Motlatso Godongwana: a young scientist advocating for safe sex  

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.


COOL KID: Tiisetso “gym girl” Lephoto

Tiisetso Lephoto came second at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin as the best researcher in South Africa/Africa. Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

Tiisetso Lephoto came second at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin as the best researcher in South Africa/Africa.                                                                                                                                Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

While most people know her as the “gym girl”, Wits PhD student Tiisetso Lephoto (25) is also a One Young World ambassador and a Wits Golden Key member. Recognised as one of the new young and upcoming researchers in science by the Gauteng department of agriculture and rural development in 2013, she secured second place at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin for the best researcher in South Africa/Africa. Lephoto is a Wits aerobics fitness and training instructor and founder of TiiMoves.

What research are you working on for your PhD?
My project is based on trying to come up with ways to reduce the use of chemical pesticides. Since 2011, when I started with masters, I’ve been trying to discover nematodes; microscopic worms which can kill insects. So, instead of spraying harsh chemicals which can make us sick because our food has been highly contaminated, my project wants to come up with ways of reducing or eliminating the use of these harmful chemicals, and find biological control agents. That’s the healthier way of killing insects without harming people or animals in any way.

What influenced the role you play in aerobics today?
I joined an aerobics community programme. They taught us almost everything, and it became fun, like a dancing routine, so I incorporate everything into my aerobics routines. And it’s more like a God-given talent, that’s how it feels, I just think of steps in my head and I execute it.

What is the most fulfilling part about being an aerobics fitness and training instructor?
I started an NGO called YesWeAreMoving in 2011. My aim was to spread the culture of healthy living, so I started to organise aerobics marathons alongside academic tutoring under a programme called Katleho Pele Education. We help grade eight to 12 learners in Soweto maintain their studies and health. We have a marathon this Saturday at the Squash Complex on West Campus from 9-11am. I organise the marathons to donate and fundraise for orphanages. This year is aimed at collecting food, toiletries, and clothes. And with my own personal training company, TiiMoves, I encourage others, and help people to put nutrition together with exercise, and feel good in their own skin.

What is most central to your life’s philosophy?
I give back to the community, this is my philosophy; I believe the higher you go, you have to find a way to lift other people with you. I like seeing someone happy, it’s very fulfilling to share knowledge, to help someone, and then see them succeed. I always think, with so many things that I do, ‘God where will you place me?’ I’m passionate about science and I’d like to be one of the leading young researchers and discover something to save the future of agriculture. So, the future holds me continuing to research, help other young people, encourage them to pursue what they love, and maybe to do science. Everything needs to just be well. Wellness is everything.

A Rare Leap from Honours to PhD

Two biochemistry students received such outstanding results in their honours year, they will be skipping Master’s and moving straight on to PhD degrees.  

Bianca Dias and Bradley Peter (both 22) completed their honours degrees last year and received above 80% overall.

The head of the School of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB), Professor Rob Veale, said the decision to exempt these candidates from master’s degrees was based on “holistic assessments” of their academic, laboratory performance and personal factors that could affect their performance at PhD level.

“The selection and registration of a higher degree candidate depends greatly on their relationship with their supervisors, as this allows the supervisors the opportunity for good judgment of suitable candidates,” said Veale.

“Although the final decision of exemption is made by the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) of the school in question, the discretion of the supervisors in the decision process in a key factor.”

According to the Faculty of Science Rules and Syllabus, a student who has shown a level of competence that satisfies Senate in their research, writings, experience and professional standing during their honours year may be admitted as a candidate for a PhD.

Member of the GSC, Dr Yasien Sayed, said no student in the history of MCB had ever been afforded this rare opportunity before.

“It’s not to say the school has not produced academically excellent students in the past,” said Sayed. “The fact that past excelling students weren’t offered this opportunity may be attributed to lack of awareness of this rule by many lectures, supervisors and students alike.”

Dias’s research, which is supervised by Professor Stefan Weiss, is focused on the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Although I’m a little anxious about the year because it will be very challenging, I am excited about this opportunity, and pleased that the university has this much faith in me.”

Peter, who is also a classical ballet dancer, planned to do his master’s at a university overseas when he was approached with the offer by his supervisor, Professor Heinrich Dirr. He said the science faculty took this step because they wanted to train more students at PhD level.

“I think the university wants produce more independent researchers.”