Admin assistant by day, researcher by night

11 December 2023 | Story Thandile Xesi. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 7 min.
Overcoming obstacles: Liziwe Futuse will graduate with her PhD in African Languages and Literature on 14 December.
Overcoming obstacles: Liziwe Futuse will graduate with her PhD in African Languages and Literature on 14 December.

In the midst of her demanding day job as an administrative assistant at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) School of Languages and Literatures, Liziwe Futuse’s family’s unwavering support proved to be the bedrock of her PhD journey and contributed immensely to her success.

Reflecting on their unconditional love and constant encouragement, Liziwe said: “I’m truly blessed to have so many people in my corner. My mom, sisters, husband, and children have been a constant source of motivation and inspiration. Their support has been invaluable, and I’m truly grateful for their unwavering belief in me.”

Her supervisor, Dr Tessa Dowling, who had the privilege of guiding Liziwe’s academic journey from her master’s to her PhD, said she is particularly impressed by Liziwe’s openness to feedback and her willingness to incorporate constructive criticism into her research.

“Her willingness to take criticism is one of her most endearing and positive characteristics, and for a supervisor this is music to the ears,” Dr Dowling said.

Liziwe, who hails from Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) in the Eastern Cape, is on the cusp of realising her dream, which is to become an academic in the department where she’s spent a significant portion of her career working as an administrative assistant. Come 14 December, she will take to the stage in the Sarah Baartman Hall and accept her hard-earned PhD in African Languages and Literature. The occasion marks the culmination of years of dedication and perseverance.

Thandile Xesi (TX): Share some insights into your professional development journey, before joining UCT and during your time here.

Liziwe Futuse (LF): Before coming to UCT, I held a position as a secretary at the Law department at Rhodes University for eight years. The role was primarily focused on administrative tasks related to undergraduate and postgraduate courses, including but not limited to organising course material, managing student enquiries, and coordinating communication between the faculty and students.

I joined UCT in 2005 as an administrator for the School of Economics. After five years, I was promoted to a higher pay grade and moved to the Statistical Sciences department. There, I worked for six years before transferring to the School of Languages and Literatures, continuing in an administrative role. I gained extensive experience in office management and developed strong organisational and communication skills.

TX: How did you manage to maintain both your professional responsibilities and your studies? What were some of the strategies you employed to stay on track and motivated?

LF: It was not easy; however, I had the benefit of using my work office if the library was closed, for example. I am an optimistic individual. I approach challenges with an open mind. I view them as opportunities to grow and discover new possibilities.

TX: What attracted you to this area of study?

LF: My journey into Linguistics and Anthropology began as an undergrad at the University of South Africa (UNISA). From the get-go, I was fascinated by the world of language and culture, and my passion only grew as I immersed myself into the field. When I joined my current department, I was surrounded by brilliant scholars like Professor Abner Nyamende (now retired), whose expertise and enthusiasm lit a fire in me to pursue my honours degree in languages and literatures.

TX: Tell us about your research and your key findings?

LF: My PhD research was built on the foundation of my master’s, which explored borrowed words in spoken isiXhosa. [It] won me a national award for excellence. This time around, I delved into Xhosa texts from the 1800s and uncovered fascinating insights into the economic prosperity of pre-1913 Xhosa society, as reflected in numerous advertisements that sold imported goods, the deep influence Christianity and the Bible had on early writers, and the profound impact mining and migrant labour had on people’s lives and language.

In my research, I found that loanwords in spoken isiXhosa are not new. They can be found in earlier Xhosa historical texts.


“Loanwords in spoken isiXhosa are not new … they can be found in earlier versions of Xhosa historical texts.”

I have always been interested in understanding the use of loanwords like ifown, iteknoloji and idyunivesithi in the Xhosa language. It’s almost as if English words have been ‘swallowed’ and re-purposed for Xhosa use. I’m eager to unearth the linguistic and cultural factors that drive this fascinating phenomenon.

TX: What were some of the challenges you encountered on your PhD journey?

LF: One of the biggest roadblocks in my PhD journey was the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, which hit shortly after I registered for the programme. At that point, I had only written an introduction and needed to tackle the literature review, but I couldn’t access the required books for eight months! It was difficult to access earlier versions of Xhosa historical texts such as Ingqumbo yeminyanya and Ityala lamawele. This major setback derailed my progress significantly.

TX: Who was your biggest cheerleader during this time?

LF: The support of key individuals played an instrumental role in helping me achieve my goal. Shirley Whitmore, my former manager, was a source of encouragement and support, particularly when it came to navigating the logistical aspects of pursuing a PhD while working.

My supervisor, Tessa Dowling, was also integral. She provided insightful feedback that helped me stay on track and ultimately complete my thesis in a timely manner. It’s clear that strong mentors and a positive working environment are essential ingredients for academic success.

TX: Tell us about your future plans at UCT and what advice you would give to other staff members considering a similar path?

LF: I’ve been fortunate enough to work as a tutor in this department, and I’ve discovered a real passion for teaching. Moving forward, I aspire to become an academic lecturer, which will allow me to build on the skills and experience I’ve gained in the classroom. I have always envisioned myself as an academic. I’m confident that my tutoring background has prepared me well for this next phase of my career.


“I have always envisioned myself as an academic.”

Pursuing a PhD requires a significant level of commitment and sacrifice. It means working long hours, often while balancing other responsibilities. However, with steadfast determination and a solid supportive network, it’s possible to overcome these challenges. Determination is the key – one must be willing to keep pushing forward, even in the face of obstacles. A supportive environment, whether it be family, friends, or colleagues, is also crucial to helping a student stay motivated and focused. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

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