You wouldn’t normally expect young South Africans to be in awe of a national leader in maths education and research. But many especially black youngsters of the matric and tertiary ages have latched onto Professor Kgethi Setati-Phakeng – not for maths, but to get daily insights into navigating life.
Bounced around in a world that celebrates materialism and the career quick fix, but often entering tertiary training without the familial traditions and anchors that come through generations of being established in the formal economy, South Africa’s student corps have the vivacious Setati-Phakeng who has taken it upon herself to use social media to send out daily titbits about the way forward.
Kgethi stumbled into doing this a couple of years back just by posting on her Facebook page her observations about her daily interactions with students and their sometimes idealistic, sometimes hare-brained, ideas. Soon she wasn’t just posting, but answering and acknowledging the streams of incoming comment which keeps growing. So who is this remarkable truthsayer to the young?
Professor Mamokgethi Setati-Phakeng is vice-principal of research and innovation at Unisa. She is also an honorary professor of mathematics at Wits, from which she holds her maths doctorate.
She is a B2 NRF-rated scientist (that means she’s super clever and seen as such worldwide). Awarded left right and centre, Kgethi most recently received the NSTF award for being the most outstanding senior black female researcher for her work on maths teaching in multilingual classrooms. Prof Setati was elected as a member of the Academy of Science of SA; is an honorary member of the Golden Key International Honour Society and an honorary life member of the Association for Mathematics Education of SA.
She is also president of Convocation at Wits University, trustee of the FirstRand Foundation, a member of the SA Board for the International Council for Science and a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation. She’s done other things too, most recently marrying a very lucky fellow indeed. Oh, and she’s a WHAM! contributing editor. See? She’s got all the time in the world.
– Paul Pereira, WHAM! editor
Here’s just a taste of Kgethi’s early morning tips to the young:
• We often encourage people to have dreams and dream big. But when you have a dream it is important to always remember that it YOUR dream and therefore YOUR responsibility to make sure it comes true.
• Remember that not everybody wishes you well. When you are focused as a young person and not interested in partying or running around doing mischief they will call you names – they will call you “cocky”, “cheeseboy “etc. Just brush it off and bulldoze your way forward because one day what you are working towards will be clear for the whole world to see and those naysayers will be forced to sit up and take notice. Deep down they will know your worth.
• Stand up for the truth! We live in an age where the majority of people do not care about doing what is right; an age where doing the right thing is not popular. Instead, most people do the things that will help them to succeed and obtain favour; and the few people who dare to stand up for what is right are mocked and looked upon as outcasts. The challenge is simple: Stand up for what is right, stand up for truth, and deal with all individual, corporate and national self-centred self-preservation behaviour which has complete disregard for people. Without respect for a fellow human being, compassion for the poor and needy, and the upholding of the law of the land, a society will eventually crumble. It may not look like that right now, but then neither does an apple seed look like a tree when it is planted. We have to stand up for the truth or sit back and watch as our country and the world fall into chaos.
• Don’t be a victim of your challenges. None of us will leave this world without experiencing challenges. Rather than allowing your challenges to be destructive in your life, you can use them to be constructive. There is value in each of the challenges we experience – something to learn or grow from.
• Wise up! I have met young people who tell me they want to be professors, so here is my advice: If you want to be a professor (and here I mean a professor who is worthy of the title), then you better forget about having an “8-to-4” working day. An academic job is not a regular 40-hour week, but an all-consuming endeavour. Be organised and disciplined; understand your priorities. Even after 17 years in academia, I still get to my office at 5:30 and leave earliest at 19:00 because that is the only way I can stay at the top of my game. This helps me not to work on weekends and holidays so that I can have time with my family. Academics who complain about working hours and admin have no understanding at all of what this business is about.
• It is amazing how many young people just want to be successful overnight. Many want to be CEO three years after graduation and drive a German luxury car during the first year of their employment. Nobody wants to go through the process of learning and growth. Humility is unfortunately rare among our youth these days. Simply because the individual is the only one in their family who has a degree, they think the whole world has been waiting for them to qualify and become CEO or professor.
So, here is my message to all the new graduates (it is paraphrased from Randy Pausch’s “The last lecture”): No job is beneath you. If you get a job in the mailing room, you ought to be thrilled you got a job in the first place. And when you get there, here’s what you do: Be really great at sorting mail. No job should be beneath you because if you can’t (or won’t) sort mail, then where is the proof that you can do anything?
• As usual, I walked into my office at 5:20 today and started with my daily routine: worship, push-ups and dumbbells and then start with work. Every minute counts! No time for Mickey Mouse activities during my working day.
I then thought about the many young people who tell me they want to do what I am doing. But then I look at the time they start and stop working, as well as the things that they do during their working day, and I wonder their dreams are consistent with their behaviour. It is okay to dream. But one also has to take consistent measures to make sure the dreams come true.
• The only thing we should be faking is confidence. If you don’t have confidence then just pretend you do. In every new situation, pretend you’re not nervous, pretend you’re not afraid. After a few times doing this, the pretend part disappears.
• Do not stress about what people say about you today because we are all a work in progress. We are always in a process of becoming that which we want to be. Just focus and do your best to be the best you. Who knows, you may even redefine cool!
• Patrice Motsepe gave half of his family fortune to improve the lives of the poor. Can you imagine how this world would be if each one of us gave half of what we have to improve the lives of the poor? We give not because we have more but because we want to live in a much better world!
• A tough lesson in life is that not everybody wishes you well. In the midst of the people who like you there are those who are watching and waiting for you to fail. Do not be deterred, just continue to pursue your dreams and one day even the haters will agree that you are the best in what you do.
• Surround yourself with positive people, walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. When you surround yourself with positive-thinking people who see the good in life and are grateful for the small things, you will also notice that these are the same people who see the opportunities in life instead of the challenges. These people lift you up and encourage you. These are the people who will believe in you, encourage you to pursue your dreams and be happy with you when you achieve them.
• Blaming others for your lack of success is a waste of time. No matter how much fault you find with other people and regardless of how much you blame them, it will not change you. Any kind of success requires you to accept responsibility.
• Have you ever been told to stop working hard and start having a life? I always wonder what people mean when they say that. It is usually those who have not achieved much who say such things. Does it mean those who do not work hard are the only ones who have a life? The truth is that many people who work hard have a life, not only a life, but a good life.
• Being who you are is what gives you the power to stand and make a change in the world. I spent most of my youth trying to be this and look like this and then I turned 40 and realised that all I can do is be the best me. Whoever that is – it is the best I can be. I started appreciating my personality and realising that while it comes with downsides there is a very good reason why someone like me exists. This is when I fell in love with my cellulite and the fact that I smile with my whole face. #LoveWhoYouAre
• Most people who are really successful are not motivated by money, power and/or fame. They are motivated by their passions and what matters to them the most. But the outcome of doing what they are passionate about is often money, power and fame. It takes time to get to a level where you are regarded as successful but that does not matter if you are living a purposeful life because you love what you are doing and who you are being in your purpose. When you are living a purposeful life, you are content, fulfilled and joyful – the outcome takes care of itself.
• Hi beautiful! Why are you so sad? I know things have been tough but, hey, don’t sit around expecting Superman to come and save you. C’mon, be your own Superman. You can only get as much support from others as you are willing to give yourself. It’s time to make YOU a priority!
• Stop complaining about your problems because every crisis, challenge or difficulty has an opportunity hidden in it. So make sure that you never let a serious crisis go to waste. It is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.
• Just in case you forgot, let me remind you that you are not as weak as you think, you are not as ugly as you think, you are not as stupid as you think – but the truth is that you create yourself in the way you think. So think of yourself as great because you are!
• That weight you’ve placed upon your shoulders is going to crush you. Take it off. You don’t need to be perfect. You don’t need to have it all together. You don’t need to please everyone. You don’t need to be anything or anyone other than who you are. You are more than good enough. Who you are is beautiful. Who you are is loved. Who you are is special in more ways than one. Place that heavy burden on the ground. Throw it into the sea. Expel it from your being. You will be lighter in mind, body, and soul. Live in that freedom of the true you. The true you is the best you can ever be!
• We make a great mistake thinking that we are supposed to be happy all the time; that a good life is an easy life. Many people whose lives are easy also feel empty. If everything comes to you with no effort or struggle on your part then you are never tested and so you will never get to learn what you are made of. One of the great life lessons I have learned is that the things you value most in your life are the things you fight for, and work hard for, and struggle for. If you think about it, most of the people you admire, people you know; people you have studied; those who have changed the world – they have also suffered, struggled and fought with great courage to overcome obstacles. It is not a weakness to struggle – it is an important part of life that should not be avoided. In fact the weakness is in avoiding the struggle in the first place.
• There is nothing wrong with being ambitious and dreaming BIG. Success belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.
• The thing I like about time is that it is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can’t buy more hours. Scientists can’t invent new minutes. And you can’t save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow.
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