Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng started her education under a tree and had to walk up to 10km just to get to school.
Today, she is a full professor in mathematics education. She is also preparing to take over from Max Price as the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town from July. Perhaps foretelling good fortune, Phakeng was born still in her amniotic sac, in a Catholic clinic in Eastwood, Pretoria, on November 1, 1966. Her mother, Wendy, was a domestic and factory worker, while her father Frank was a radio announcer at the SABC.
After giving birth to Phakeng and her siblings, Wendy went back to school and finished her studies so she could work as a teacher. Phakeng recalls being sent to live with her grandparents in Marapyane village in Mpumalanga where as a Grade 1 pupil, on days when it was not raining, she would make the trek with her cousin to a rural school. However, she did not stay there long. Her primary school journey also took her to Ga-Rankuwa. In her 12 years of basic education she attended eight schools.
“Some of it (the moving around) was (because of) family, some of it was poverty and some of it was politics,” she says. “Even though my mother argues that I am an introvert, I had to get used to people quickly and speak to people that I didn’t know very well because that was just how life worked.”
She completed matric at a rural school in Hebron and enrolled at the University of Bophuthatswana (now part of North-West University) at just 16 years of age. Her parents warned her that she had just four years to get her degree. Phakeng, her brother and sister were at one stage all attending university at the same time. “So there wasn’t much time, there wasn’t much money.”
Describing herself as nerdy and scared at the time because she was still so young, Phakeng says she did not party it up at university. She threw herself into tennis, soccer and hockey. She was also well known for demonstrating ballroom and Latin American dancing skills that she picked up while in Ga-Rankuwa. Phakeng said she was never a student leader but attended mass meetings.
Phakeng obtained her PhD in mathematics education in 2002. While she struggled with other subjects, she excelled at mathematics because nobody told her it was hard, she said.
“I just came to terms with what I want, what I can and cannot do. “I focused on what I can do and I like, and I did it well. And all my life, that’s what I did.”
The rest, as they say, is history.