The first time I saw Professor Phakeng was at an event on social cohesion, hosted by the Poverty and Inequality Initiative (PII). I knew little about her before the event, but after seeing her speak I knew that she was a game changer, and that she was a role model to me.

Throughout the event she spoke up and challenged ideas, bringing an intellectual rigor, relevance and confidence that I had never seen in a talk like that. Her insights were profound and I remember being left with so much to think about. 

Since then I’ve been following her on Twitter, and seen how engaged and connected she is with students and people from all over the country.

And when it was announced that she was in the running to be our new Vice-Chancellor, I was so so incredibly excited.

I was even more excited when it was confirmed.

So, briefly, let me tell you why Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng (Kgethi) is one of my role models

Reason 1: Connected and on the ground

The thing that I probably admire most about Kgethi is that she is incredibly connected to students at UCT and around the country.  She engages with people both online (usually Twitter) and in person, where she’s always happy to stop and chat to someone that says hi.

This quality is so unique for a leader in her position, but there should be more leaders that do this. The reason is that being close to the ground helps a leader understand the people they are serving and make better decisions as a result.

By doing this, she is able to respond to the needs of students as well as inspire them, which is phenomenal.

Below are two recent tweets from her. Notice that she wasn’t tagged in the first one, but because she follows the students she is able to respond to them.

Tweet number 2:

Reason 2: Making Education Fashionable #BeltSwag

In December 2017, before she was VC, Kgethi started a hashtag that trended across South Africa and the continent. The hashtag was #BeltSwag, with the idea that students should post their graduation pictures to both recognise them and inspire others. And also, to make education fashionable.

The original tweet is embedded below, followed by a tweet by one of my former students, Glenda, at her graduation with her mom. Glenda’s tweet went viral 🙂

I’ve never seen anything like the #BeltSwag tag, where an academic started a nationwide trend. And it still gets used to this day. 

As a lecturer, this is exactly the type of inspiration I love to see for the students.

Reason 3: Communicating

Kgethi communicates to UCT students and staff to the best of her ability. She sends emails that contain detailed information to update us on the activities that are going on at the university. This includes a recent one where she acknowledged and apologised on the university’s behalf for skeletons that were obtained unethically by the university in the mid 1900s.

Beyond this, she constantly uses her platforms to promote scholarships and opportunities to a wide community. An example of this is the tweet below about funding that is available at UCT.

Her transparency and communication is exactly what a leader should have, and it’s just another reason that she is a phenomenal role model.

Reason 4: Fierce Resolve

Finally, I admire the fierce resolve and commitment that Kgethi shows to the causes she believes in. For example, she has pledged to donate 10% of her salary to fund UCT students, as she believes in making education accessible. And, in order to save money at the university, she cancelled the inauguration ceremony planned for her, which would have cost around R1million.


Kgethi is an incredible leader. She is connected to the students, continues to inspire them, communicates effectively and shows incredibly commitment in all that she does. 

She is one of my role models. And I hope that I can continue to learn from her leadership.


Image is from the PII event in 2016

Blog: 338/365. Click here to read about my #365of25 journey
Song of the day: Roald Velden & Sabien Bouw - Shadow