Young people give me hope, says incoming DVC

10 February 2016 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo supplied.
Consolidate and sustain: Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng joins UCT on 1 July as the incoming deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation.
Consolidate and sustain: Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng joins UCT on 1 July as the incoming deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation.

Having started school under a tree in Marapyane village in Mpumalanga in 1972, Mamokgethi Phakeng never envisaged herself as a professor; there was no role model to fire her imagination or kindle a desire.

It's not that she didn't have fine role models growing up, says UCT's incoming deputy vice-chancellor (research and internationalisation), a respected mathematics education scholar who will join the university on 1 July ahead of incumbent DVC Professor Danie Visser's retirement in December.

Her mother, Wendy, went back to school (in uniform) to do grade 7 after she'd had three children. (Mamokgethi is the second.)

"I was encouraged by my late father, Frank Lentsoe Mmutlana, who was high-school educated and wanted my mother to continue her education. Education was a priority at home, mainly because of my dad. I was just so happy that she studied with us and helped me with my homework!"

Phakeng excelled academically, majoring in mathematics at the University of Bophuthatswana (now part of North-West University). It was a language she understood and loved.

As a student sitting at a coffee shop or waiting for her next lecture, Phakeng would scribble theorem proofs on her denim jeans and backpack.

"I was truly a boring chick – no parties and no boyfriends," she recalled. "I spent time in the library or playing sport. I was not date-able."

But it wasn't all work; in that time Phakeng represented her university as a ballroom and Latin American dancer. ("If there's a good partner in the room I can still get to the floor.")

Her bachelor's degree led her to Wits for postgraduate study and a doctorate in 2002 when she became the first black African woman in South Africa with a PhD in mathematics education, "which tells you what the state of maths education was back then", says the 49-year-old mother, stepmother and adoptive mother of five.

Research and transformation

In Sweden for a conference when the news of her UCT appointment was announced in January, Phakeng, currently Vice-Principal of Research and Innovation at UNISA, was upbeat about her new job.

"Given what UCT is, my view is that the university should be the go-to place when it comes to relevant, responsive research that contributes to the growth and wellbeing of the country and continent.

"I hope to consolidate and sustain that [UCT's] performance while transforming the cohort of researchers to ensure we don't only lead when it comes to research productivity and influence, but also when it comes to researching transformation and transforming research."

Phakeng will work alongside Visser for the first six months, to get to know the turf, "important because it will help me serve better".

The decision to move south and make her academic home at UCT was also made easier by timing.

"My term at UNISA was coming to an end and I needed a different experience, a new challenge."


A National Research Foundation B2-rated researcher (with plenty of publications and citations in her area of research), Phakeng regards the rating as her best academic achievement to date.

"It came only 10 years after my PhD."

The achievement is set against a backdrop of several other important research and community work awards.

The big one is the 2011 National Science and Technology Forum award for innovative research on teaching and learning mathematics in multilingual classrooms. In 2013 CEO magazine called her the most influential woman in education and training in South Africa and in 2014 she was named the Most Influential Woman in Academia in Africa.

Those who have met Phakeng talk of her enthusiasm, energy and personal style. It's a particularly charismatic combination for young people and it's the youth with their teeming ideas and get-up-and-go attitude that inspire her.

"Young people come first for me; some remind me of myself many years ago and others give me hope. They are our future."

She's very active on social media and welcomes any platform to engage with them - the more interactive the communication, the better.

Besides people and ideas, causes absorb her.

Phakeng started the Adopt-a-learner Foundation in 2004 to ensure that gifted young black people in townships and rural areas aren't lost to the country.

"I started the foundation because being the first to achieve anything is a responsibility to ensure that one is not the last," she added.

"Human capital development is at the centre of what I do – all of my initiatives are about developing people and inspiring them to be the best in whatever they choose to be."

Transformation and education

Reflecting on student activism around inclusive and free higher education, Phakeng said the #FeesMustFall campaign signaled opportunity and danger.

"It may be the beginning of the rise, or fall, of South African public higher education as we know it.

"Depending on how government responds we may see the emergence of a stronger private higher education sector and thus the beginning of a thriving parallel higher education system like what we have in basic education: one for the poor and the other for the rich. This is undesirable."

She added: "The #FeesMustFall campaign is about free education for all, which is essentially about ensuring that higher education is not commodified. The government's response, however, is about free education for the poor through NSFAS, which suggests that those who can afford it must pay.

"My concern is that while the government has increased NSFAS funding and given additional money to universities to deal with the 0% increase in fees for 2016, it is not responding to the real issue that the students are raising – ending the commodification of public higher education."

But more than that, it's also about basic education, says Phakeng.

"We need a plan or road map that indicates how we can achieve free education for all in South Africa. Such a plan should start by immediately ensuring free education for the poor at all levels. We also need a study that investigates the success and limitations of the no-fee schools since inception in 2007."

Spectre of poverty

But behind her ardent support of youth and their education - and behind her own achievements – is the spectre of poverty.

"The idea of 'lack' just scares me. I had enough of it as a young person and so I work hard to make sure that I never go back there - and in the process I try to protect as many young people as I can from poverty."

Off duty, Phakeng believes in healthy living (diet, gym and walking or running) but loves to cook up traditional favourites: cow heels, chicken feet, oxtail, brown pap and dumplings.

Music energises her. She has more than 5 000 tracks on her iTunes library (American hip hop artist Talib Kweli is a favourite, she sings along to Shaggy's Ghetto Child and bops to Brenda Fassie and Beyoncé) - and she can still salsa up a storm.

Is there anything she doesn't do? She doesn't drink alcohol, not even wine at the dinner table.

"I think I surprise people, because they expect me to be something that I am not," she says, amused.

Her tattoos, for example, are immediate conversation starters. The words "Believe" on her left arm and "Forgiven" on her right reflect the cornerstones of her Christian faith, centring and guiding her.

She's also a traveller.

"My husband Lucky and I visit at least one island a year. We have visited many places but India remains my favourite. I love its energy, the sense of urgency and how people just get on with life despite their limited resources."

A voracious consumer of literature, she takes any opportunity she can to tap into

"I'm addicted," she says. "And there are books everywhere in my house."

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