As South Africa’s first black woman to receive a PHD in mathematics education, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng knew it was her duty to use her successes to inspire hope in the country’s next generation of mathematicians. She has been honoured by The Order of the Baobab (Silver) for her excellent contribution in the field of science and representing South Africa on international stages through her outstanding research work. Besides her incredible accomplishments as a researcher and speaker, she is founder of the Adopt-a-Learner Foundation, which strives to provide youth from underprivileged backgrounds with the opportunity to obtain higher education qualifications in mathematics and other disciplines. She never forgets how far she has come and always acknowledges those who have helped her along the way; growing up in poverty herself, she endeavours to not only support her learners but also to their families and others around them to see that if you work hard it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can achieve your dreams. Professor Phakeng is an educator, a researcher, a social activist and an innovator and we are honoured to share her years of wisdom with you here:
About my Life Mission | I live to give hope in everything that I do. I do this by doing what I do to the best of my ability, being who I am and having the courage to step forward for what I believe in.
My Definition Of Success | My definition of success has changed over time. Growing up poor, I thought it was about money and material possessions; having a house, having the basics that you need. With growing up and doing what I do and achieving what I’ve achieved so far, I’ve learned that success is actually about choice. With success you get more choice; what people who are not successful do not have, is choice. They have to settle for what is available not choose what they want. There is no variety and that can be from little things like what you eat to where you work or whom you work for. The more successful you are, I find certainly in my trajectory with everything I have achieved, I have had more choice. Some people get into certain things not by choice; when you’re poor you get into certain things because you have to, it’s about survival. When you’re successful it’s not about survival, it’s about choice.
I Am Driven By | I always say I want to change the world, but I do know that I can’t change the world all by myself and all at once. I always ask myself: How do I change the world? What is the first step? So I start with myself and then I move on to my community. I cannot change the world until I change myself, until I become a better person, until I give excellent service, until I do excellent work. Serving others…serving others who can serve others to multiply the effect can end up in changing the world. If we adopt this attitude, the world will change. As I do the little that I do, I keep thinking that it’s contributing to making this world a better place; it might not look like it but everyone that I come into contact with is a potential change agent.
My Highlights | My PHD – getting a doctorate in 2002 was my big career break. It changed my career and my whole life in so many ways. For many other people, getting a doctorate in and of itself doesn’t do that, but for me it did, because it was a license to practice and I used that license to further my career. Seeing it in this way meant that I went on to use it within my discipline to make a difference. It also changed the history of my whole family and my clan, the regard that others have for my people and everything that I represent. If I had stopped after the doctorate it wouldn’t have been as impactful. If I had stopped and said I have arrived, it wouldn’t have done that. It’s fascinating because after the doctorate, more people started listening to me even though what I was saying was not very different to what I had been saying all along. It gave me authority within the field of mathematics and so my audience both in and outside of academia more than doubled. It gave me a voice, and got more ears to listen to me, it gave me an influence. I was more believable because I had a doctorate. I have to handle it responsibly because I am believable so it’s very possible that I can mislead people; I always remember that I need to be careful in how I handle this influence.
Principles, Values and Ideologies I Live By | I believe in hard work. Being smart, being born intelligent, is important, but it actually doesn’t make you achieve anything; hard work brings success. The other thing is recognizing weaknesses, whether they are as a result of my nature or my socio-economic background, I myself have become aware of what my weaknesses are. I grew up poor and never went to a Model C school. I went to rural schools and township schools and so I realized that I probably have to go through things that others don’t; I work in a language that is not my own. I am aware of these things and I work hard overcome them, ensuring they do not become a disadvantage to me. Hard work produces results; you can only work smart if you’ve worked hard. I believe in being sincere…being truthful and sincere about what you believe in. I find that sometimes people ‘beat around the bush’, rather be sincere and upfront about what you believe in. Integrity is very important to me, don’t say one thing and then do another. Lastly, I value courage. In our world today my view is that you cannot be a leader without courage because sometimes you have to tell a truth that others do not want to hear. I always say that if you have the knowledge and you have the vision but you have no courage, your knowledge is useless and your vision will not come to fruition. You have to have the courage to stand up and do what you know has to be done or said.
Lessons I Have Learnt | I have learnt something about mentoring. People always talk about how important it is to have a mentor. I agree with this but I have also learnt something about what makes mentoring work. You do not get where you are on your own; there are always people that open the way for you, guide you, and support you. Even the people who criticize you are important in your journey to success. Everyone has got a mentor. The person who was, and still is, my mentor was my PHD supervisor. People are always surprised that after so many years of working with her that I still acknowledge her in my success. Acknowledging your mentor is crucial because if I were to say that I got where I am today on my own, achievement becomes unattainable. I constantly think about how she has worked with so many other students, what is special about MY relationship with her. I always wonder what it is about my relationship with her that has produced all of this. I believe it is reciprocity. In any situation of help, assistance or intervention, there has to be reciprocity. When I say this, people always say that when you give, you should give without expecting anything. Reciprocity is not about the person who is giving expecting something back; it is about the person who is receiving recognising that it as demeaning to not return the favour.
Dealing With Doubt | I have doubts all the time, it still happens up till today. The way I deal with them is to reflect on my moments of victory. I have a new job here at UCT; it is a new environment because I never studied here and I’ve also never lived in the Western Cape. So, there are a lot of moments of doubt where I wonder: was this the right choice? In times like this I reflect back to those moments of success to remind myself of my strengths. It is so easy to forget what you can bring to the table if you cannot remember what you have already achieved. Remind yourself of moments of victory and tell yourself stories of success; how does it happen that a person who went to primary school under a tree can end up with a doctorate in Mathematics Education, professorships at Wits and UCT and a considerable international recognition. All these things are what I use to pull myself through times of doubt.
The Best Advice I’ve Received | I’ve got to pick my battles. There’s a downside to being courageous, being hardworking, wanting to be excellent. Sometimes I don’t pick my battles and the lesson that I have received from my mentor is that you have to. Sometimes there is really no battle at all; you should just let go. Now, I have learnt to let go. Is this the battle I should pick now? This has been the biggest lesson in my life.