Mamokgethi Phakeng

Vice-Chancellor | University of Cape Town

AfricaLive: At AfricaLive our focus on the higher education sector is on the future of research, and in particular the relationship between the private sector and academia in driving research and innovation.

In 2016, two years before assuming the position of Vice-Chancellor,  you gave a keynote address where you stated that without transformation research excellence in South Africa is unsustainable.

How would you now define your philosophy, and that of the University of Cape Town, when it comes to fostering research and innovation in South Africa?


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng: We’ve got to go to great lengths to be sustainable through teaching and research. Sustainability has to be a top priority. We want to grow as an institution and achieve more than we already have by relentlessly pursuing excellence. Excellence does not just happen by chance or overnight; it happens through constant resourcing. South Africa’s history has left a bit of an unfavourable legacy of mostly white and male excellence in higher institutions. The picture suggests that excellence is a preserve for certain races and genders, which is not true. We have a legacy of disproportionate resourcing that has to change.

Transformation must happen in a way that sees disadvantaged communities receive the resourcing they need. Lopsided excellence that lacks diversity will not be sustainable any longer because it will be challenged and ultimately discredited. Transformation should not only come in the form of gender and race but also in the form of research. We have to look at not only who is doing the research, but what questions are being asked. Whose questions are being asked? What methodologies are being used, and are they rooted in our context? All these things must be considered in the transformation agenda.

Transformation has to be a primary agenda to avoid a recurrence of the turmoil we experienced in 2015 all through to 2017 [during South Africa’s fees must fall protests]. The university was handed a cold wakeup call in terms of our processes and areas of focus. It came to us as a shock because at the time, we thought we were well on our way to a successful transformation agenda. It wasn’t like the university was doing well in general as an institution, we were among the best. It turned out though that our transformation agenda was only focused on giving access to disadvantaged communities but didn’t look at giving equality of participation and success. A huge part of the ‘fees must fall’ and ‘Rhodes must fall’ protests, was about ensuring that marginalised communities were not being excluded. 

We must look at transformation as not only an employment opportunity thing and a university inclusivity thing. Our whole culture as an institution must be redone to enable the inclusion of people to reflect the face of the country, ensuring equal participation and, therefore, equal success.


AfricaLive: Four years later, how do you believe your message regarding the importance of transformation to maintain research excellence has been received?

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng: Well, I think we can say the message has been well received otherwise I wouldn’t be occupying the position I currently hold at the institution! 

I have maintained the same stance all through because I believe in it and am sure that it is what we must do. When I arrived here, we didn’t have funding to support researchers that come from disadvantaged groups. Provisions started being made for those groups when I became the deputy vice-chancellor in 2017. I assembled all the black South African researchers because they were the minority in the higher ranks of research. It was vital for me to find out the barriers to their success and what could be done to enhance their experience. 

My move was controversial because it stepped on a few toes. Some white students were outraged because I spoke to black South African researchers only, while some black students wished I had included some blacks from outside the country as well. My intention was not to exclude some groups but to seek to understand the reason why this was happening. It was important for me to find out why black people were a minority in the university but a majority in the country. I needed to know what they thought and what their idea of progress would be. Understanding their perspective and talking to them was important because, for a long time, the only outlet they have heard was protest. 

Transformation has to begin by hearing out not just the black South African voices, but all voices. We set up two sets of funds to try and even the playing field. We had a fund for researchers from historically disadvantaged communities and another for everyone else. Setting up two equal sets of funds helped to avoid competition for resources and access, which would have led to eventual fighting. This method is helping to enable excellence evenly.


AfricaLive: The University of Cape Town already has an excellent track record in forming research partnerships with the private sector.

In your opinion, what form should the future relationship between academia and the private sector take?

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng: The global crisis we are experiencing right now I believe, is showing us the need for universities. 

I am working on a paper that will be titled “the return of the expert”. The paper takes into account the disillusionment of people when it comes to higher education in the past few years. It was almost like corporates and industry as a whole, were losing confidence in universities. There were many complaints about the calibre of graduates we were producing and our research. People like me have been at pains to defend the sanctity of basic research. Covid-19 is a horrible pandemic, but it also provides an opportunity for the expert researcher.

Our work has been questioned over the years but now in the current crisis business has no solution, government has no solution, so its upon us. Universities are the ones grappling with trying to find a vaccine, as well as taking an in-depth look at our business models. We are looking at our business models to determine if we should maintain them. Covid-19 highlights the importance of the expert, scientist and scholar. What we do will be valued more than it has ever been in recent times. I, therefore, do not see the relationship between universities and the private sector deteriorating in any way in the future. If anything, our relationships will only get stronger and more funding will become available for universities. Our partnerships cannot loosen, especially now. Businesses wants and needs a stable environment. A stable environment is not possible with the current public health crisis.

We have to produce results and solutions that prove our worth. A lot of anti-university sentiment in the recent past revolved around changing technologies. There was a lot of talk about universities needing to get with the programme or ship out in the face of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the fourth industrial revolution. It was not very comforting because these advancements are not taking place independent of us. A lot of the technological advancements have been born in universities, we are part of the revolution. We are in the business of new knowledge and research, just because corporates may fund them does not mean we don’t have a voice. 

A lot of the challenges I foresaw with regards to industry relationships will not be a thing in the post-Covid times because I see us forging tighter partnerships. We currently even have researchers working on advancements beyond Covid which involve transportation, town planning and a few other areas.  Our intellectual capital will be invaluable to corporates and industry.


AfricaLive: If we do indeed see tighter relationships between universities and industry, what can South Africa’s place in the global academic community be?

A lot of attention falls on the domestic challenges facing South African higher education. However, in a global context, universities here have a lot going for them. There are pockets of well-established research excellence, and research can be carried out here often for a fraction of the cost of Western Europe or North America.

Could we see South Africa emerge as a research and innovation hub?

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng: We can become a hub because of our strategic positioning in the world and the intellectual capacity we have over here. In the next few years, I see some economic constraints challenging us that will be brought about by the effects of the pandemic. 

The economic condition will force our government to think about what supporting higher education, and science means for our future economic fortunes. That will force us to pivot away from just depending on government funding. Universities will now have to look to corporates and other institutions for financing. We at UCT are already beginning to diversify our sources of funding. Our institution is increasingly finding ways of continuing to be on top of our game when it comes to research despite financial turmoil. 

UCT remains strong because of our intellectual strength and also our geographical strength. With the Southern African Large Telescope here, disciplines such as astronomy research will continue to be strong here as long as that remains vibrant; others such as oceanography and data science will remain strong as well. There are also huge opportunities for research that you can’t find anywhere else, given our history and diversity. Our unique history will remain an area of attraction for top researchers and an area of funding for top-class research. It presents an opportunity for researchers to ask certain kinds of questions that are not easy to explore in other parts of the world.


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