On Wednesday, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng held the lift for three young men walking through the security gates in the foyer of Unisa’s main campus.
The man at the head of the group waited for his friend to enter first. When she asked why he hesitated, his friend joked: “You are beautiful and he is scared of beautiful women.”
After some convincing, the three postdoctoral students got inside and they all headed to the 10th floor.
On arriving there, they asked her name and she responded: “I am Kgethi.” Asked what she does at Unisa, “I told them I work at the vice-principal’s office.” “Doing what?” they asked me. “I told them I am the vice-principal.”
Their jaws dropped, they apologised profusely and fled in the opposite direction. On Friday, she ran into one of them again and he continued apologising.
It is not surprising that 49-year-old Phakeng gets this sort of attention. At first glance, she looks like a woman in her early 20s, more like a student than the head of a university. She has two tattoos: the words ‘forgive’ on her right arm and ‘believe’ on the left.
She strolls out of her office at the Theo van Wijk building at Unisa’s Pretoria campus, wearing a cerise, high-waisted, flared skirt and matching white-and-pink floral crop top. Nude six-inch, peep-toe shoes highlight manicured toes. “Hello, I will be with you shortly,” she says, flashing a smile.
She ushers me into her spacious corner office. On one side is a desk piled with documents and a laptop, and on the other is a massive bookshelf decorated with African art and a host of framed certificates, photographs and books.
Phakeng, who grew up in Ga-Rankuwa in northern Pretoria, looks nothing like your stereotypical stuffy professor.
“Although I love to look good, credit goes to my self-taught designer from Atteridgeville for what you see today,” she says. “She designs almost everything I wear. Her work is amazing.”
Phakeng is the vice-principal of research and innovation at Unisa, as well as the first black woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics in South Africa.
She has just been appointed deputy vice-chancellor, and is taking over the research and internationalisation portfolio at the University of Cape Town (UCT), a position she will fill on July 1. She succeeds Professor Danie Visser, who is retiring at the end of this year.
“When I got my doctorate [in 2002], I was told the following year that I was the first black woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics education. I thought it ridiculous that we do not have black women with doctorates in mathematics.
“It is a huge responsibility to have and I definitely do not want to be the only woman holding this degree,” she said.
The mother of five is excited about her new job.
“UCT is a top-performing university in Africa. Its standards have put Africa on the map,” she says.
“I am excited about it because of the stature of the job and the people I will be working with,” she says.
One of those will be Professor Bongani Mayosi, dean of the faculty of health sciences and chairman of the national health research committee.
“My work inspires me and gives me energy to meet the demands of the job. If I worked for an employer that prevented me from working with young people, I would probably never be productive. I would lack energy and get bored.”
There will definitely be no room for boredom in her job at UCT, which prides itself on being a “research-intensive” university.
In 2014, UCT academics published more than 1 000 articles, which featured in academic journals, as chapters in academic books, in presentations and as part of academic conferences in the fields of commerce, engineering, health sciences, humanities, law and science.
But Phakeng’s move to UCT comes at a time when the country’s universities are faced with a host of challenges, including the #FeesMustFall campaign.
Like all the others, UCT is caught in the dilemma of having to retain the best academics and maintain the highest education standards while being cognisant of the majority of students who cannot afford the fees the institution demands.
Phakeng says these demands do not shake her, because “it’s the nature of the job to deal with such issues”.
She has had plenty of practice, having worked in various capacities at the University of Johannesburg (then Vista University), Wits University and at Unisa.
Phakeng revealed another side to her stylish self this week when she posted a status update on Facebook about ditching her executive duties and taking on the task of scrubbing the university’s toilets because the cleaning staff were on strike.
“I could not stand the smell and the filth
in the toilets. So instead of sitting and complaining, I decided to do something about it,” she says.
“I arrived on Monday and the toilets were not looking good. I dreaded going there again, so I sent out an email to my colleagues on Tuesday, inviting them to join me as I clean the toilets.”
Armed with an apron, gloves and detergent, Phakeng and four colleagues rolled up their sleeves and cleaned the ladies’ and men’s loos.
Her colleagues tried to talk her out of it, but “I told them I do this every day at my house”.