Opportunity alone does nothing – Phakeng

11 April 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photos Brenton Geach. Read time 4 min.
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng congratulates representatives of the 2018 and 2019 MMUF cohorts. They are (from left) Lizanne Thornton, Oliver Layman, Zahra Abba Omar and Aleya Banwari.

“An opportunity in and of itself produces nothing. It’s what you do with that opportunity that makes a difference.”

That was the essence of University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s message to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship’s (MMUF) 2019 cohort when she welcomed them to the programme on Monday, 8 April.

The five new fellows are Zahra Abba Omar, Glenn-Leigh Jantjies, Chandre Cupido, Oliver Layman and Lizanne Thornton.

“At the moment we celebrate the fact that you have an opportunity. Many years from now … we want to celebrate what the opportunity has produced,” said Phakeng.

“Let this opportunity … change lives, influence thinking and make things happen.”

She also used the occasion to congratulate 2018 fellows Aleya Banwari, Zoe Meiring, Angel Mokae and Eemaan Rahbeeni, all of whom are currently registered for their honour’s degrees.

Creating a legacy

The aim of the MMUF, which is funded by the AW Mellon Foundation in the United States, is to create a legacy of engaged and gifted scholars who will themselves one day become academics and further the aims of the fellowship by increasing and strengthening diversity among faculty in colleges and universities.

Opportunity alone does nothing – Phakeng
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng with new fellow Lizanne Thornton.

UCT became the MMUF’s first South African member institution in 2000–2001. To date, the programme has helped produce 17 PhDs at UCT.

Associate Professor Alan Cliff, interim dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development, said MMUF is a project of which they are particularly proud. According to Cliff, it affords fellows the “satisfaction, pleasure [and] prestige of getting your PhDs and becoming long-term associates of the academy”.

Thornton, who is doing a triple major in linguistics, German and English, said she is excited about the opportunity and will use her passion for languages at a grassroots level.

“I think there is a huge need [to make] education accessible … to help others feel empowered in their language so that they can reach places they didn’t think possible,” she said.


“This means someone saw something in me and they are willing to invest in me.”

Being selected as an MMUF fellow came as a surprise for Layman, who said that he believes it is the result of hard work paying off.

Creating welcoming spaces

“This means someone saw something in me and they are willing to invest in me,” he said.

Opportunity alone does nothing – Phakeng
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng and new fellow Oliver Layman.

The third-year politics and sociology major will use his research in areas such as black radicalism and coloured identity to help create more inclusive narratives and spaces.

“I would like to showcase the narratives of those who are forgotten in our history … and by doing so, I aim to show people who feel alienated in spaces like this that they are welcome.

“Not a lot of people of colour see themselves in spaces like this, so that’s what I hope to achieve through the backing of Mellon Mays.”

After the induction of the 2019 cohort, MMUF fellows, their friends and families were treated to a performance of the celebrated play Waiting for Thandiwe.

Lulama Masimini, who plays the frenzied Lulu in the production, is a UCT graduate and was part of the first MMUF cohort.

He had the audience, including Phakeng, in stitches while also reflecting on the identity issues highlighted by the play.

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