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The Way To Attending To Africa’s Challenges Is Through Problem Solving – Professor Phakeng

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Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and a renowned mathematician. She holds a PhD in mathematics education from the University of Witwatersrand. She is a highly regarded B1 NR-rated scientist with over, 80 research papers and five edited volumes published. She has been invited to deliver over 40 keynote plenary talks at international conferences, and also as a visiting professor at universities around the world. 

Professor Phakeng has won numerous awards for her research and community works and she is a member of the board of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. She’s also a trustee of the first round foundation of the South Africans student’s solidarity foundation for education. 

Professor Phakeng, spoke in an interview with Amazon Watch Magazine, about her role as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, COVID-19, and women empowerment. 


AWM: I have listened to quite a few of your previous interviews. I also hear you talk about the difference when you refer to the position as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. You’ve once described yourself as a square peg in a round hole. So I want to understand what makes this difference, is this just about the quality of you being a black woman, or is it the gender thing, or just what you represent as a person? 

Phakeng:  You know, as humans, we are not just one thing. So, I’m not just my race, I’m not just my gender, I’m not my qualification, I’m not just my position. So we are a whole lot of things. And when I look what a, what surprises me, I’ve always thought, I’m okay, I’m just like anyone else. But as I went up the ladder, it became clear how different am I actually, I believe that I’m a disruption to the space of university leadership, and it is not a bad disruption. Disruption is not always bad sometimes we get out of our comfort zone because of the disruption. And, the difference that I am not just a difference that I bring the difference that I am, is that it’s, it’s even from the beginning just a simple thing, as I don’t, I don’t have to think or to plan, or to strategize to just sit on a bench on campus. Like yesterday I was there on campus, and taking pictures with the graduating students, and once I waited, I sat on the stairs, and, and one of the senior professors came and said, Wow, it is very unusual to see a vice-chancellor, do this, and then I said what he said, just sitting down on the stairs of the Great Hall, okay. And I said well, he says, don’t do that today have gone into the office and seat down somewhere in, and I just think, oh, no, but I don’t need to do that because I’m waiting for the other students to come. Even just the idea of going onto campus to take pictures just during my lunch time out with students who are graduating, because we are having virtual graduation so a few of them can walk in, just for pictures. That’s just an example of how different one is, of course, I come from a working-class background of course. I started school under a tree, and not many Vice-Chancellors said that of course, I had, I went to seven different schools in 12 years of basic education.

I might be the first black woman with, PhD in mathematics education, but there’s also me. The thing about my values, what makes me when the qualifications go away. When the title goes away, it’s not there when the money’s not there, what remains, and that’s what makes me different. 

The fact that I felt comfortable when I took office as a vice-chancellor to say, I do not want an inauguration, I think it’s a waste of money. That’s not how we spend money in a space where students cannot afford to pay university fees. We have a lot of students who owe, and the university wants to spend millions of raids on throwing a party up for me. No. But people didn’t understand. This is what everyone has to do, you cannot miss that. I said, well, maybe then, what if I don’t want it?

What are the things that the university would benefit from throwing a party that costs millions in my name to celebrate my appointment, and then we can find a way of doing those things without spending the money on me? Then they told me we’ll invite people, donors who will start giving money to the university, we there’s a book you need to sign you get robed. It’s a good time for you, for the big community to meet you. I said that’s fine. We can still do that without spending the money. 

So the money that was going to be spent on me from my party, can we use that money to pay outstanding fees for students, who have completed, and they can’t graduate, but they’ve completed their studies? They can’t graduate because they’re owing, and those students, their fees will be paid, and they will come to graduation. And then in the first graduation ceremony, you invite them, and I will get robbed, as they graduate, so it’s a graduation ceremony outside the book on the day that the chancellor will come and give a speech. Of course, we can invite all the donors. We will live stream the event and tell all our donors, they can join it online. 

 I said to them, if there’s any donor who will find this awkward and believe we don’t deserve their support because we didn’t invite them to a party, then they are not with hanging out with us. Because any donor should be pleased that they have a vice-chancellor who doesn’t spend money recklessly. 

I thought that is the best way to introduce the Vice-Chancellor. You introduce the Vice-Chancellor by what they value, not by what they did, whatever many years ago. And I thought, this is the way the community can get to know me, it is the best way for the community to get to know what kind of Vice-Chancellor, and do you have, who are they, and what do they stand for?  Because that’s very important to me and I said if I’m actually in my house I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t spend money on a party when my children haven’t paid school fees, or my children are starving. I wouldn’t do that that’s just as simple as that. And so it’s that kind of thing that also makes me different. It’s my value system, is the way I think that I didn’t even think has anyone done this? What are the consequences? Are people going to hate me? It doesn’t matter.

 This is my value system. And that’s what guides me. I understand that no vice-chancellor’s ever done that in the world. Every vice-chancellor has an inauguration as a momentous occasion. And I have missed out on a momentous occasion. And, but I am fine. And it’s good. So the difference is the value system. 

To be continued….

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