Academia

CityPress - - News - ZINHLE MAPUMULO zinhle.mapumulo@city­press.co.za

On Wed­nes­day, Pro­fes­sor Mamokgethi Phak­eng held the lift for three young men walk­ing through the se­cu­rity gates in the foyer of Unisa’s main cam­pus. The man at the head of the group waited for his friend to en­ter first. When she asked why he hes­i­tated, his friend joked: “You are beau­ti­ful and he is scared of beau­ti­ful women.”

Af­ter some con­vinc­ing, the three postdoc­toral stu­dents got in­side and they all headed to the 10th floor.

On ar­riv­ing there, they asked her name and she re­sponded: “I am Kgethi.” Asked what she does at Unisa, “I told them I work at the vice-prin­ci­pal’s of­fice.” “Do­ing what?” they asked me. “I told them I am the vi­ceprin­ci­pal.”

Their jaws dropped, they apol­o­gised pro­fusely and fled in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. On Fri­day, she ran into one of them again and he con­tin­ued apol­o­gis­ing.

It is not sur­pris­ing that 49-year-old Phak­eng gets this sort of at­ten­tion. At first glance, she looks like a woman in her early 20s, more like a stu­dent than the head of a univer­sity. She has two tat­toos: the words ‘for­give’ on her right arm and ‘be­lieve’ on the left.

She strolls out of her of­fice at the Theo van Wijk build­ing at Unisa’s Pre­to­ria cam­pus, wear­ing a cerise, high-waisted, flared skirt and match­ing white-and-pink flo­ral crop top. Nude six-inch, peep-toe shoes high­light man­i­cured toes. “Hello, I will be with you shortly,” she says, flash­ing a smile.

She ush­ers me into her spa­cious cor­ner of­fice. On one side is a desk piled with doc­u­ments and a lap­top, and on the other is a mas­sive book­shelf dec­o­rated with African art and a host of framed cer­tifi­cates, pho­to­graphs and books.

Phak­eng, who grew up in Ga-Rankuwa in north­ern Pre­to­ria, looks noth­ing like your stereo­typ­i­cal stuffy pro­fes­sor.

“Al­though I love to look good, credit goes to my self­taught de­signer from At­teridgeville for what you see to­day,” she says. “She de­signs al­most ev­ery­thing I wear. Her work is amaz­ing.”

Phak­eng is the vice-prin­ci­pal of re­search and in­no­va­tion at Unisa, as well as the first black woman to ob­tain a doc­tor­ate in math­e­mat­ics in South Africa.

She has just been ap­pointed deputy vice-chan­cel­lor, and is tak­ing over the re­search and in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion port­fo­lio at the Univer­sity of Cape Town (UCT), a po­si­tion she will fill on July 1. She suc­ceeds Pro­fes­sor Danie Visser, who is re­tir­ing at the end of this year.

“When I got my doc­tor­ate [in 2002], I was told the fol­low­ing year that I was the first black woman to ob­tain a doc­tor­ate in math­e­mat­ics education. I thought it ridicu­lous that we do not have black women with doc­tor­ates in math­e­mat­ics.

“It is a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity to have and I def­i­nitely do not want to be the only woman hold­ing this de­gree,” she said. The mother of five is ex­cited about her new job. “UCT is a top-per­form­ing univer­sity in Africa. Its stan­dards have put Africa on the map,” she says.

“I am ex­cited about it be­cause of the stature of the job and the peo­ple I will be work­ing with,” she says.

One of those will be Pro­fes­sor Bon­gani Mayosi, dean of the fac­ulty of health sci­ences and chair­man of the na­tional health re­search com­mit­tee.

“My work in­spires me and gives me en­ergy to meet the de­mands of the job. If I worked for an em­ployer that pre­vented me from work­ing with young peo­ple, I would prob­a­bly never be pro­duc­tive. I would lack en­ergy and get bored.”

There will def­i­nitely be no room for bore­dom in her job at UCT, which prides it­self on be­ing a “re­search­in­ten­sive” univer­sity. In 2014, UCT academics pub­lished more than 1 000 ar­ti­cles, which fea­tured in aca­demic jour­nals, as chap­ters in aca­demic books, in pre­sen­ta­tions and as part of aca­demic con­fer­ences in the fields of com­merce, en­gi­neer­ing, health sci­ences, hu­man­i­ties, law and sci­ence.

But Phak­eng’s move to UCT comes at a time when the coun­try’s univer­si­ties are faced with a host of chal­lenges, in­clud­ing the #FeesMustFall cam­paign. Like all the oth­ers, UCT is caught in the dilemma of hav­ing to re­tain the best academics and main­tain the high­est education stan­dards while be­ing cog­nisant of the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents who can­not af­ford the fees the in­sti­tu­tion de­mands.

Phak­eng says th­ese de­mands do not shake her, be­cause “it’s the na­ture of the job to deal with such is­sues”.

She has had plenty of prac­tice, hav­ing worked in var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties at the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg (then Vista Univer­sity), Wits Univer­sity and at Unisa.

Phak­eng re­vealed an­other side to her stylish self this week when she posted a sta­tus up­date on Face­book about ditch­ing her ex­ec­u­tive du­ties and tak­ing on the task of scrub­bing the univer­sity’s toi­lets be­cause the clean­ing staff were on strike.

“I could not stand the smell and the filth in the toi­lets. So in­stead of sit­ting and com­plain­ing, I de­cided to do some­thing about it,” she says.

“I ar­rived on Mon­day and the toi­lets were not look­ing good. I dreaded go­ing there again, so I sent out an email to my col­leagues on Tues­day, invit­ing them to join me as I clean the toi­lets.”

Armed with an apron, gloves and de­ter­gent, Phak­eng and four col­leagues rolled up their sleeves and cleaned the ladies’ and men’s loos.

Her col­leagues tried to talk her out of it, but “I told them I do this ev­ery day at my house”.

PHOTO: LUCKY NX­U­MALO

NATTY PRO­FES­SOR Mamokgethi Phak­eng is all about work­ing with young peo­ple and get­ting the job done Gert-Jo­han Coetzee and Pru­dence Kau

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