Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 14

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng:
young people come first,
says incoming DVC
Having started school under a tree
in Marapyane village in Mpumalanga,
Mamokgethi Phakeng never
envisaged herself as a professor;
there was no role model to fire her
imagination or kindle a desire.
It’s not that she didn’t have fine role models
growing up, says UCT’s incoming deputy vicechancellor (research and internationalisation), a
respected mathematics education scholar who
joined the university on 1 July 2016 ahead of
incumbent DVC Professor Danie Visser’s retirement
in December. Her mother, Wendy, went back to
school (in uniform) to do grade 7 after she’d had
three children (Mamokgethi is the second).
“I was encouraged by my late father, Frank Lentsoe
Mmutlana, who was high-school educated and
wanted my mother to continue her education.
Education was a priority at home, mainly because
of my dad. I was just so happy that she studied with
us and helped me with my homework!” Phakeng
excelled academically, majoring in mathematics
at the University of Bophuthatswana (now part
of North-West University). It was a language she
understood and loved.
As a student sitting at a coffee shop or waiting for
her next lecture, Phakeng would scribble theorem
proofs on her denim jeans and backpack. “I was
truly a boring chick – no parties and no boyfriends,”
she recalled. “I spent time in the library or playing
sport. I was not date-able.” But it wasn’t all work; in
that time, Phakeng represented her university as a
ballroom and Latin American dancer (“If there’s a
good partner in the room I can still get to the floor.”).
Her bachelor’s degree led her to the University of
the Witwatersrand for postgraduate study and
a doctorate in 2002. when she became the first
black African woman in South Africa with a PhD
in mathematics education, “which tells you what
the state of maths education was back then,” says
the 49-year-old mother, stepmother and adoptive
mother of five.
Research and transformation
In Sweden for a conference when the news of
her UCT appointment was announced in January,
Phakeng, then vice-principal of research and

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