Interview with Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Today I’m pleased to be sharing an interview with one of the most inspirational South African woman. Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice Principal: Research & Innovation at UNISA has been selected as an Innovation Pioneer for Kiehl’s Pioneers by Nature campaign and when you read a short summary of her CV you immediately understand why…

She optained a a PhD in Mathematics Education in 2002 making her the first black African woman in South Africa to obtain such a qualification. She is the founder of the Adopt-a-learner Foundation, a non-profit organisation that started in 2004 and provides financial support to learners from township and rural areas to acquire higher education. Is President of Convocation of Wits University, trustee of the FirstRand Foundation and a member of the Board of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) where she also chairs the Research development and innovation sub-committee.

Prof Phakeng also has many firsts: in 2008 she became the first woman to be appointed to position of Executive Dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at Unisa; in 2011 she became the first woman to be appointed as Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation at Unisa. In 2008 she became the first black African to be appointed by the International Commission on Mathematics Instruction (ICMI) to chair an international study.

Tell me more about yourself and what you currently do?
I was born on 1 November 1966 at a Roman Catholic clinic in Eastwood Pretoria just at the time when black Africans were forcibly removed from the area as a result of the group areas act. My maternal family was one of those that were refusing to move and hence their continued presence in the area even at the end of the year 1966. I started school in 1972 the rural village of Marapyane in the Mpumalanga Province where I lived with my paternal grandparents because my mother who was a domestic worker then had gone to school to complete her Standard five (Grade 7) till Form 3 (Grade 10) so that she can go to a teachers college. I was five years old when I started Grade 1 and due to turn six at the end of that year. My first year of school was under a tree because there were not enough classrooms in the school, which was the only school in the village then. Together with my cousin of the same age we walked 10km to school every morning and another 10km back home at the end of the school day. On a rainy day there would be no schooling. My second year was in the same school, this time in a church building under platoon system – where the Grade 2 pupils started school at 11:00 ending at 14:00 and the Grade 3 pupils started at 8:00 till 11:00 in the same shared classroom. In my 12 years of basic education I attended eight schools – the most I spent in a school was two years. This was unavoidable given the instability that comes with the poverty levels that characterised apartheid South Africa with families moving from one place to another in search of opportunities and a place to live.

I now feel blessed to describe myself as a lucky wife, proud mother, happy aunt and a damn grateful stepmother/adoptive mother. Otherwise I am a full professor of mathematics Education and Vice Principal of Research and innovation at Unisa. As Vice Principal of Research and Innovation at Unisa my role is to develop and implement a research strategy which fulfils Unisa’s vision to be the African university, shaping futures, in the service of humanity; in particular, overseeing Unisa’s strategic research investments, research performance and ensuring excellence through human capital development and support of research and academic staff. It is also my responsibility to promote research collaboration with industry and government, and build strong partnerships in the research and innovation sector nationally and internationally. When it comes to students my focus is on the quality of Unisa postgraduate research education, and the building of a vibrant research community.

When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
Growing up I had no idea at all that I would end up being a professor. All I knew that I was going to have to get a university degree because my dad had made that the rule for all of us at home, but I had no idea how much university qualifications beyond a bachelor’s degree I would get and what I would do with it. Being a professor was an ‘unthinkable’, something that I never even thought was meant for people like me. Even while I was doing my bachelor’s degree I never thought I could ever be a professor because I was just not exposed to professors who looked like me. Many of the few black female academics who were there did not have PhDs and those who did (and I remember two) were not professors. The first time I imagined myself as an academic was at the end of my masters degree in 1996 at Wits. I really think it was because I had worked with Prof Jill Adler as my research supervisor, we developed a very good relationship and somehow I thought she understood me and showed more interest in me and my abilities than any of the university professors I ever had. I can recall asking her what it would take for me to have her job. Yes I did ask the question in that way – we laugh about it today. She gave me the details and I left her office that afternoon with a resolution that I will do my PhD and then pursue a career in academia. Prof Adler played a very big role in getting me into academia just by doing her job well and showing interest in her students. More than 20 years later, she remains my mentor. I call her my Jewish mother!

What did you study – was it in this field or something different?
I studied mathematics as a major in my bachelors degree and for my postgraduate studies I studied and conducted research in mathematics education. So my PhD is in Mathematics education and that is exactly my area of expertise in higher education right now. It is my research in this area of study that got me the international recognition, the international invitations as well as the NRF rating as a scientist. My current is as an executive in charge of Research and Innovation at Unisa. This is very much in line with what I studied because Research and innovation is exactly what I do as an academic. The thing that I did not study for is being an executive (leadership).

What was your first job in the industry? and what path has your career taken since?
My first job was in 1988, the year I turned 22, as a mathematics lecturer at the now defunct Hebron College of Education in Pretoria North, where I taught mathematics to pre-service high school teachers. In 1989 I was appointed acting principal and mathematics teacher at a newly established secondary school (without a building) in Kokosi township in Fochville for two years. I then became head of the mathematics department at A. B. Phokompe high school in Mohlakeng, Randfontein where I also taught mathematics at Grades 11 and 12 levels. Two years later I was promoted to be a mathematics subject advisor in charge of the West Rand, a position I held till the end of April 1994 after our first democratic elections.

Guided by my passion for development, I accepted a job in a non-governmental organization, COUNT, which provided in-service training to mathematics teachers on farm schools around Magaliesburg, Tarlton and Brits. I responded to a similar call from the Centre for Community Development of Vista University in 1996, where I not only provided in-service training for mathematics teachers in townships and rural areas but also ran empowerment programmes for women in rural villages of Matamanyane and Lenyenye in the Limpopo province. In 1997 my women empowerment project in Matamanyane, Tsoga o Itirele Matamanyane, was awarded a national prize for being the best women empowerment project in the country.

In 1999 I joined the University of the Witwatersrand as a mathematics education lecturer and in June 2002 I obtained my PhD from the same university, for a study entitled, Language Practices in Intermediate Multilingual Mathematics Classrooms. In a relatively short time – just twelve years – I have since advanced the field of knowledge on language and mathematics learning, particularly as this pertains in post-colonial contexts and most directly in post-apartheid South Africa. My research has illuminated how learners and parents are positioned in and by the power of English, and with this as background, explored practices in and for mathematics learning that harness learners’ spoken languages while developing their mathematical English, where both serve the learning of mathematics in the first instance. This innovative work has been provocative and productive and brought focus to the learning of those typically disadvantaged by their multilingualism in an English-dominant society. The work has embraced the power of language(s) in learning, without succumbing to dominant positions that move simplistically to advocating learning mathematics in English. This work has been recognised around the world.

What have been the highlights?
There is no doubt that getting a PhD changed my life but getting a B2 NRF rating as a scientist only ten years after obtaining my PhD remains the highlight of my career to date. The rating system is an international peer review process to which researchers choose to submit their work for assessment and a B2 rating means that the researcher has considerable international recognition. Being rated as a scientist is not easy at all and getting such a high rating after an international review process is a tremendous vote of confidence on my scientific work

What’s the best part of your job?
I love working with people and so it is most fulfilling to be in a position where I can inspire people. Being an inspiration is about influence and that is important because it has the potential to get more people doing what I do. I am passionate about people hence being an inspiration to others is more important. Human capital development is at the centre of everything I do – all of my initiatives are about developing people and inspiring them to be the best in whatever they choose to be!

In my current job I always start with the person, the individual. My view is that key to any high performing organisation/institution are individuals – in my context it is individual researchers who generate new knowledge, perform innovative research, attract, teach and mentor exceptional postgraduate students, and engage in activities that benefit and enrich society. I therefore focus on getting individuals to own the institution and the work it does. I always focus on getting them to embrace the idea that they are working for themselves and not for any boss. My role as a leader is to create an opportunity for others to become the excellent researchers, scientists and engineers they want to be. This is the most efficient way to producing excellence and organisational performance. In this context it is important to lead by example, so when I talk about being an excellent researcher they can see it from me.

What is the most challenging part?
Working with people who do not like what they do, those who are just here because they have nowhere to go. They do not give their all, they are here to get something and not to do better and be better people themselves.

What is your typical day, or maybe week if days are very different?
The only typical thing about my days at work is that without fail, I get to my office at 5am everyday and walk up ten floors to get to my office; I then leave my office at 20:00 to go home. There is a lot of traveling in my job either to present my own research or to negotiate agreements that can benefit our students and staff with international partners. Otherwsie when I am not traveling days are characterised by meetings (with staff, students, colleagues in Unisa management as well as in non-Unisa boards and committees I serve on), I also do lots of reading and writing.

I have a practice of writing blogs about some of my days, which I publish on my personal Facebook page or my Fab Academic Facebook page or my blog.

What are the “secrets” to your success?
• Hard work, spending time on task (understanding the economy of time) and not giving up despite the challenges I face
• The ability to choose good friends, most of whom are smarter than I am and being open to learning from them
• Having the courage to challenge myself to take on bigger tasks
• The hope and optimism that no matter how difficult things may be I will succeed.

What do you do for fun in your down time?
I love walking, hiking, going to gym. My husband and I also love traveling – we go on vacation overseas at least three times a year. We love island trotting – we visit at least one island a year and it is fun. I also love reading and listening to music. Working or spending time with young people is something that I love doing. I know many people think it is work but for me it is also fun. So I hold what I call WiseUp sessions with them at least three times a year to inspire and also answer the many questions they always have for me. The WiseUp sessions are very well attended and I always leave energised as if I have been to the gym.


What do you still want to achieve?
I love the work that I am currently doing as Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation because I strongly believe that research and innovation have the power to change the world for the better. Of course I would welcome the challenge to lead a great university one day.

What are your three most important values?
Integrity, loyalty and optimism. I hate complaining and I also hate people who complain about their circumstances when they do nothing to change the situation. It is easy to complain, to see why things are not what they should be. It is much more difficult to make things happen. I prefer to make things happen! People who complain never make anything happen, they don’t change anything – they just die quicker.

What contribution do you feel you are making towards improving our society?
My specific contribution is in the area of mathematics education. We have a great challenge in this country and we have to find solutions sooner rather than later. The challenges that we face in mathematics have to do with the fact that we are not producing enough matric students with the required mathematics grades to study science, engineering and technology at university. This has to do with resourcing in our schools as well as the quality of teaching mathematics. For South Africa to be on the path of advancement, every child must have the right to be taught by a highly qualified teacher of mathematics, one who is knowledgeable in content, understands how students learn and uses appropriate instructional methods. Every child must have the opportunity for the mathematics education required for an economically secure future and socio-economic background should not limit future opportunities to learn mathematics. The one mathematics education project that I started and am currently leading and very proud of is the mathematics education chairs initiative – its focus is to research sustainable solutions to the mathematics education challenges of our country. The project is funded by the FirstRand Foundation, Rand Merchant Bank, Anglo American Chairman’s Fund and the Department of Science and technology. While the Department of Basic Education did not provide funding, they are a critical partner – they have provided the list of schools that we work with in the project.

Can you tell us about women in your life who have played an important role and what roles they played?
My mother is very important to me – she has serves as an inspiration for me and a constant reminder that everything is possible if one puts one’s mind to it. She started her working life as a domestic worker and went back to school (standard 6) after getting married and having three children. I am inspired by her determination to get an education no matter what – the fact that she was never embarrassed about wearing school uniform and going into class with students who were much younger than her. So I went through school and university with a mother who was studying. She did her matric through night school after obtaining her primary Teachers Certificate (PTC). When got our results she also got hers and so we could not afford to fail. Well, certainly I could not afford to fail. I knew that I had to do well. My mother kept on studying until she obtained her BA degree at the age of 58 in 2002 – the year in which I obtained my PhD and just two years before she retired as a teacher. Her story is a story of resilience that serves as inspiration, reassurance and challenge for me.

Besides your daily work, what are you passionate about?
I am passionate people, things and causes. When it comes to people I have to say the youth take first position for me. I love spending time with young people from different backgrounds – some of them remind me of myself many years ago and others give me hope. When it comes to things – travelling, reading and gym are my best. I have been to all the continents in the world except the Antarctica; there are books everywhere in my house and I am addicted to I go to the gym at least three times a week and I also make sure that I walk at least 10km a week. Community development is something that I love because it is a cause that involves the people that I love the most – youth. I started an adopt-learner project in 2004 through which I provide financial support for the education of young people from townships who have potential in mathematics.


WOW what an inspiring story. I’m sure you’ll agree that Prof Phakeng is certainly a Pioneer by Nature. If you would like to chat to amazing local pioneer you’ll be pleased to hear she will be taking part in a live Twitter chat on 27 October between 12:30 and 1:30 in the afternoon and you will be able to ask her your questions “in person”!

Another amazing project that Kiehls South Africa will be doing in celebration of World Kiehls Day on 12 November is that they will be hosting a meal packing event to pack the approximately 15,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now.

Be sure to share who are your personal pioneers – inspirational people you admire – on social media using the hashtag #PioneersbyNature and don’t forget to tag @KiehlsSA on Twitter!

Kathryn Rossiter

Kathryn is a South African lifestyle blogger and mom of 2 who has been blogging daily for over 9 years! She writes about travel, health, beauty, fashion, decor and family... but not food (unless it's food she's eaten made by someone else) as she is a hopeless cook. She only wakes up early for 2 things... a red-eye flight to somewhere exotic and early morning game drives. She has just finished an extensive home renovation and would prefer to never see another box again. She's never met a chocolate or glass of bubbles that she didn't like!

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