Her special power is the ability to ignite a room and bring sparks of inspiration to anyone within earshot. She commands a potent presence, not just because of her academic stature, but because she percolates with innovative ideas – ones invariably packaged with enthusiasm and verve. She has, over the course of her career at various universities, built up an incredible research record (including more than 80 published academic papers) and, since becoming the first black South African to obtain a PhD in mathematics education, attracted wide acclaim as an international authority in the field.
A fighter for academic equality, in 2004 she established the Adopt-a-learner Foundation, a trust that provides financial and educational support to prospective tertiary students from townships and rural areas. A decade later, she was named Africa’s most influential woman academic by CEO Magazine, and in 2016 the Order of the Baobab (Silver) was bestowed on her by the Presidency. Known for her bold ideas about how education can be better implemented, her recent appointment as UCT’s vice chancellor places her at the forefront of academic transformation.
And yet, despite the weight of responsibility, Prof Phakeng operates at a human scale. Her institutional gravitas is balanced by her heartfelt manner; when people meet her, it’s her easy-going nature that they respond to. Her eyes sparkle with an unmistakable lust for life that’s only possible for those who’ve come a long way to achieve what they have.
One might assume that such a high-ranking academic flourished in the classroom as a child. However, Prof Phakeng says that young Mamokgethi wasn’t necessarily the best-performing child. ‘In primary school, I’d get the “most improved” award. I was a hard worker, but I was never the top kid.’ She adds that her early childhood ambitions were less about academic success and more about being noticed. ‘I was very naughty, always on the list of noisemakers.’
Nevertheless, she made an impression despite being the smallest girl in class. ‘I’d like to believe that I’m memorable. I keep thinking that if you’re small, there’s something that God places in you – otherwise you’d be completely invisible. And I have never wanted to be invisible.’
Instead of disappearing, she participated vociferously. ‘Some call it competitiveness… But I’ve simply always wanted to achieve, driven by the desire to succeed. As a girl, I did athletics, played tennis and hockey, did competitive ballroom- and Latin American dancing. I didn’t do those things just for leisure. I was small, always under age, but I pushed to go to the competitions. I was very competitive and wanted to get in there and get things done. I’ve always been motivated.’
Despite her modesty about her intellectual achievements, she finished matric when she was 16, having experienced something akin to an academic epiphany at a Standard 8 (Grade 10) winter school devoted to maths. ‘Our teacher focused on geometry. He started explaining the difference between an axiom and a theorem, and then explained how to figure out a theorem. For some reason the penny dropped and I “got it”.’
She ‘got it’ in a big way. An extraordinary transformation took place. ‘I felt like a master. My maths grades improved and I decided this was what I’d be studying at university. I saw the connectedness of mathematics and that made it something beautiful. It gave me freedom – because it enabled me to solve problems without having to memorise anything.’
Hard work equals success
Having experienced first-hand the liberating potential of intellectual understanding, it’s little wonder that Prof Phakeng loves to encourage others, and much of the focus of her career has been around the mechanics of instruction – knowing that learning is about discovering just how easy, fun and empowering a subject can be when it is properly taught. ‘I don’t like to only glorify maths and science. I tell young people to pursue excellence and to push themselves to do the best they can in whatever they love. My message to the youth, especially young women, is to be who they are. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious and having big, audacious dreams. You just have to be willing to put in the hours to achieve that, and stay the course, because nothing worth achieving is easy. Don’t take nonsense, work extremely hard and don’t apologise for being fabulous.’
To stay fabulous and get through her own professional challenges, she has a simple morning regimen. ‘I start my day with a short meditation, a prayer. Then I do a few exercises. I’ve got dumbbells in my office. I love my biceps, so I take care of those. And then I get on with the work. That’s my routine – it’s very simple. But every morning, when I pray, I ask for wisdom – because this job is tough.’
She says, though, that the toughness of her position is mitigated by the chance it affords her to work in an environment she is passionate about. Waking up in the morning represents ‘an opportunity to give hope, to make a difference’.
Prof Phakeng is greatly driven by the knowledge that she’s playing a vital role in creating the society of the future. ‘What we do is shaping our country, our world. At UCT, we’re dealing with almost 30 000 young people – the brightest in the country. Even if only 20 000 of them leave with degrees, that’s a massive opportunity to determine what society becomes. That excites me.’
She holds her students in high esteem, too, and loves taking selfies with them. ‘We are building tomorrow’s leading businesspeople, entrepreneurs and politicians,’ she says. ‘I tell them I’m keeping those selfies for the time when they will be running important offices – not just in this country, but around the world.’
Would she have the same upbeat approach to life if she didn’t shoulder responsibility for growing the leaders of tomorrow? Absolutely. ‘If my career were to fail, or maybe when I retire, I’d love to be a stand-up comedian,’ she reveals, contemplating a secret fantasy. ‘I think I’d make a good motivational stand-up comedian.’ It’s a career switch she’s unlikely to make, but what’s unmistakable is her penchant for humour; it’s that effervescent energy that goes hand-in-hand with her easy charm and the warmth that belies the considerable demands that her position places on her.
During her downtime, Prof Phakeng travels extensively. ‘My husband and I love visiting islands. Every year we pick an island. This year we’re going to Punta Cana, which is on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean.’
Her assessment of what’s truly important in life is – above all else – grounded in humanity, and she admits that her academic successes aren’t what she’s most proud of. ‘At this stage of my life, I’m really proud of what my children have achieved. It’s one thing to raise children and want them to do well academically. My boys have done that. It’s the men they’re becoming that makes me prouder than the degrees they have. That I’ve raised boys who are responsible, caring, considerate, and politically woke is a huge achievement for me.’