As our world embarks on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where technology is becoming increasingly complex and embedded in the development and transformation of research capabilities, we feel that it is crucial to encourage and equip young girls and women to strive for their place in this global movement. Here are five women from home soil who are making their voices heard within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Professor Mamokgheti Phakeng

Graduating as the first black South African with a PhD in Mathematics Education in 2002, Professor Phakeng represents a powerful beacon of hope in the STEM sector. Coming from a poor background, her father taught her to believe in knowledge and education and its ability to propel each person forward to fulfil their true potential. In an interview with Cape Talk, Phakeng explains that mathematics was something she felt she could understand and that it became a comfort to her in high school, it became all she wanted to focus on.

Years later, Professor Phakeng has racked up years of teaching and lecturing experience, published over 80 peer-reviewed articles and five edited volumes. She was a former national president of the Association for Mathematics Education South Africa (AMESA), a former chairperson of the board of the South African Mathematics Foundation (SAMF), and a member of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) board. She was executive dean of Unisa’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology, and in 2018, was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, taking over from Dr Max Price.

Her pursuit of educational growth and a deep desire for each South African student to do the same offers inspiration to young women finding their own place within STEM careers.

Dr Mosadi Mahoko

Inspired by her late mother, Professor Sophie Mahoko, who was involved in the medical sector as a midwife, later achieving her PhD in healthcare and becoming the dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Venda, Dr Mosadi Mahoko knew that she wanted to be a doctor from an early age.

In 2016, she was accepted to Stellenbosch University (SU) for a plastic surgery training programme, becoming the university’s first black female plastic surgeon. She is currently a registrar in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at SU. Here, she has had the opportunity to be a part of ground-breaking technological developments in the field, fuelling her passion for cleft lip and palate surgery, through which she hopes to work on nasal reconstruction for these children, too.

In 2020, Mahoko was awarded the Jack Penn medal for the best results in South Africa for her 2019 final plastic surgery exams. Her pioneering spirit illuminates the fascinating world of technology in medical science, and serves to embolden other women to do the same.

Aviwe Funani

After making the brave decision to move from Maclear (a small town in the Eastern Cape) to study in Cape Town, Aviwe Funani discovered her passion for information technology and information science. Growing up in a home where asking questions was encouraged, Aviwe pondered the lack of a female presence in influential roles. She set out to change just that.

Graduating with a BCom in Information Systems and experiencing the corporate world for a short while, Aviwe decided to plot her own path and follow her dreams of empowering the youth, especially women. Aviwe now works as the Monitoring Manager for Waves for Change, a non-profit organisation that provides children from under-resourced communities with mental health support through surf therapy. Aviwe is also engaged in Cape Town’s Global Shapers, where she has contributed to projects like Ladies in Tech, teaching women in Khayelitsha how to use computers and empowering them through this.

Read Aviwe’s full story in the Daily Maverick, it’s an incredible one! 

Aphiwe Hotele

Aphiwe Hotele had a dream of being a scientist. Despite personal obstacles, she strived to make her dream come true. Now, she holds a BSc in Computer Science and Biochemistry cum laude from the University of Fort Hare, as well as an MSc in Computer Engineering from the University of Cape Town.

In 2015, Aphiwe joined the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, which seeks to advance telescopic technology, allowing scientists to see deeper into space than was previously imagined. Here, she joined the science data processing team, where she was given the task of finding a low-power method of cooling the equipment used to process extremely large amounts of data. Aphiwe is an executive member of the International Council of Systems Engineers South Africa (INCOSE SA) and is passionate about motivating young female engineers to connect and form part of her #breakingthestereotype platform, pursuing their careers with vigour.

Professor Tebello Nyokong

As a young student embarking on high school, Professor Tebello Nyokong felt swayed by stereotypes and peer influence, leading her to deny her passion for science until the last two years of her secondary education. In that time, a female science teacher discovered Professor Nyokong, encouraging her to change streams before she finished school. Despite the risk, Professor Nyokong never looked back. She is now a South African chemist, holding a BSc in Chemistry and Biology, an Msc in Chemistry and a PhD in Chemistry and is recognised as a distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnology at Rhodes University. She has won multiple awards for her work and has taken part in a medical research programme which aims to find an alternative to chemotherapy for cancer treatment.

Professor Nyokong strongly believes in the power of education and urges young women with an interest in Science to follow their passion and work hard to achieve their goals. Women play a vital role in the development of our technological world; we want to show young girls that they have a place in the revolution too.