Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng

Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng

Many people ask me how I got here, how come I managed to become a professor long before I turned 40 and how I managed to have so many achievements in such a short life. There is no doubt that I work hard, however, the end of apartheid and the twenty years of our democracy did wonders for me. Twenty years ago, when we had our first democratic elections, I did not even have a masters degree! You see with democracy came the Employment Equity Act as well as Affirmative Action and the truth is that they worked for me. Yes I mean it! I benefited from Employment Equity and Affirmative Action and probably continue to. I was very lucky to complete my postgraduate studies at the right time because I was just in time to benefit from the opportunities. All I needed to do was just to make sure that I don’t mess up the opportunities by being responsive, working hard and showing up prepared. As you may be aware, I became the first black South African woman to get a PhD in Mathematics Education in 2002, which tells you what the state mathematics in the country was then. The opportunities were many and people like me were very few and so I grabbed and made the most of them. Yes, I still had to work hard, very hard but the truth is that without Employment Equity and Affirmative Action I would not have had the many opportunities to prove myself. I am an optimist, however, I am almost sure that even with my experience as an academic, my track record as a researcher and achievements in community outreach projects (among other numerous talents), the chances of being appointed as Founding Director of the Marang Centre for Maths and Science Education at Wits in 2005, Executive Dean of Science, Engineering and Technology at Unisa in 2008 and Vice Principal of Research and Innovation at Unisa in 2011 under the previous National Party government would have been firmly crushed by my gender, age and colour of my skin.

I know that many black professionals refuse to admit that Employment Equity and Affirmative Action worked for them because they think it suggests that they are incompetent. The truth is that there are incompetent people some of whom are beneficiaries of Affirmative Action, but not all beneficiaries of affirmative action are incompetent. Affirmative Action is not about appointing incompetent black people, but it is about redressing the effects of unfair discrimination over decades of apartheid. It does not derive its definition from the competence or otherwise of its beneficiary. Whenever I tell people I benefited from affirmative action they tell me that I cannot possibly be because I am excellent at my job. The fact that I am doing well in my job does not change the fact that I have been given an opportunity to excel, which I would not have been given by the apartheid government. Such opportunities are what is required to remedy the damage caused to black people and women by past racist policies. Of course it is not everyone who is given the opportunity who uses it well, some just mess it up! I am glad that I did not.

So as I prepare myself to vote on Wednesday, I say thank you to our leaders who led the struggle against apartheid. Thank you to all those who lost their lives so that ordinary people like myself can have the many opportunities! I definitely would not have been what I am today if it were not for them. I am grateful!

4 Responses to “Reflections of a #FabAcademic”

  1. Malebogo

    Very Inspirational indeed , very motivated by your achievements at such a young age.It’s just a pity that some people especially the young ones “born frees’ don’t value or are not aware of the opportunities we have as a black nation in the present dispensation, because they don’t know where we come from .

  2. Kal El

    Yes!! definitely true. I think, twenty years into our democracy, there are many people- young people in particular- who are questioning the legacy of our struggle, the merits of our freedom- who are even accusing Mandela of having sold us out at the negotiation table. However, this piece you have written is definite proof that no matter how bad things maybe for some of us now, democracy is working. Freedom really has brought about many wnderful changes. Changes which deserve celebration. Young people often are the one who are apt to lose faith when things are tough. Not knowing how bad things used to be, they can press for speedy answers that will get all of us nowhere. How great it is that as young people, we have leaders and role models like you to remind us to keep believing in the process, to never give up hope but keep chasing the dream, because, as things are now, it is possible to catch that dream!!

    As Mandela once said: “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning”.

    Thanks again ma’am for sharing, I remain firmly confident that Mandela, wherever he is, is very proud to have left the vision in the hands, of your kind. God bless you

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