Acting president of convocation at Wits discusses her career trajectory and her work to change people’s lives through HIV research. 

Doctor Motlatso Godongwana is the youngest member of the Wits convocation executive committee (exco), and as a part of her role there, she is also an Academic Skills Development consultant operating from the Wits Science faculty. Exco members are voted in every three years, by the convocation, which is made up of the entire Wits University alumnus.  

“I put my name forward in 2019 and to my surprise I got votes”, said Godongwana. This year she began serving her second term in the exco, which will come to an end in 2025.    

As part of her duties as an Exco member, between Monday and Wednesday every week, she spends her time walking students through everything from course material to career decisions. All while working full time with the South African medical research council (SAMRC) as a senior scientist, specialising in HIV research.  

Having graduated last year with a PhD in Demography and Population Studies, this year she was on the biggest stage on the Wits campus, conferring qualifications to recent graduates as the acting president of convocation. A task she shared with the president of convocation Stacey-Lee Bolon throughout the graduation season. 

Her PhD research investigated the risks and incidences of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among people living with HIV — the work is important for addressing the challenges pertaining to treatment and management of HIV chronic comorbidities.   

Although Godongwana grew up in Yeoville, her memories of happy childhood visits to her mother’s home, in Moletjie, Limpopo, are what grounds her. Responding to a tweet complimenting her blue convocation gown, she replied that as a “young girl from Limpopo, seeing myself in this picture is a dream come true”. 

She said the best part of her work with students, is getting the opportunity to always learn something new. This is a philosophy she carries with her in every room she walks into.   

“You appreciate the person in the street, you appreciate the person at church because that person is teaching me something about spirituality that I probably do not know about. The person in the street is teaching me something about humility that I probably do not know about. Every person I interact with is going to teach me something,” she said.  

Godongwana started an initiative while she was doing her honours degree, called I Love Condoms that intended to give young women the information and confidence to practice agency in negotiating safe sex. The initiative empowered young women to introduce contraception into their relationship to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and it also provides these young women with alternatives to using relationships as a way out of poverty. She was featured on the Mail and Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans list in 2018 for founding the initiative.  

Godongwana is inspired by her grandmother, who raised 7 grandchildren, at some point, on a single salary but still found time to collect her from primary school, and head to theology classes. Evidently, her work ethic, is hereditary. 

Her sister, Moyagabo Rampedi believes that Godongwana’s greatest motivation is “making [their] grandmother proud”. Godongwana herself mentioned her gratitude for her faith and love for God, which were instilled by her grandmother.  

She is also driven by the desire “to uplift [people from her community] and make them believe that whatever they set their minds to, they can achieve and there are examples of people who have done that”.  

Her colleague Nomasonto Radebe said that Godongwana’s attitude towards challenges is: “if it does not challenge me, I am not learning”. Radebe added that she is very intentional and will “stop at nothing until she achieves a goal”. 

By being the face of excellence at an institution of higher learning, Godongwana’s achievements are inspiring for other young black women. Her accomplishments are a testament that it is possible to be a young black girl from anywhere and make it to the greatest academic stage at Wits, if you so desire.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Motlatso Godongwana during her graduation in 2022. She graduated from Wits with a PhD in Demography and Population Studies. Photo: supplied.