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Profile: Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

- By Heather Dugmore

Professor Mamokgethi ‘Kgethi’ Phakeng is a tornado of academia, mathematics education, world travel, high fashion and social media A Wits alumna and former Associate Professor in Maths Education at Wits, today she is the Vice-Principal of Research and Innovation at Unisa and President of Wits Convocation.

She will be one of the speakers at LeadSA's first Change Makers conference on 15 August 2015. This conference will allow like-minded people who are already doing great things in their respective spaces, to network, share stories and inspire each other.

My career was made at Wits

“I have become who I am because of Wits. My career was made at Wits and I think I have a stunning career as a reflective scholar and leader.”

“Education changes people. There is no doubt that I am a completely different person now because becoming what we lack changes who we are. Today, I am not scared to own my voice or to be who I am,” says

Phakeng who describes herself today as “a lucky wife, proud mother, happy aunt, grateful stepmother and adoptive mom”.

Phakeng is proud of her roots and she loves to go home to Ga-Rankuwa to see her old friends and spend time with her mother, Wendy Mmutlana, who is her inspiration and her role model in resilience.

“My mother wore a school uniform when she already had three children,” she explains. “She went back to do Grade 7 after she was married, encouraged by my late father, Frank Lentsoe Mmutlana, who was high school educated and who wanted my mother to continue her education.

Making space for relationships and diversity

In her role as President of Convocation, Phakeng consistently emphasises the need to make space for relationships and diversity, which is inherent to effective leadership.

As part of this, Convocation has developed a relationship with the SRC.“As an elected member of the SRC you are the leadership voice of a diverse community of students and you need to speak to this diversity,” she explains.

“The highly problematic divisive statement and behaviour of the former SRC president this year goes against the spirit of Wits and polarizes the University in undesirable ways. It smacks of anti-progressive, narrow nationalism, which can all too easily deteriorate into ethnic cleansing.”

The transformation debate

“What concerns me about the current transformation debate is that it appears to be more about the transfer of power and less about real transformation,” Prof Phakeng explains.

“Transformation in higher education has historically been dealt with as a compliance matter rather than a matter of change in structures, ways of doing things, ways of being and ways of knowing. Real transformation is about who teaches, what we teach and how we teach it.

African scholars who can transform the curriculum

“This is the route to producing African scholars who can transform the curriculum and lead our universities on a different path, where, for example, studying African philosophy becomes as mainstream as studying Western philosophy.

“All of our students would greatly benefit from understanding the philosophy of ‘Education for Self-Reliance’ espoused in 1967 by the first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere. They need to debate why he introduced Swahili as the language of national learning and teaching, and why this was stopped.

“These are the sorts of debates with which many South African and African students feel a cultural affinity, and which will help to ease the deep anger of displacement they are feeling.

“As academics we need to interrogate what it means to be at university today, and how the learning space is constructed.

Paying it forward

Mamokgethi Phakeng’s Adopt-a-Learner Foundation offers financial support to deserving black students from townships and rural areas studying at Wits and other universities and nursing colleges.

Wits and Unisa get the most support because of her affinity to these two institutions.

Phakeng is the sponsor of the Mamokgethi Phakeng Award for outstanding performance in mathematics education postgraduate studies at Wits. Two awards of R10 000 each are made available each year to black South African women in the field of maths education at Wits to pursue their PhDs.

The full interview was published in the latest edition of the WITS Review.