'Education changed my life' - 34 years later, Prof Phakeng is still advocating for access to mathematics

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Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng
Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng
  • Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng started her career in education 34 years ago. 
  • Since then, she has achieved numerous accolades and awards for the work she has done in making mathematics education accessible.
  • Prof Phakeng says she hopes to dispel the idea that Black women and girls can't get into mathematics.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng's love and passion for mathematics education goes way back. Now vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), her journey as an educator started in 1988 at the Hebron College of Education as a maths lecturer. 

With a special focus on encouraging inclusion in the mathematics field - especially of Black girls - the Prof's work in education has earned her many a accolade. 

Prof Phakeng's academic roots are firmly planted in the field of mathematics. She goes down in history as the first Black South African woman to achieve a PhD in mathematics education, which she did in 2002. She has since published more than 80 research papers and five edited volumes that continue to shape mathematics education in classrooms across Africa and beyond. 

In 2008, she became the first South African Black researcher to be appointed to co-chair a study commissioned by the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction. She also served as the national president of the Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa from 2002 to 2006, became the founding chairperson of the Board of the South African Mathematics Foundation from 2004 to 2006 and was the secretary and member of the executive committee of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education from 2003 to 2007.

Other accolades and awards to her name include the South African Order of the Baobab (Silver) conferred to her by then-president Jacob Zuma in April 2016 and being named Businesswoman of the Year Award in the education category by CEO magazine. 

To add onto her long list of prestigious honours for the work she continues to do as a maths education advocate, the UCT vice-chancellor was recently awarded the inaugural Africa Education Medal. This award was launched by T4 Education and HP with the aim of recognising changemakers who are transforming African education.

Prof Phakeng was nominated for the medal alongside nine other finalists, including the former president of Tanzania Jakaya Kikwete.

READ MORE | At home with UCT VC, Mamokgethi Phakeng

Speaking to TRUELOVE, the mathematics advocate tells us about her career journey, what winning the inaugural award mean to her and more.

1. How did you feel when you were awarded the inaugural Africa Education Medal?

First, I was surprised because they started by sharing the 10 nominated finalists and I was only very happy to be a finalist. Looking at all the finalists, particularly the former president of Tanzania who had spent 10 years as president, I thought there is absolutely no way I would win this.

Then, of course, I also thought there are other people who are doing amazing work in science labs and so on. I read a bit about them. I didn't know how big some of the work they do is, what impact it’s having – particularly at the systemic level – and I thought, ‘Well, if I win it will be pure luck’. I thought there are too many people among the 10 finalists who could easily win, so it was a feeling of surprise.

And then the second feeling that emerged was a ‘wow, what an amazing honour’. It is such an honour to be the first winner with such top finalists. It is also amazing that I can get a medal for something that I just do and I am passionate about. I don't necessarily get paid for some of the work that I do in education. So, it was a sense of affirmation for something that I believe totally in and that's education.

2. What does receiving this medal mean to you?

It means keep going, what you're doing is on the right path. Keep going. As you do it, more people will do it. And as more people will do it, there's a possibility that we can actually finally solve the challenge of access to education and success in education on the continent. And, of course, this will come with a challenge to do better and do more things that are bigger and more impactful.

3. You have a long list of inspiring accolades and awards. Where does your passion for education and academia stem from?

It comes from the fact that education changed my life. There is no way my life would have turned out the way it did if I didn't pursue an education. I don't come from a prominent family, I have no connections whatsoever. It is education that has given me the confidence, the courage and the vision to want to make this world a better place to live in.

So, because education has done that for me, I strongly believe that it can do the same for others who, at the moment, may not have a voice or even have the courage to dream big and make a difference in the world. I believe education can do the same for other people as it did for me.

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4. The journey to obtaining a tertiary qualification is not an easy one, financially, mentally or both. What would you say to encourage women who are currently studying - be it towards their undergraduate or post-grad qualifications?

I would say it is not going to be easy. But, if you get financial support to pursue your postgraduate education, or even an opportunity to pursue an academic career, make sure that you get in there with a focus on winning. No [opportunity is] perfect. Grab the one that you have and make the most of it and stay the course, no matter how tough it gets.

Stay the course, don't get out because there's a bit of heat. Stay the course because the more of us can stay the course, the better we can make for those who come after us. So, don't expect that there will be a perfect opportunity, or a perfect kind of grant that will make you get everything that you want, but just get into the space, put your foot in and go in with the focus to win and then stay the course.

5. What message do you have for Black women who want to be in academia?

If you want to get into academia, get a mentor and get one who is highly achieved. You want to learn from the best. And don't think the mentor-mentee relationship is one where the mentor just tells you how good you are. Be open to critique. Be open to being challenged. Don't sit in the comfortable place of only seeing problems. This space of academia also gives you an opportunity to explore possible solutions, whether as a researcher or even just as an academic or as a teacher in the academic space. So, get in there with that mind that when others see only problems, you will come in to explore those problems to find the solution. And you are going to find a mentor who will challenge you, and not tell you only what you want to hear, so that you can be the best that you can be.

6. What legacy do you want to leave behind in the field of education?

First, I want to leave a message that dispels the idea that Black women or Black girls can't get into mathematics. I hope when I'm gone that's one thing that everyone remembers – that there was a woman who showed us that it is possible. It is possible to study mathematics and succeed in it. It is possible to be an academic and succeed in it and it is possible to be a university leader and succeed.

I hope I leave that legacy that Black women are not quitters. It doesn't matter how tough it gets. Black women can get in, they're focused on delivering the best and they stay on. It doesn't matter how tough it is, they stay the course until they deliver on what they're supposed to deliver on in the work that they're doing. I hope I leave that. That is just in terms of my life and my career.

But, I also have hope over the country. My work focuses mainly on those children who learn mathematics in a language that's not their own. And my hope is that one of my legacies becomes this idea of multilingual teaching and learning – that there is nothing special about learning mathematics in only one language. I hope that governments in Africa and elsewhere in the world can become comfortable with the idea of teaching and learning mathematics in multiple languages, with textbooks that are not just in English because we are a multilingual country. I hope that this becomes possible and we show the world how it can be done.

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