Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng: From learning under a tree to international recognition

Education champion Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, the University of Cape Town’s vice-chancellor, walked seven kilometres on a dusty road to school for lessons under a tree.

But before the trek to school, Phakeng and children in her village would collect water, walking roughly the same distance. School-ready children starting grade one (then known as sub A) had water duties twice a day.

“After fetching water early in the morning, you got ready for school; at that time, watches were rare. So, we used the sun to measure the time — the sun and my grandmother. My cousin and I were like siblings, we’d walk to school together,” she recalls.

That was 50 years ago at Ikageleng Primary in Marapyane village in Mpumalanga, says Phakeng, who was named the inaugural winner of the Africa Education Medal two weeks ago. 

The school uniform was a black sleeveless dress and a white shirt. It was the only primary school in the village. “I think it only had four classrooms. Next to the school was a church. And there were big trees; under one particular tree where our class gathered, there was a blackboard leaning on a trunk.

“We’d have our lessons under the tree. But when it rained, we’d go into the church with the grade two’s because we couldn’t be under the tree. There wouldn’t be much teaching when it rained. We would cuddle up, and sometimes the teachers would complain about the noise-making because we would be excited, and there were too many of us.”

Phakeng says she never went to preschool but was eager to go to school. “I can recall that we couldn’t wait to go to school. My grandmother said if we can touch your left ear with your right hand over your head, you are ready to go to school.”

Walking home from school was more fun, says Phakeng, because the walk there was severe and rushed, often because the group didn’t know whether they would be late.

“But the walk back was enjoyable because it was leisurely, and we would pause along the way. It was such a long way, so we’d stop to eat wild fruit along the way. It was a very sandy area, we would watch the marks on the sand. Sometimes we would see a snake pass on the street.

“We would lie on the sand, sometimes look up to the sky, and once in a while, there would be an aeroplane. There were all sorts of superstitions about what you see on the ground and in the sky. Sometimes, we would see bats but we were not supposed to cross the bat’s line. It was exciting,” she says.

Reminiscing on a funny moment, Phakeng says there were pit latrines along the route for pedestrians. “Many of us as children struggled with worms. And, of course, we had no idea what worms were. One day a child went into the pit latrine crying because the worms came out of his bottom.  The child was crying. We all began crying. We thought snakes were coming out of the child’s bum. We thought this was witchcraft. We ran, calling on adults to help.” 

Phakeng describes herself as a survivor, saying that five decades later, one seldom hears about children who have studied under trees and become successful.

“It’s always a story of failure or anticipation that the child will not get anywhere. So this is not to say we should leave children going to school under a tree so they can succeed, but it’s to say that they can be successful.

“I have always described myself as a survivor of the system. Those conditions were not meant to produce success, so I survived that system. So many children I started with back in 1972 have fallen off the track and didn’t get to where I did.”

Phakeng says they cannot be blamed for not rising above their circumstances. “We were supposed to fail.”

Phakeng went to Tsela-tshweu higher primary, Tswelelang higher primary, Thuto-Thebe middle school, Odi high school and Hebron College of Education. 

She completed her matric with university exemption in 1983 in the village of Hebron at the school now known as Manotshe Moduane Secondary. 

In 1983, the world population was 4.72 billion. Michael Jackson ruled the music charts with Beat It and Billie Jean. Civil war broke out in Zimbabwe. New York experienced an earthquake. The final episode of M*A*S*H aired and was watched by 125 million viewers. Cabbage patch dolls went on sale. The video game Mario Bros made its debut, spawning the Super Mario Bros game.

Phakeng says she went to stay with her grandmother and attended Ikageleng Primary because her mother, Wendy Mmutlana, went back to school to complete grade seven. Her father, Frank Mmutlana, was one of the first black radio announcers on Radio Setswana, now MotswedingFM, at the SABC. 

“In 12 years of primary education, I went to seven schools. I never spent more than two years in one school. Part of it was because of the family situation, the poverty, and my mother’s school. 

“Part of it was that as a result of the changes in the country’s politics, like when the homeland of Bophuthatswana introduced middle schools. When my mother completed grade 10, she went to college and did a primary teacher’s course. And then she came to teach in Tswelelang Primary School, and she took us to be students at the school where she was teaching. We all went there. So I did one year at my mother’s school until the end of grade seven and then had to go to another school for grade eight.

She completed her matric at boarding school, her father paying the fees with a R500 loan from the broadcaster. 

“When I asked them why they sent me to boarding school, my mother said we thought we had to take you away from the boys in the township,” says Phakeng, bursting into laughter.

She says the discipline at boarding school was like being in the army; there were different rules for boys and girls. “It was my first experience of being with other students my age who did not come from my township. They either came from a different township or another village. It was also the first time I lived away from the family and had to do my washing, ironing and so on.”

Phakeng, on sabbatical until February 2023, says the school was influential in shaping her and inspiring her to use education to transcend her circumstances.

Among the numerous congratulatory messages for the inspiring learner from under a tree in Marapyane village was from global television icon and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.“That was nice,” says Phakeng, about to start her second term as vice-chancellor at UCT in 2023. – Higher Education Media Services ©

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