Taught un­der a tree

UCT VC beat poverty through ed­u­ca­tion

The Witness - - NEWS -

PRO­FES­SOR Mamokgethi Phak­eng started her ed­u­ca­tion un­der a tree and had to walk up to 10 km just to get to school.

To­day, she is a full pro­fes­sor in math­e­mat­ics ed­u­ca­tion. She is also pre­par­ing to take over from Max Price as the vicechan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Cape Town from July.

Per­haps fore­telling good for­tune, Phak­eng was born still in her am­ni­otic sac, in a Catholic clinic in East­wood, Pre­to­ria, on Novem­ber 1, 1966.

Her mother, Wendy, was a do­mes­tic and fac­tory worker, while her fa­ther Frank was a ra­dio an­nouncer at the SABC. Af­ter giv­ing birth to Mamokgethi and her sib­lings, Wendy went back to school and fin­ished her stud­ies so she could work as a teacher.


Phak­eng re­calls be­ing sent to live with her grand­par­ents in Mara­pyane vil­lage in Mpumalanga where as a Grade 1 pupil, on days when it was not rain­ing, she would make the trek with her cousin to a ru­ral school.

How­ever, she did not stay there long. Her pri­mary school jour­ney also took her to Ga-Rankuwa.

In her 12 years of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion she at­tended eight schools. “Some of it [the mov­ing around] was [be­cause of] fam­ily, some of it was poverty and some of it was pol­i­tics,” she told News24 in a sit­down in­ter­view on Mon­day.

“Even though my mother ar­gues that I am an in­tro­vert, I had to get used to peo­ple quickly and speak to peo­ple that I didn’t know very well be­cause that was just how life worked.”

She com­pleted ma­tric at a ru­ral school in He­bron and en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Bo­phuthatswana (now part of North­West Univer­sity) at just 16 years of age. Her par­ents warned her that she had just four years to get her de­gree.


Phak­eng, her brother and sis­ter were at one stage all at­tend­ing univer­sity at the same time. “So there wasn’t much time, there wasn’t much money.”

De­scrib­ing her­self as nerdy and scared at the time be­cause she was still so young, Phak­eng says she did not party it up at univer­sity. She threw her­self into ten­nis, soc­cer and hockey.

She was also well known for demon­strat­ing ball­room and Latin Amer­i­can danc­ing skills that she picked up while in Ga-Rankuwa.

Phak­eng said she was never a stu­dent leader but at­tended mass meet­ings. She still has the scars from a protest she took part in to pre­vent then Ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter An­dries Treur­nicht from speak­ing in Mafikeng.


“I was a con­scious stu­dent but a con­sci­en­tious stu­dent. I was com­mit­ted to get­ting my de­gree.”

Phak­eng ob­tained her PhD in math­e­mat­ics ed­u­ca­tion in 2002. While she strug­gled with other sub­jects, she ex­celled at math­e­mat­ics be­cause no­body told her it was hard, she said.

“I just came to terms with what I want, what I can and can­not do. I fo­cused on what I can do and I like, and I did it well. And all my life, that’s what I did.” The rest, as they say, is his­tory.

— News24.

I was a con­scious stu­dent but a con­sci­en­tious stu­dent. I was com­mit­ted to get­ting my de­gree.


Pro­fes­sor­ Mamokgethi­ Phak­eng­ was­ re­cently­ named­ the­ new­ vice-chan­cel­lo­rof­ the­ Univer­sity­ of­ Cape­ Town.­

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