood between a small village, a township and the bustling Johannesburg CBD, Mathabatha remembers the transition between spaces as a “big culture shock”.

“Coming from a village, you are used to brushing your teeth outside and using a long drop,” she says, reflecting on her move to boarding school in Bryanston at a young age. “If you don’t have anyone assisting you through the change, it can be tricky to navigate and your progress can be delayed.”

Mathabatha clearly remembers being taught basic etiquette, such as using cutlery, by the older girls at her new school. “They were like older sisters to me,” she says. “I realised that opportunities open up quicker when you’re aware of certain cultural practices.” Since then, Mathabatha has had a strong interest in communications and personal relations.

Now, through her work as an image consultant and etiquette coach, Mathabatha helps children from rural villages who have been granted scholarships adjust to their new life at private schools. She regularly holds drives for toiletries such as toothpaste and sanitary pads, and gives talks at local schools on how to use them correctly.

“It’s been so empowering, for me as well,” she says.

Mathabatha also has a strong entrepreneurial spirit, which was instilled in her by her family from a young age. When local shopkeepers would go on holiday over the December period, Mathabatha and her parents would run the shop for them. “We didn’t get to have fun during our holidays,” she laughs. “That was work time.”

As the chairperson of the Limpopo branch of the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa, Mathabatha prides herself on creating an environment for women to feel supported in the business world. “There aren’t enough safe spaces for women to be vulnerable in economics,” she says.

In her role, Mathabatha aims to connect women in business to each other, as well as offer guidance and inspiration. In 2018, when she noticed that many women she dealt with felt held back by a lack of funding, she set out to prove a point: “You only need R300 to start a business.”

Mathabatha spent R300 on ingredients and baked a batch of biscuits. “Within 30 minutes of posting my biscuits on Facebook, I was sold out,” she says. “And by the end of the month, I had two employees.”

Now Tea O’Clock sells at multiple retailers in Polokwane, employs delivery drivers and has a network of women who sell their biscuits. “Stop obsessing over people investing money in you,” she says. “Invest what you do have and just start.”

Mathabatha encourages women in South Africa to strive for independence. “Let’s stop fighting to have a seat at the table with the boys,” she says. “Let’s build our own table.”

Let’s stop fighting to have a seat at the table with the boys. Let’s build our own table.

Zubeida Jaffer, 63

Zubeida Jaffer, 63

“It’s very important to be entirely yourself and to get to know your own strengths,” says Zubeida Jaffer when asked what words of advice she wished she had heard as a young journalist in the 1980s. “Women must practise, practise, practise their craft. If they don’t do that, they will be mediocre,” Jaffer says.

An author and award-winning journalist, Jaffer has been writing and reporting in South Africa for 40 years and has attempted to codify her experience with the launch earlier this year of her company, Number10Publishers. With the help of her daughter, Ruschka, she refined the idea and readied herself for the publishing world. “I’d become aware that the creative is not at the centre of the business model. I can’t solve this problem for everybody, but perhaps I should solve this problem for myself,” she says. “Now if I sell a book, then I benefit. I don’t share it with a publisher or with a bookshop because we set up our own bookshop.

“All this was unknown territory for both me and my daughter and we learn every day. Our intention is to put whatever we learn at everybody’s disposal,” Jaffer says. Although Number10Publishers is currently not taking on any new publications, Jaffer offers a wealth of insight and experience from the industry to writers.

Jaffer has written three books, all life stories of South African women – including her own. In 2003 she published her memoir, Our Generation. Albie Sachs — former Constitutional Court judge and a writer himself — urged her to write and share her life story, and it came to fruition after years of work. “When I tried to write, I started getting nightmares and he said the time will come. It took me another 10 years or so and then I finally sat down and wrote it,” Jaffer remembers.

In 2008 Jaffer published Love in the Times of Treason: The Life Story of Ayesha Dawood, and in 2016 she published Beauty of the Heart, the biography of Charlotte Maxeke. Maxeke was South Africa’s first black woman graduate and she would have been 150 this year. “I must thank the family, especially Thulasizwe Makhanya, the great-grandnephew of mam’ Charlotte. I wrote it because I could see that it was unfair that this woman was written out of history and because I would really like everybody to know about her,” she says.

Jaffer’s own story in journalism began in 1980 when she took up a post at the Cape Times. She uncovered police murders across the Cape Flats and was arrested and tortured for her work. Jaffer was a member of the Independent Media Commission for the 1994 elections and thereafter pursued a master’s in journalism at Columbia University. Jaffer has lived through and participated in a changing journalism landscape across decades and regimes. “We’ve come a very long way and people — including me — are very worried about journalism. It’s not an easy time, but it’s nothing compared to what we had during apartheid,” she says. “I’m putting a focus on the importance of developing a new national narrative and that’s something I’m really keen about, and journalists are really important in this. They have to be part of developing a new national narrative that our children can grow up with,” she adds.

This new national narrative is the focus of one of her chapters in a new book she has written for and co-edited. The book is called Decolonising Journalism and her chapter focuses on the importance of South Africans feeling confident in their own skin and taking charge of their stories. “If you’re confused about your story or if you believe a story that’s been imposed on you, then you have a colonised mind,” Jaffer says.

Practise, practise, practise your craft – if you don’t, you’ll be mediocre.

Lindiwe Matlali, 41

Lindiwe Matlali, 41

Lindiwe Matlali is the founder and CEO of Africa Teen Geeks, the largest computer science non-profit organisation in Africa. The organisation aims to educate, inspire and equip young people with skills, resources and experience to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Her organisation aims to close the opportunity gap through quality education, and has raised funds to develop a coding and robotics curriculum to be taught as a compulsory subject for grade R through to grade 9. Africa Teen Geeks launched their STEM Digital Lockdown School three days after the lockdown was announced last year, reaching over 500 000 kids with live online classes. Matlali is also the founder and CEO of Apodytes (Pty) Ltd, an award-winning software development company that specialises in software development and game development, 3D animations, and simulations for training in the defence, transportation, mining, aerospace and education sectors.

Matlali is the youngest of seven children and was raised by her grandparents after her mother passed away when she was four years old. Her grandfather valued education and encouraged Matlali and her siblings to pursue their dreams, and reiterated that if they stayed in school, they would forget that they were orphans. Taking her grandfather’s words to heart, Matlali attended the University of Cape Town and then proceeded to pursue qualifications at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Columbia and Stanford universities. She hopes to emulate her grandfather’s influence on her by exposing orphans and poorer children to opportunities in STEM by showing how education can transform their lives.

With access to opportunities being a pertinent class issue in South Africa, Matlali is determined to break the cycle of poverty and to encourage innovation among the youth of the country. Many kids do not choose STEM, not because they lack ability, but rather due to a lack of support and exposure. Matlali recognises the need to raise young people who think differently about economic growth and to help them realise that they are the answer to creating the Africa they want and deserve. With large corporations tending to care more about efficiency innovation, which means reducing jobs and relying on automation, Matlali hopes to inspire a generation that is self-reliant and well equipped to create jobs for themselves.

Recently, Matlali won the World Economic Forum/Schwab Foundation 2020 Social Innovator of The Year award, which highlighted the fact that her work makes a global impact. The chance to take part in this event with her hero and role model, Dr Marian Croak, was a proud moment for Matlali as she got to prove that Africa has the talent — “what we lack is opportunity”, she says.

She urges the youth of South Africa to never underestimate their dreams. For young women looking to follow in her footsteps, Matlali’s advice is to “work hard and be so good that it’s impossible for people to ignore you. If you don’t have the connections, what you have is your gift. It worked for me and I know it will work for all of you.”

Work hard and be so good that it’s impossible for people to ignore you.

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