As part of our women’s month edition, Wits Vuvuzela got close and personal with the famous “Fab Academic”, former Associate Professor in Maths Education at Wits and currently Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research and Internationalization at the University of Cape Town (UCT). She is the first black female South African to acquire a PhD in Mathematics Education amongst a long list of her accolades.
Who is Mamokgethi Phakeng?
Most of the time she is a lucky wife, proud mother, happy aunt and a grateful stepmother as well as an adoptive mom. Sometimes she is an internationally renowned scholar of mathematics education and all of the time she is a generous law-abiding citizen of South Africa with a sharp social conscience.
How has your journey been in the mathematics field as one of the first black women?
It has been a tough but fulfilling journey of wanting to be one of the best engaged scholars in the world. I say tough because it is never easy, it involves a lot of hard work, sacrifices and tough decisions. I say fulfilling because it is my choice, nobody forced me to do what I am doing and so it is worth every pain and struggle that comes with it.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is helping or working with others to succeed or to become the best in their work be it those who report to me, students, young academics or the young people I mentor. It makes me feel human and worthy of all the recognition I get. Seeing my students and mentees succeed as well as the national projects that I have initiated to benefit academics as well as students beyond my university becoming successful is the most fulfilling thing ever.
What are the three things people do not know about you?
Firstly, that we have no helper at our house, so I do the cleaning and washing myself. Secondly, that plain yogurt is my comfort food. When I am really down and sad I eat plain yogurt. Lastly, I used to be a competitive ballroom and Latin American dancer as a young person.
Who is the one woman who played an important role in your life?
It is actually two women: the first is my “ghettofabulous” mother, Wendy Mmutlana who started her career as a domestic worker, worked hard to become a primary school teacher and retired as a newly qualified BA graduate. The second woman is my amazing mentor and friend, Jill Adler who is a professor of mathematics education at Wits. She believed and invested in me when I had no name. She is the kind of potter who knows what to do with good clay. In these two women, I have learned hard work, courage, resilience and optimism. I consider myself blessed
What is your take on violence against women and children?
Violence against women and children is utterly reprehensible and should never be tolerated. It is very important that all of us speak up against it and in my view, men should take the lead in this regard. The failure of men to speak out about male violence against women and children renders them complicit.
What has been your greatest achievement thus far? Is there something you still hope to achieve?
Having been able to achieve the level of success that I have as an academic, an executive and as a mom of graduates who are also good human beings. It is very easy to focus on oneself and succeed while everything else is falling apart.
What would you say to young women who are constantly told they are not enough?
You are enough. So, be who you are. Don’t take nonsense, work hard, don’t apologise for being fabulous and slay the course! It is not a mistake that you are this person, in this place, at this time.
What do you do for fun?
I love traveling and hiking with my husband and hanging out with young people.
What is your greatest fear in life?
I am scared of poverty, it is cruel!