Society & Culture

Mamokgethi Phakeng: The future of diversity and inclusivity in STEM education

Rebecca Ilunga and Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng | 17 July 2019 | 22:57

Podcast transcript: Mamokgethi Phakeng: The future of diversity and inclusivity in STEM education

Kalay Maistry: I am Kalay Maistry, welcome to the latest episode of Engineering Reimagined. Humanity depends on engineering to help solve the wicked problems our world faces, in this podcast series we explore how, like engineers, people from all walks of life are reimagining the future and their leadership roles in it.

Across the globe, private and public education policies are changing to increase the diversity of students in higher education. Unfortunately, in some places institutional culture, along with several other challenges, continues to hamper increased student diversity, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – also known as STEM.

If our goal is inclusive excellence, where do we start?

One woman is asking the same questions on her campus.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Africa’s top ranked university, is a leading example of what can be achieved when diversity and inclusivity is encouraged.

Professor Phakeng grew up in Apartheid South Africa, where racial segregation was passed into law in favour of the white minority population. This racial discrimination determined everything from where you lived, to what level of education you received and what career you could embark on.

Our conversation with Mamokgethi comes a month after South Africa marked Youth Day on June 16th. Providing an inferior education was part of the Apartheid Government’s strategy. On June 16th, 1976 students in Soweto, a township located outside Johannesburg, rose up against Afrikaans being imposed on them as a medium of instruction. Afrikaans was deemed the ‘language of the oppressor’ and instead of students being able to critically think about the subjects being taught, they would be forced to focus on learning Afrikaans instead. The students intended to stage a rally at Orlando Stadium, but the protest turned violent and resulted in a bloodbath. The uprising would become an iconic moment in South African education. Police killed more than a hundred and seventy children on that day. A few veteran photojournalists and a student leader at the time, recall that fateful day.


Seth Mazibuko – Student Leader: And that’s the time, the sad time of my own experience as a young person of those days. Because it was in that particular time when we started counting corpses.

Ndumiso Mike Mzileni – Veteran photojournalist: I saw some white men was lying dead there and I saw some youngster, throwing some dust bin over him. And the whole place was students all around now, they were coming from all directions to join the other students to get to Orlando Stadium. Had the police allowed the students to get to Orlando Stadium, we never would have had the June 16th uprising.

Seth Mazibuko – Student Leader: Whenever I am asked about what it is I regret about 1976, I always say “I led children out of the classroom to be killed by police.”

In spite of the racial barriers, Professor Phakeng rose to become the first woman of colour in South Africa to receive her PhD in mathematics. Aside from holding the second highest international rating as a researcher and sitting on various corporate boards, Kgethi (as she’s more commonly known) is the founder of the Adopt-a-Learner Foundation, an NGO that funds and supports the education of learners from disadvantaged areas. She also travels the globe as a sought-after speaker and is a visiting professor to countries like Australia, Sweden and South Korea.

We had the privilege to sit with Professor Phakeng. Leading the discussion is civil engineer Rebecca Ilunga, of global engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon.

Let’s listen in and learn how Professor Phakeng who is considered a maverick leader is working to reverse the legacy of Apartheid, by finding and nurturing black excellence, while also paving the way for positive change in African education, society at large and academia globally.


Rebecca: Prof, thank you so much for joining us today. The first question I have for you, is what made you want to work in the maths field? And especially in the context of an apartheid South Africa, what made you hopeful that you could succeed against all the odds?

Mamokgethi: I mean, truth be told, it was the only thing I could do. I don't think I'd be as quick arithmetically as an actuary would, arithmetically just to chew out numbers, but it's the…it’s the way of thinking, that logic, the sense making.

I also did education as a subject, as a separate module. Mathematics, pure maths, and there was special English

Every semester my maths mark was above 70, I just kept going.

Rebecca: How has growing up during apartheid impacted your views on diversity in universities and in the STEM field?

Mamokgethi: It's interesting, growing up during apartheid of course meant that at university I could only go to a black university.

And in my family where I grew up, the teaching was that the only way out of poverty is to get an education. And my dad believed in university, he didn't believe in anything else.

I want a better life, and a better life was, you've got to get a better education, otherwise you're going to live like this forever.

You've got to become the best in what you do.

Rebecca: That's actually amazing. I think my dad used to say something similar to that whatever space you're in, you need to leave an impact there, so be the best version of that. 25 years now into democracy, coming from your background, how would you say the South African education landscape has changed?

Mamokgethi: Freedom is an amazing thing.

You can fight for it, but once you have it, what do you do with it?

For me it's this complexity of freedom and democracy that when we don't have it, we romanticize it, and we think it's going to solve everything. It doesn't necessarily do that.

For me it feels like we're at a stage where we need to talk values as a society.

Rebecca: Taking those values into account. Some of your priorities when you stepped into the VC role were around transformation and excellence, and sustainability. How would you say those three things feed into this idea of a value system within education?

Mamokgethi: I think when I took over at UCT, I thought UCT in my view is a place of excellence and that's a good thing. But excellence, just like democracy, just like freedom is not innocent. It's complex.

I say to people that excellence is not the issue, the issue is pursuing excellence without transformation then your excellence will not be sustainable. It will not have integrity because it will suggest that black people are only needed for the complexion or the amount of melanin in their skin. How disrespectful.

Rebecca: It devalues the excellence.

Mamokgethi: Yes. It's got to be a transformation that says, of course we believe that black people also have got the capacity to achieve excellence. It's not like we're just going to hire you or just accept you because you're black. We accept you and hire you because we can see the potential in you, and we were going to get you in. We'll create an enabling environment for you to work towards excellence, and then you can fly.

Rebecca: You are taking quite a different approach to how things have traditionally been done at UCT, and also trying to get some of the students to contribute to the curriculum to make it an excellent curriculum. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Mamokgethi: It’s an approach that says students are not just here to receive, they are also a resource. Of course, by virtue of being a student, you don't always know what you don't know because we don't know it yet. But you do have something to contribute, in terms of your expectations about what higher education should be about. Especially in today's age of where knowledge is so available, easily available. That sometimes students might not be able to tell us what is it that they want to be taught, but they can tell us what's not there. That's the decolonization project is about. It's really questioning why is it that we only have western knowledge? Why are we not taught about knowledge from the east or from the south?

It's not, in my view, a question that says, do away with knowledge from the west.

So by excluding other knowledge systems, we also impoverishing our intellectual project, including students in my view is important in that sense of the questions they ask, the challenges that they pose to us, because it pushes us to think to see the things. The fourth industrial revolution is also going to challenge that. There is a value in having students involved in this curriculum change.

Rebecca: Speaking of the fourth industrial revolution, it's obviously quite a hot topic at the moment. I mean, do you think globally that the universities are moving quickly enough with the pace of change that the fourth industrial revolution is ushering in?

Mamokgethi: We're not. Universities are averse to change. Universities are very traditional. When I contested for the job, one of the things that I raised in my presentation was the kind of student that we're dealing with today, that is completely different from the kind of student that we had 10 years, 15 years ago.

I talked about generation Z and some people, why are you not talking about generation X? It's not about age. For me, it's about precisely the generation that's embracing technology and ways of living in with machines and so on. It's not even limited to age, so what we're doing at UCT, we have set up A Futures think tank. That's one of the things that we are doing institutionally. Set up A Futures think tank, to precisely engage with the question about how what we do, will change as a result of the fourth industrial revolution. Or how the way we do what we do, will need to change. For example, now at UCT last year we launched the school of IT, which is a collaboration between three faculties; science, commerce and humanities.

We started a BA in informatics, that's not training people to be a computer scientist, but it brings, social sciences and computing together. Recognizing that in the fourth industrial revolution, you don't only need people who understand technology, but they also have to understand the human side of it. It's in the futures think tank we're saying, it's not only going to be about what we teach. It's also going to be who we teach and what they expect from us. Our programs going to be the same way they are. What will the students that are coming into the university in the next four to five years, what will they expect from us? Will all of them want a formal four-year, three-year degree, or will they want something else?

What freedom will they have to take courses from humanities, from science, from whatever, and put them together and do something with that? Will there be freedom? Will we be flexible enough as a university to do that? Will we be open to students who come in and they don't want the whole degree? They just want a few courses and leave. Will we treat them as drop outs or will we be having different conversations? So, so we've been talking about what's our future student? What does the future campus look like? What does the future's curriculum look like? It’s about making peace with the fact that the future is different. Preparing ourselves for it, and making sure that as a university we become, we remain relevant, for our society.

Rebecca: You spoke quite well about making things relevant and as being relevant and kind of a sphere. You are quite relevant in terms of social media. You have an amazing Twitter handle @fabacademic.

One of the hashtags you had was hashtag make education fashionable and that campaign, could you tell us a bit about that? Because it's very much linked to what you're speaking about now, about being relevant and being in a space where we can be innovative and creative in the way we approach education.

Mamokgethi: I started that campaign in 2017. My presence on social media is about education. It's because I believe in education. I believe in education as an equalizer. I believe that young people should make an effort to get it, and once you have it, what you do with it, but the first step is to get it. So, it's about the idea that everyone who gets a higher qualification, high education qualification has got a story. It's not only the fact that you got it, it's the story that led you there. I encourage people to tell their stories.

Rebecca: What unconventional part of your story and your upbringing, shaped the woman and the leader that you are today and influences the choices that you make.

Mamokgethi: I like saying to people that I'm a survivor in many ways. I don't even think, probably only my mother thought I'd be something big, but I don't think it was obvious. Some of that is because of the time in which I was born. What people don't know is that I went to school under a tree.

We walked 10 kilometres to school. I mean, I've had all of that.

At the same time I don't think my story is too unique.

Rebecca: Why would you say it's important to encourage and support diversity, particularly in the stem fields and specifically in engineering?

Mamokgethi: I don't think we can achieve the levels of innovation that we need, if we limit ourselves when it comes to diversity. We've got to open pathways for people from diverse background. Because they bring with them different ways of thinking, different ways of doing. Women work differently from men, and that creates possibilities in terms of what innovations can come out of their work. People who come from a working-class background, think differently and work differently from other people. Diversity in my view is important in the context of innovation in that way.

Rebecca: What type of challenges and opportunities do you think women interested in the stem fields face when they start their tertiary education?

Mamokgethi: I think first of all is just perception that you're not capable. I mean we as women, you start with that and it's not only a tertiary education, I find it's in every space you get into as a woman, you firstly have to overcome that perception that you're not good enough. Once you've done that, you prove yourself that you're good enough, and then you've got to deal with the burden that comes with the fact that you're good enough. Because if you're good enough then you might get other names, because you are too competent, you're too confident. Or you behave like a know it all, you're a prima donna, you're a queen, you are a B I T C H. Almost as if you can’t be incompetent, but you can be too good whichever way, you're going to be criticized. You've got to work thrice as hard and have thrice as thick a skin to deal with the challenges and attitudes and everything that comes with it.

Rebecca: If we want to see more young people, especially women globally excelling in the stem fields and what's undeniably a stem driven future, what changes do we have to make from the ground up in our schools in our communities and in our universities?

Mamokgethi: I think we should start with advocacy for the idea that girls can go into maths, or they can go into stem. That it becomes a usual message that girls actually can excel or do excel in maths. That advocacy can come in an explicit manner, but it can also come in subtle ways.

We've got to think creatively about how do we enable women to continue studying? For us at UCT, we are open to having women who want to start families and are doing post graduate studies. That they can actually live with their children in residence where they can live with their children. It's not a usual thing and it can be expensive, but it's an important thing to do, especially in a continent such as ours. Because otherwise women will be held back.

Rebecca: With your background in mathematics, how would you say that mathematics will open up new jobs and learning opportunities for young people, particularly the disenfranchised?

Mamokgethi: I think it will open new opportunities in the context of fourth industrial revolution because of machine learning. That if you are going to study you do artificial intelligence you'll need maths. Of course, I think more and more will start asking what maths? Because I think there is math that will probably, children won't need to learn anymore because machines can do it better. So, in my view, we're going to get to a stage where we emphasize particular kinds of maths that cannot just be automated that the machine can do. If you think about people who do gaming who might need a particular not heavy maths, but maths that can allow them to get into gaming.

They might need art as well, but you might need people who get into Data Science. I think data will become a big issue. And there'll be people who get into data science who might not traditionally have done maths, but they might bring maths into that. So, I think it will have as wide a spectrum. It could continue to create opportunities for people in the fourth industrial revolution.

Rebecca: How would you say creativity and innovation have been catalysts in your career trajectory?

Mamokgethi: I always say you cannot be an academic if you're not creative. Definitely. I mean you have to be curious and you have to be creative. I went into academia simply because I needed the space to pursue questions that are of interest to me. And that's a luxury of being a scholar. That you, the possibility of thinking beyond what your company does or puts on your desk because you can do any research that you want.

Rebecca: And do you agree that art should form part of stem? And If so, why?

Mamokgethi: I think today there's more interaction between art and science. I think in the past they've been separated as if one is soft, one is hardcore. And so, you should do one or the other. But I think if you see the new disciplines that come through. When I was a high school teacher I used to have by the way a hundred and one reasons why you shouldn't drop maths. And part of the reasons was basically what maths would allow you to study. And I'd say to students, how do you become a fashion designer even when you haven't done maths? It's not like you need to do high level maths, complex analysis, but you need some maths to be able to understand or to even cut a pattern.

Architects do more artistic work, but they need mathematics. Gamers do the same. Most creators have a mathematical way of thinking whether they're artists or whatever, they would have a way of thinking this mathematically. It just that we've presented maths as just being about numbers. And so, people think, no, I can't do maths, but I can do art. But if we analysed what they're doing, there's a lot of maths in what they do.

Rebecca: If your younger self had to give your current day self a piece of advice, what would that be?

Mamokgethi: My younger self was too naïve. I think my younger self would probably say keep having fun. You've got only one life to live. Don't bother about what they say, just have fun. You will not be 52 again.

Rebecca: And are you having fun?

Mamokgethi: Of Course. Of course

Rebecca: It was such an honour and a privilege to get to chat with you today.

Mamokgethi: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

Kalay Maistry: Hit subscribe on iTunes, or where - ever you listen to podcasts for more on the Engineering Reimagined podcast series.

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Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng talks about STEM education for women

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng grew up in Apartheid South Africa, where racial segregation was passed into law in favour of the white minority population. This racial discrimination determined everything from where you lived, to what level of education you received and what career you could embark on. Despite these racial barriers, she rose to become the first woman of colour in South Africa to receive her PhD in mathematics. Now, Professor Phakeng is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

Across the globe, private and public education policies are changing to increase the diversity of students in higher education. Unfortunately, in some institutions, increasing student diversity is hampered especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – also known as STEM.

If our goal is to achieve inclusive excellence, where do we start? Professor Phakeng is asking the same questions on her campus.

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, Aurecon Civil Engineer Rebecca Ilunga chats with Professor Phakeng about what the future curriculum might look like as well as the challenges and opportunities for women in STEM fields. We also discuss how creativity and innovation can be catalysts in our career aspirations.

Meet our guest and host

Learn more about Rebecca Ilunga and Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng.

Rebecca Ilunga, Civil Engineer at Aurecon

Rebecca Ilunga

Former Civil Engineer, Aurecon

Rebecca is a former civil engineer at Aurecon. She is passionate about water and the role it plays in our society. A driven and enthusiastic professional, she aims to be part of the environmental, social and economic transformation of how water is viewed and how it can be harnessed to create an opportunity for resilient design. Rebecca earned her Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Civil Engineering with Honours at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2014 and a Distinction for her Masters of Science (MSc) in Water and Environmental Management at the Loughborough University in the United Kingdom in 2019.

Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng from UCT

Mamokgethi Phakeng

Vice Chancellor, University of Cape Town

Professor Phakeng is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town and the first woman of colour in South Africa to receive her PhD in mathematics. Aside from being a highly regarded B2 NRF-rated scientist, she also travels the globe as a sought-after and a visiting professor to countries like Australia, Sweden and South Korea. She is also the founder of the Adopt-a-learner Foundation, a non-profit organisation that started in 2004 that provides financial and educational support to students from township and rural areas to acquire higher education qualifications.

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