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A dream is all it takes to kick start a future. For Professor Mamokgethi Setati Phakeng, vice principal of research and innovation at the University of South Africa, that dream did not even begin to sketch what her future might become.
Last month Phakeng, who is also president of convocation at Wits University, was named South Africa’s most influential woman in education. She was awarded the title at the 12th annual South Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government (MIW) awards hosted by CEO Communications.
The MIW awards recognise the impact and contribution of women in top executive positions across a number of sectors. This year’s awards were allocated to the cream of the crop across 20 different sectors.
Phakeng made it through a rigorous three-phase judging process, beating hundreds of other women who were nominated in the education and training category. For her, this achievement validates the work she has done in her field of mathematics education.
Phakeng, who had a simple upbringing in the township of Ga-Rankuwa, north of Pretoria, said she never thought she would be where she is today.“Being a professor was an unthinkable, something that I never even thought was meant for people like me,” she said.
The former Witsie said getting a university degree was always part of her plan as her father had made obtaining a degree a non-negotiable standard for his children. So she went to study an undergraduate degree at the University of the North West, majoring in pure mathematics. But even while studying for her bachelor’s degree, she was not aware of the multitude of doors that a university degree would open for her.
Finding the light at the end of the tunnel
“Even while I was doing my bachelor’s degree, I never thought I could be a professor because I wasn’t exposed to any professors who looked like me,” Phakeng said.It was only towards the end of her Masters degree in Mathematics Education at Wits that she started seeing the possibility of becoming a professor.
On her journey to professorship, Phakeng stumbled upon another great achievement – becoming the first black woman in South Africa to obtain a PhD in mathematics education. “I had no idea I was going to be the first and the only way I got to know was when I got an award for the most outstanding young female researcher in 2003, a year after obtaining my PhD.”
Even with her many achievements, Phakeng acknowledged that her work in education was not yet over. “It’s one thing to be the first, but it’s quite another to do something with that position,” she said.
Education, both inside and outside of the lecture hall, is central to Phakeng’s mission. She founded an Adopt-a-Learner project in 2004, a support programme for pupils from disadvantaged areas that helps them see through their university ambitions. To her, the most fulfilling aspect of her career is knowing that she is an inspiration to many youth in South Africa.
“Human capital development is at the centre of what I do – all of my initiatives are about developing people and inspiring them to be the best in whatever they choose to be.”