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.


SRC aims to raise one million rand for excluded NSFAS students

New students attending the annual Wits welcome day today were challenged to donate a hundred rand each to assist students who face exclusion due to a lack of funding.  The call came from Student Representative Council (SRC) president Mcebo Dlamini, as part of efforts to assist students who did not receive funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

“The target is to raise one million by the end of this month,” said Dlamini, who is aiming to enlist the support of ten thousand people to reach the target before the end of February.

Dlamini was addressing an audience of over 5000 people, including parents and first-year students, who had gathered on the Library Lawns for the start of the official Orientation Week programme.

“It is a sad moment for this university,” said Dlamini who was referring to the 2788 student who were not able to register at Wits due to the lack of funding.

ONE HUNDRED RAND LEADER: SRC President Mcebo Dlamini holds R100 as pledge to support  education for all. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

ONE HUNDRED RAND LEADER: SRC President Mcebo Dlamini holds R100 as pledge to support education for all. Photo: Palesa Tshandu

Dean of Students, Dr Pamela Dube, described the announcement as an “excellent plan” but said this was the first time the academic staff of the institution had heard of it.

“We were not aware of it but we would like people to help … this is what the SRC should be doing,” said Dube.

“The target is to raise one million by the end of this month,”

Former SRC president Shafee Verachia described the pledge as a “proactive initiation” by student leaders saying “if this pledge is a success, it will be a great success for the SRC”.

Dean of the Faculty of Humanities Professor Ruksana Osman commended Dlamini’s efforts in fundraising for the unregistered students.

Osman also said the Faculty of Humanities had pledged R1.5 million to help postgraduate students who are receiving their Bachelor of Arts honours degrees.

Dlamini confirmed the SRC will work with Wits University and Convocation to run the campaign once it gains traction and an account for the funds will be set-up by the office of the Dean of Students.


To dream the impossible dream

Professor Mamokgethi Setati Phakeng was all smiles after being named Africa's most influential woman in education. Photo: Provided

THE AWARD GOES TO: Professor Mamokgethi Setati Phakeng was all smiles after being named Africa’s most influential woman in education.
Photo: Provided

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.”

LEADING THE FUTURE: Professor Phakeng at Unisa with high school learners who will hopefully qualify to study at the institution next year.

LEADING THE FUTURE: Professor Phakeng at Unisa with high school learners who will hopefully qualify to study at the institution next year. Photo: Provided


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.”