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Knowledge creates power

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng
Mamokgethi Phakeng is a major influencer in South Africa when it comes to higher education. Her motto is “Make education fashionable.”

With its approximately 60 million inhabitants, South Africa is Africa’s largest economy. Despite many years of economic growth, the country is struggling with a number of challenges. Access to a good education guarantees sustainable development, says Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

South Africa has several turbulent decades behind it. The advent of democracy in the mid-1990s provided political stability and economic growth. But in 2020, GDP fell by 7 percent and recovery was slow in 2021. The country has an economy divided in two, a legacy from the colonial era. Of the 40 million inhabitants of working age, only 15 million are permanently employed. The rest of the population lives off of odd jobs in an informal economy.

The great hope is the growing group of young entrepreneurs who create new jobs in various startups, many of them focused on technology. Cape Town has more than 450 tech companies and has been called, among other things, South Africa’s Silicon Valley. Digitialisation is good for the city’s growth, and new business ideas can help solve various sustainability challenges, such as the solutions of startup Aerobotics, a data analysis company using drones to give farmers deeper insights into their land and crop yields.

But Cape Town is not only a bubbling tech hub, the city is also home to four high-ranking universities. The Vice Chancellor of one of them believes that education can be a potential catalyst for change.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is something of a power player when it comes to higher education in South Africa, and she was named one of Africa’s most influential women by AvanceMedia 2020. Since 2018, she has been Vice Chancellor of the epicentre of South Africa’s future talents, University of Cape Town, which was ranked as the nation’s premier university by the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings.

Mamokgethi Phakeng points out the importance of more young South Africans receiving a high-quality education, so they can influence the country’s progress. But can a top-class university really contribute to sustainable development? Yes, the Vice Chancellor of Africa’s highest ranked university believes that a good school offers an opportunity to influence the future of an entire country.

“I see meaningful learning as the most important building block for sustainable development,” she says. “Knowledge creates motivation in students and they develop into individuals with drive. Our university in Cape Town is ranked among the best in the world and naturally attracts young talent from all over Africa.”

Visionary Mamokgethi Phakeng has become a great source of inspiration for young people – not only in South Africa but for the entire continent, through her activity on social media,  where she spreads her message daily.

She is particularly passionate about helping other women be the best at what they choose to do: Simply dare to succeed. That is why she has, among other things, started a foundation that distributes scholarships to promising young female students.

Mamokgethi Phakeng believes there are no shortcuts to success. 

“I usually tell the students they must be ambitious. Only those who invest a lot of time and hard work will succeed,” says Mamokgethi Phakeng.

She also has strong opinions on economic and democratic development in South Africa.

“Our young democracy is being challenged just now,”
she says. “What we have achieved since 1994 is being tested in this time of pandemic. South Africans must learn to be able to decide what good leadership is in order for our economy to become stronger. Education is also crucial here.”

South African society is still characterised by great inequality and the large country is also plagued by structural problems such as widespread corruption and high unemployment, and above all large income disparities between Blacks and whites.

Raising the status of education is therefore extremely important, says Mamokgethi Phakeng. Knowledge gives power, and perhaps the saying is truer in South Africa than anywhere else. So every year in December, she runs a campaign under the theme “Make education fashionable” to encourage others besides today’s approximately 1 million university students to realise the importance of education.

With her influence, Mamokgethi Phakeng also wants to help make more South Africans realise the importance of the climate crisis. For a country with high unemployment and large class differences, it is easy to focus everything on economic growth. “If we only fight poverty, we will soon have no planet left. We can also do a lot to create a more sustainable future.”

Mamokgethi Phakeng

Age: 55.

Occupation: Vice Chancellor at University of Cape Town since 2018.

Home: Cape Town, South Africa.

Career: In 2002, she became Africa’s first Black woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics. Visiting professor at, among others, the University of Bristol. In 2020 she was included in Forbes’ inaugural list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Africa.

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