High-school learners in Cape Town were given ringside seats to an intimate in-person dialogue with the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who led the youth in attendance on a journey of some of the key lessons she has learned in her life.
Professor Phakeng was the guest speaker at an intergenerational dialogue event on 7 March. It was the latest session in a dialogue series that started in 2021, aimed at proactively addressing the rising number of teenage pregnancies and gender-based violence incidents prevalent during restrictions at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The initiative is a collaboration between the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the National Department of Education and several other development partners. It is being presented as a series of online talks where young people are encouraged to talk openly and freely about the issues they are dealing with.
Last week’s session, held at Oaklands High School in Lansdowne, saw about 80 learners in attendance, from Oaklands, Manenberg and Garlandale high schools. The facilitator was Matshepo Dibetso from the Agape Youth Movement.
Opportunities are everywhere
Phakeng stressed to the audience of young learners the importance of identifying and grabbing the opportunities that come their way.
“I look back at those who had the same opportunity as I did, but we grabbed the opportunity differently.”
“Each one of us gets opportunities even if you grew up as I did,” she said. “We can get the same opportunities but use them differently. I look back at those who had the same opportunity as I did, but we grabbed the opportunity differently. My mother was a domestic worker. Who would have thought that a child of a domestic worker could be the vice-chancellor?”
Phakeng said that she realised from a young age that her future was in her own hands. “I didn’t worry much about being cool at the time. I knew that I didn’t want to stay in poverty forever. Sometimes we just ate pap and [drank] water. We grab opportunities differently or even not at all. Wherever you go there is an opportunity. Always put your best foot forward.”
The learners asked Phakeng a range of questions covering a variety of topics, such as peer pressure, bullying and teenage pregnancy.
“A boyfriend says to you let’s get down with it. It’s okay not to be cool when you are young. I was boring when I was young and I was undatable. Why? Because I was sick of poverty. I didn’t want to waste time. I’m 55 and [this is] the cool that lasts longer!” she said.
“You must find a way to speak to yourself. I tell myself that I am enough. I remind myself of that.”
“When I see a schoolgirl who is pregnant, I wonder about how it affects her present and her future. My heart goes out to these young girls, and I wonder if it was their choice. Children are beautiful [but] you have to be ready for parenthood … You have to think about whether you are ready to be a parent because it is not a part-time job.
“If you have unprotected sex, then the risk of pregnancy is there. Ask yourself: Do I want to engage with anyone that deeply or do I choose one person later? Who do I give myself to? My advice is to delay your first sexual encounter. You make decisions for yourself. You can always say no.
“Also, peer pressure never ends, even for a 50-year-old. You must find a way to speak to yourself. I tell myself that I am enough. I remind myself of that.
“Don’t think that peer pressure goes away. You have to be focused. You should always keep your moments of power, those times when you felt strong, smart and powerful.”
Use failures as lessons
Phakeng also extolled the benefits of choosing a teetotal lifestyle: “I don’t drink alcohol. I told myself that I do not want to. I saw what alcohol did in the townships where I grew up.
“People say to me, ‘It’s impossible to live in Cape Town and not drink’, and I do host people who drink.”
But she is clear in her mind that she is enough – without alcohol. Abstaining from alcohol does not mean you are not “cool”, she explained.
“Failure teaches you very important lessons. When it happens don’t stop and think that it’s the end. Look for the lesson.”
What keeps you motivated and focused, her audience asked.
“I loved school. I was scared of poverty. I would sit and watch what was going on in the township. In my head I used to build images of where I would live and what I would eat, like ice cream. My desire was to not live the life I was living. I wanted a better life, and I knew I had to do it,” she said.
Having dreams and ambition are important. “You have to think of yourself in the future. I knew that without education I couldn’t do it. Who will you be in the future? Will you be able to help your family? Will you be able to take care of yourself?”
And failure doesn’t have to mean the end of those dreams. “If things don’t work out, stop and reflect. Failure teaches you very important lessons. When it happens don’t stop and think that it’s the end. Look for the lesson.
“Use failures as lessons and move on.”
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