Phakeng comfortable with being ‘an acquired taste’

02 July 2018 | Story Bongekile Macupe Photo Je’nine May.
Prof Phakeng never thought the VC’s job was for “people like me”, but she’s accepted the challenge in recognition of the importance of UCT in the higher education space.
Prof Phakeng never thought the VC’s job was for “people like me”, but she’s accepted the challenge in recognition of the importance of UCT in the higher education space.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng wanted to be an A-rated internationally recognised scientist. She never had ambitions of becoming a vice-chancellor (VC).

On July 1, Phakeng will take over from Dr Max Price as the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT).

“Being VC was not something that I thought people like me do,” Phakeng said. “This is not something that I worked for and said, ‘I want to be that.’”

The university announced her appointment in March, saying she had received overwhelming support from the university community. And before her appointment was formally confirmed, there was an outpouring of jubilation on social media, where Phakeng — or @FabAcademic — has a huge following and is a much-loved figure.

During the interview she throws in words like “spicy” and does not seem to take herself too seriously.

Phakeng says some people have said that she is an “acquired taste” and she has accepted that view.

“I’m outspoken, I’m an individual from the way I dress, how I go about my life, how I run my career. I’m not your mainstream person, I just do me,” she says.

When she was recruited by former Unisa vice-chancellor Barney Pityana in 2008, her colleagues at the University of the Witwatersrand wrote off her academic career.

But Phakeng’s academic career did not die, it grew.

“Right now I’m a B1-rated scientist, which is a borderline A. So I’m just at the verge of A and here I am taking a management position. There is no way I’ll get my dream,” she jokes.

Phakeng says she did not consider applying for the UCT vice-chancellor job; it was “unthinkable”. She had to be persuaded by a professor whom she holds in high regard.

“He said to me, ‘I know it’s hard. It’s a tough job and I know that the recruitment process is going to be difficult. But I want you to know that we want you to do it, not for you — it’s not about you ­— it is about us. It is about UCT, it is about the country and it is about the continent.’ And that got to me,” says Phakeng.

“And I thought about this and I thought, I do care about this country, I know the importance of UCT in the higher education space and I know why UCT should succeed, and it is in that context that I agreed.”

Phakeng says she knew being vice-chancellor was not going to be good for her personally. She knew it would be stressful, and she expected there would be many times when she would regret taking the job. But “it feels like a ‘thuma mina’ moment”, a reference to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first State of the Nation address, in which he used the Hugh Masekela song as a call to arms.

Yet Phakeng is a realist. She is aware that the road ahead will not be an easy ride. She knows that during her tenure she will deal with student protests and will be forced to make unpopular decisions in the interests of the university and students.

“As to whether there will be protests — of course. As to whether they will make me uncomfortable, of course they will. Will they call me a sellout? I’m sure they will. I’m just being real. They will call me a coconut, they will say to me I’m caressing the boardroom, they will say I’m selling out to white people, I’m a puppet,” says Phakeng.

“I’m aware that those things will happen, even as I do my best to work in their interest.

“Let’s face it, when you are a student you don’t always know everything that is in your interest. Some things are in your interest and at that point in time you might not understand they are in your interest and you may just oppose them and fight them. I understand that.

“My hope is that students will leave this place as graduates and maybe five or 10 years later they will look back and say, ‘We are glad she did that.’”

Phakeng says the last thing she wants to see happening under her leadership is students getting criminal records in the name of protest.

“What students don’t understand is the minute they down tools we are already having diarrhoea. The minute students stop going to class, as management, we are in a panic.”

There are powerful ways of protesting without breaking the law, she says, “and the only reason I don’t want them to break the law is because they get themselves into difficult situations. I don’t want any of our students to have a criminal record. I know the consequences of getting a criminal record,” she says.

Phakeng is also aware that she is walking into a space where some academics have already ruled her out and do not think highly of her.

In October an email was sent to members of the university council, professors and alumni alleging that Phakeng’s qualifications were fake and cast doubt on her integrity.

Phakeng is not fazed. “I’m not expecting everyone to like me, I’m not money … I do understand that, even as I start, there are people who want to collapse my leadership in six months. But I take courage in the fact that there are enough people who want us to work together to continue to make this university great,” she says.

She is also aware that her leadership will be put under a microscope because she is a black woman. People expect black women to be perfect and not make mistakes, she says.

There are things for which Price would not have been criticised but she would be “simply because I’m a woman and I’m black”.

“I’m accepting that and I’m hoping that people who are looking from afar will understand all of that. If they don’t, all I need is enough people to move forward with and we will make a difference as we move forward,” she says.

But Phakeng believes that because she has worked as an academic it will be easier for her to relate to academics. She knows the difficulties in that space.

She trusts that her work with young people will help her to build a relationship with her students and her experiences of growing up poor in a township will make it easy for her to relate to employees such as cleaners and says this relationship will come naturally to her because of her upbringing.

She is not shy to admit that she is scared of what lies ahead.

“Damn! I’m human, man. There are days when I’m very scared. And I’ve accepted the fact that it is okay to be scared and there are many things that are going to scare me in this journey and so every day I pray for courage and wisdom and humility because I need that,” she says.

And when she finally vacates the office, Phakeng wants to be remembered for having changed the institutional culture at UCT.

“I hope our institutional culture is much more welcoming and inclusive in the next five years. I hope UCT is much more visible in the communities that we serve,” she says. “I want perceptions about UCT to change and that we are not seen as a place on a hill that is inaccessible and only for a certain group.”

And UCT must remain in the top 200 rated universities in the world, of course.

This article first appeared in Mail & Guardian.

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