Mamokgethi Phakeng, professor and vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town (UCT), is an internationally acclaimed researcher who is resolute in helping young people obtain higher education. If she could achieve one thing for South Africa, she says that it would be to create “a sense of urgency in our young people about succeeding in higher education”.
Phakeng was born in Eastwood in Pretoria in 1966, but since her family was forcibly moved as a result of the Group Areas Act during apartheid, her birthplace no longer exists. However, this did not stop her from graduating from four different universities — North-West University, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), the University of Bristol (UK) and the University of Ottawa (Canada).
She obtained her PhD in mathematics education from Wits, and her tireless dedication earned her the National Science and Technology Forum award in 2011 for being the most outstanding senior black woman researcher for the previous five to 10 years in recognition of her innovative, quality research on teaching and learning mathematics in multilingual classrooms.
Balancing academics with leadership, Phakeng has also won several awards for her research and community work. Her devotion to higher education is evidenced in her Adopt-a-learner foundation.
The non-profit organisation, which she founded in 2004, provides financial and educational support to students from townships and rural areas to acquire higher education qualifications. This year, the foundation is supporting two students at higher education institutions.
Additionally, she donates 20% of her salary to UCT to fund postgraduate women students. Each year, at least five students receive 100% wrap-around funding from the Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship Fund.
Apart from her awards and qualifications, Phakeng’s proudest achievement is seeing her three sons grow up to become good men.
Being an academic and the vice-chancellor of an internationally recognised university, one has to ask: What is it that keeps her motivated and strong in her everyday responsibilities?
Phakeng says that the thing that she does not neglect, despite a packed schedule, is meditation and prayer “every morning before I get on with my day. It keeps me grounded in the knowledge that I am nothing without God, He is within me and greater than anything that is in the world.”
On her recognition as a Powerful Women 2022, Phakeng reflects on what she feels makes a woman powerful.
“A powerful woman is a highly accomplished woman who is unapologetically herself; comfortable in her perfect imperfection; recognises her agency; and boldly owns her voice.”