South Africa: Hon Doc for Maths 'Trailblazer' Phakeng

Already named "the most influential woman academic in Africa" and "most prestigious businesswoman of the year", University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng added yet another string to her bow when she received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Hailing Phakeng as a trailblazer "in mathematics in post-apartheid South Africa", the university said she had made a substantial contribution to the development of maths education in the country, "where she has worked tirelessly to build mathematics education institutions and create opportunities for others to access and thrive in mathematics".

The honorary doctorate, awarded at a ceremony on 22 July, recognises Phakeng's "exceptional, influential and inspirational work" in her field, the influence of which reaches far beyond South Africa's borders, the oration said.

It cited Phakeng being named the "most influential woman academic in Africa" by CEO magazine, as well as "the most prestigious businesswoman of the year".

"A renowned scientist with a PhD in mathematics from the University of the Witwatersrand, she has earned numerous accolades, including the South African civilian honour Order of the Baobab (Silver), for her excellent contribution to the field of science," it continued.

Role model par excellence

"She was also nominated to chair the Human Resource Development Council Standing Committee on Mathematics and Science Education and, in 2004, founded the Adopt-a-Learner Foundation, a non-profit organisation that provides financial and educational support to students from townships and rural areas to acquire higher education qualifications," it said, adding that as a "role model par excellence", she continues to inspire through her institutional work and personal interactions.

"To succeed in the real world, you must be willing to start at the bottom. These days everyone wants to be an overnight success. But starting at the bottom makes you hungry and determined."

Phakeng, whose mother Wendy Mmutlana stood up and heaped praise on her daughter as she was about to give her acceptance speech, said it was a great honour and privilege to accept the honorary degree.

But it is more than individual recognition, she said.

"This is a recognition of the many people who made me, those I represent, the many young boys and girls all over the world, especially in my home continent of Africa, living in poverty and wondering if things will ever get better."

Recalling how she defied the odds, including starting her schooling studying under a tree, Phakeng said she hoped the honour would illustrate that anything is possible with hard work and consistency.

"To succeed in the real world, you must be willing to start at the bottom. These days everyone wants to be an overnight success. But starting at the bottom makes you hungry and determined. It is also a great way to find out, hard as it may be, that you are not as smart as you think you are. Starting at the bottom is the best way to learn!"

As part of her other engagements in Bristol, Phakeng will attend the launch of a Bristol-UCT collaborative degree programme today, 23 July.

She will also be hosted by the Bristol Doctoral College at a networking session where she will meet postgraduate researchers and give a short talk on "Developing a Career as a Socially Responsive Academic".

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