Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng – UCT’s new vice-chancellor

Meet the University of Cape Town’s new vice-chancellor. Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng may be one of the most powerful women in academia, but she still puts learners first.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s success is no accident: The first black woman in South Africa to receive a PhD in Mathematics was raised to believe she was destined for greatness. Since then, she has worked to instil the same self-belief in her students.

ʻI made it my responsibility to make sure that more black kids from townships should know about opportunities. I didn’t want to become the first and last,’ she says. In 2004 she established the Adopt-A-Learner Foundation to give academic, financial and other support to learners from poor families and help them realise their academic potential.

No one left behind

To find the Foundation’s first recipients, Prof Mamokgethi returned to her alma mater, Thuto Thebe Middle School in Ga-Rankuwa. There she taught in classrooms and worked with Maths teachers to identify learners to sponsor. More than a decade later, Adopt-A-Learner supports 10 students in different fields of study, including nursing and data science. It is funded by donations raised through Prof Mamokgethi’s speaking engagements.

ʻHaving a small number of students means we can support them on our own terms, unlike when there is an external funder,’ she explains. They’re supported from first year through to their PhD. They’re also mentored and their academic performance and wellbeing constantly monitored. No student is ever dropped.

ʻIf it turns out they chose the wrong field of study, we re-route them to a field that suits them, but we do not drop them,’ she says.

It takes a village

Ga-Rankuwa is a township north of Pretoria. Like many places that were designed for black people by the apartheid government, it is barely developed and still grapples with economic hardships. Yet, there is a strong sense of community and pride. South African broadcasting legend Tim Modise hails from Ga-Rankuwa, as do the Motsepe siblings; business baron Patrice Motsepe, mining magnate Bridgette Radebe and our first lady, Dr Tshepo Motsepe.

ʻThe community valued education and taught us that it was the key,’ says Prof Mamokgethi. This environment inspired her and instilled a passion for education that persists. ʻ[It] is an equaliser. That certificate comes with developing habits of mind that are important for survival. A good education creates opportunities to be bigger than you have always been,’ she says.

A solid foundation

More than anything, it was her parents who made her believe the world was her oyster. Her mother, Wendy Mmutlana, was a domestic worker who went back to school to get her matric certificate. ʻThe power of her doing that was not visible to me when I was a child. It was only when I became older that I got to see what a phenomenal woman she is.’ Back then, having her mom in school motivated her to work harder. ʻShe was committed. We needed to keep up with her!’ she says. Wendy became a teacher and headmistress.

The power of words

Prof Mamokgethi’s poor background is shared by many South Africans. But what her parents lacked materially, they made up for with words. ʻMy dad made us believe that we were capable of achieving anything. He didn’t just tell us that we were smart; he treated us as such. He had so much confidence in us that it became powerful. It made me believe that I could be something bigger,’ she remembers, adding that investing in your child’s confidence is not about money or being educated. ʻWhat you say or don’t say to your child matters.’

A lifelong investment

This is the kind of professor who shows up, smiling and proud, at graduation ceremonies to take pictures with her students. ʻMany young people don’t have adults who are interested in them. The only people who show interest in them are Beyoncé and Rihanna,’ she says.

’We need to listen to our young people and invest in them. They must know that it’s OK to dream because if you work hard, you will get there.’

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Images: Supplied.