“Failure and humility – not power and authority – are the best teachers”

Posted on June 24, 2020

Philosophy academic Dr Mpho Tshivhase chats to Masego Panyane about her role at UP, transformation in academia, and reminds youth to have faith in their abilities.   

UP Philosophy lecturer Dr Mpho Tshivhase (34) has a list of accolades as long as her arm: not only is she the first indigenous black woman to receive a PhD in Philosophy in South Africa, she also received the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities Faculty (2018), made the Mail & Guardian’s 2019 list of 200 Young South Africans, and took home the Institute of People Management CEO’s Excellence Award.  Dr Tshivhase is also the current sitting president of the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa. We picked her brain about her work and transformation in academia.  

What is your role at UP?

As a researcher and lecturer, I write articles and book chapters, and present papers at national and international conferences (virtually and in person). I also review articles for academic journals, examine national and international research dissertations, and supervise research projects. I am also president of the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa.

As a member of the Department of Philosophy, I am the department representative on the Transformation Committee and Research Committee, an interim Tutor and Assistant Coordinator. I am also the honours coordinator, and am serving as House Humanities Guardian.

Why did you choose this career path, and what is most rewarding about it?

I chose it for the freedom to think, even when it is against the herd, and for the opportunity to learn to widen the lens through which I comprehend humanity in the world. Academia is a space of contradictions, some of which are harmless; others are detrimental to your very soul.

What makes it all worthwhile is what I learn as I teach – what I learn about the system that hired me to teach and the context within which this system operates, and most of all, what I learn about myself and the places where my ideas lead. My most fulfilling moment comes when my students’ faces light up with knowledge at the end of a semester of learning. This is absolutely priceless. My favourite part involves everything that makes a change in a student’s life, be it teaching, researching, supervising, buying them a cup of coffee, comforting them when life gets too hard or just listening to their ideas.

You are the first indigenous black woman in South Africa to receive a doctorate in Philosophy. How do you feel about that?  

My celebration of the doctorate is marred with disappointment: it somewhat saddens me that it took so many decades for South African universities to produce a black female doctoral graduate in Philosophy post-1994. Nonetheless, I am humbled to be considered one of the symbols of possibility to younger (black) females who are dreaming of careers in fields that have no one or few who share racial, cultural and ascribed political identities with them.

How can academia be made more conducive for women? 

Teach sexist men to accept that they are not the yardstick of the axiological dimension personhood. Teach womxn  to be more confident about embracing their intelligence, talents and intuitions. “Decolonise” the institutional cultures to stop protecting people – especially those in positions of power – who discriminate against womxn. Create a teaching, learning and research environment that does not punish those who speak out against gender discrimination. Revise the leadership structures and place more womxn in strategic positions. In short, change the institutional culture so it aligns itself with ideals that fight against gender discrimination. And teach womxn to learn to support one another.  

What are your thoughts on transformation in academia – are we getting where we need to be?  

It is too slow. There are too many gatekeepers who are not committed to transforming academia. There is a shortage of leaders who can make a change where and when it matters most.

Do you have any advice for students?

Go with your gut. Academic success is passion plus intelligence. Intelligence makes you teachable, but it is passion that keeps you going when the world around you is falling apart or when the world does not understand or support your choices. Also, failing is part of the learning process. But remember to reward yourself when you do well.

How can young people build a stronger South Africa?

South Africa is built on a system that is designed to make you doubt your dreams, ideas, desires, life plans and sense of self. Trust your instincts and use your talents to shatter the glass ceiling. And remember, failure and humility – not power and authority – are the best teachers.

Do you have a message for the older generation in relation to youth?

Listen: listen to understand, listen to learn, listen to offer support, listen to teach. Just listen before you judge and dismiss youth. Some of them are wise, and they need older people to listen.




- Author Masego Panyane

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