“Freedom without education is not freedom at all” says Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Salman Shaheen speaks to Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, winner of the first-ever Africa Education Medal, about how education can free Africa from the legacy of colonialism and transform the continent.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng won the inaugural Africa Education Medal last year – a feat for which she was congratulated by none other than Oprah Winfrey – and she is among the world’s leading scholars in mathematics education who served as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town from 2018 to 2023. Growing up in rural and township South Africa during Apartheid, she became the first black female South African to achieve a PhD in Mathematics Education in 2002 and she is determined not to be the last. In the two decades since she has published more than 80 research papers and five edited volumes that continue to shape mathematics education in classrooms across Africa and far beyond. Her research focuses on language practices in multilingual mathematics classrooms and has proved influential in post-colonial Africa and post-Apartheid South Africa in particular. Her research and community work have won her many prestigious awards, not least the Order of the Baobab (Silver) conferred on her by the President of South Africa in April 2016. She was named the most influential woman academic in Africa by CEO magazine in 2014, and in 2020 she was included in Forbes’ inaugural list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Africa. In an exclusive interview for Elevate, Professor Phakeng champions the cause of African education because “freedom without education is not freedom at all”, discusses the importance of multilingual mathematics education, and urges changemakers from across the continent to step forward for the Africa Education Medal 2023.

Salman Shaheen: You have dedicated so much of your life’s work to improving education. How did education become your cause?

Mamokgethi Phakeng: Education changed my life. I most certainly wouldn’t be here without an education. I grew up in a poor family. My mother was a domestic worker, neither of my parents had high school education. And so I’m glad that my father made us believe that education can change our lives. Because if I didn’t have an education, I don’t know where I would be. So because it changed my life, I think it can change other people’s lives.

Salman Shaheen: One of the reasons you’re such an influential changemaker is because you saw where inequalities exist in terms of the teaching of mathematics. And one of the things that interested me when you first became a finalist for the Africa Education Medal 2022 was how you thought about mathematics education within the sphere of post-colonialism, and post-Apartheid. How mathematics wasn’t just about numbers, but you approached it in terms of language. Can you tell us about that?

Mamokgethi Phakeng: So I learnt mathematics throughout in a language that’s not my own. And I know how it affected me. And when I started teaching, I saw that. Before I started teaching, the focus on language was not such a big issue. I thought it’s my problem only. Once I started teaching, I realised that actually, many of the learners who struggled with mathematics are learning mathematics in their second, third or fourth language: English. Not only that, they’re learning mathematics in a language that they are still learning. They’re not fluent in English. And yet they have to learn mathematics and English. And the difficulty of doing that because mathematics is very much like a language. And you succeed in mathematics if you understand the language of mathematics. 

And so I started thinking about how to do it in different multilingual classrooms. How do teachers handle this? I found there were some teachers making a rule that children should only speak English. And so they were focused on developing English so that the children can learn mathematics. But if you’re in a maths class, it’s a maths period, and if you’re focusing on English, you’re actually denying the children the time to learn mathematics. And then there were teachers who didn’t care about the English, they said to learners just mix whatever is possible, just do it.

And it was just interesting to see, how do they do that? And there were some classes where the children’s home languages were used, but it wasn’t used for teaching mathematics. It was used for other things, for solidarity, for encouragement for whatever. And I thought, we’ve got to think about teaching mathematics in such a way that it draws on the language of the learners rather than makes it criminal to use it on the work. But also be conscious of the fact that children want to learn English. 

So why don’t we use a multilingual approach – have two languages, every task that the children get comes in two languages, and children have got anopportunity to choose at any one time. English is there for them, but it’s not like they have to ask for permission for using their own language. It is there and everyone recognises it as a resource. 

If you think about it, that’s decolonial because coloniality came with the language as well, that we using the language English because it’s the language of our colonisers, it was official, and it’s like anyone from the former British colony has to learn in English. And other languages are not seen as resources. And of course, you don’t just focus on the language, you also focus on the task, you design a high cognitive demand task, and you can do that if there’s a language support, and the tasks that one designs force children to think about the context as well. So that’s the approach that I trialled in classrooms and found that it works much better. And all the children get involved because they are not put off by the language that they’re still learning.

Salman Shaheen: I think this approach that you’ve taken is certainly one of the many reasons why you’re widely considered to be a changemaker in the field, not just of African education, but in education around the world. Now, I think as a changemaker, it’s fair to say a lot of people out there are looking up to you, but who do you look up to?

Mamokgethi Phakeng: You know, growing up I admired my mother because my mother went back to school after getting married and having three children, and she was studying with us, I mean, throughout my school days, basic education and undergrad, we lived with a mother who was studying. And so the discipline of focusing on your studies every day, we learned it from her and you couldn’t fail because you looked at how she’s performing. She has been my inspiration from a young age. 

And then as I grew up, I started looking at other women. I mean, certainly Dr. Mamphela Ramphele stands out for me, a woman who distinguished herself, became a medical doctor, black woman from Limpopo. And she was involved politically with the black consciousness movement. Not only did she not stop at being a medical doctor, I mean, when she was under house arrest, she started community projects, you know, it’s like nothing could get her down. And when she was released, she went on to study anthropology and economics, to understand the politics of poverty and inequality, how health, economics and culture all interact. And how she rose up at that time in academia, it’s extraordinary. She was the first woman Vice-Chancellor on the continent. There was no black woman Vice-Chancellor and so I looked up to her, I still look up to her and learn from the good work that she has done.

Salman Shaheen: We founded the Africa Education Medal alongside HP to hopefully make a contribution to education in Africa. To inspire new leaders to come forward and act as changemakers to transform education on the continent. As our inaugural winner, I’d love to hear from you why you think education is so important for Africa’s future.

Mamokgethi Phakeng: Without education, individuals’ lives can never be changed, but nor can society across the continent. A democracy will never come to fruition. You know, it’s one thing to get liberation, and to be no longer under colonial rule. But if we don’t have an education, we will always be led by former colonisers. Education allows us to have agency and to use our agency for good. If you’re educated, you can think beyond yourself, to think about how you use your education to change the world. The more people we have in the continent who are educated, the more we can actually have the benefits of liberation coming to fruition. Freedom without education is not freedom at all, because you can’t exercise your agency, you depend on other people. It’s the only way we can liberate ourselves mentally from our former colonisers and enjoy the fruits of democracy.

Salman Shaheen: In terms of your priorities for transforming education in Africa, we’ve talked about your own work, of course, in mathematics education and decolonising maths, but beyond your work, in terms of African education in general, what do you think the main priority should be?

Mamokgethi Phakeng: I would say teacher education. When you have quality teaching, then the teachers will have many learners who they influence. 

The second thing I think, is technology to help teachers. And that’s what really drove me. When I introduced the UCT Online High School, it was precisely because, you know, there aren’t enough quality teachers and quality teaching is the key. Without quality teachers teaching you, we will not be able to change anything, but the few that we have on the continent, we can use technology to make sure that their quality teaching can reach more people. So for me, technology is the second most important thing. 

And so with technology, then you’ve got to make sure that there’s more access to hardware in terms of laptops across the continent, with the right software that children can access. 

Salman Shaheen: Absolutely, it’s one of our guiding principles at T4 Education to support teachers, it cuts across everything we do. Telling your story has been an important part of that work, including that wonderful moment when Oprah Winfrey congratulated you for winning the inaugural Africa Education Medal. How did you feel when you heard you’d won and what does winning Africa’s most prestigious education accolade mean to you?

Mamokgethi Phakeng: I mean, it was a surreal moment. I didn’t expect to win, because there were just such high-quality finalists. But every time I get an accolade, for me, it comes as a challenge. It’ a recognition of the work, but also a challenge to do more, because it creates more opportunities. And frankly speaking, it also creates more ears that listen to you. I mean, having Oprah give the congratulations, people didn’t know that I work with the Oprah school. And suddenly people know that. And suddenly people realise what the Oprah school is doing. And in the end, there’s more ears in terms of people saying, let’s talk, how can we do this better? And I think that that medal creates an opportunity to open more doors and influence education.

Salman Shaheen: Do you have any words of advice for changemakers who might want to follow in your footsteps and apply for the Africa Education Medal 2023?

Mamokgethi Phakeng: My word of advice is that if you are passionate about education, and you are doing work to advance education on the African continent, please nominate yourself or get someone to nominate you. It will create an opportunity for you to reach more people and impact more people. 

Salman Shaheen: Finally, I’d love to hear what’s next on the horizon for you. 

Mamokgethi Phakeng: I’m busy writing my memoir. There are a lot of lessons to learn from my journey which has been shaped very much by education. I’m hoping that by the end of the year, I’ll be done with a memoir and I’ll be releasing it next year. It’s the kind of memoir that tells a story of a changemaker, from birth to now and how education shaped all of that. I’ll also be a visiting professor at different universities.