‘You are limitlessly brilliant’

Posted on August 31, 2020

“When will you complete your studies?” is a question Dr Mpho Tshivhase had to fend off for years. But her tenacity paid off – she became the first indigenous black South African woman to graduate with a doctorate in Philosophy.

Many first heard of Dr Mpho Tshivhase when she made history by becoming the first indigenous black South African woman to graduate with a doctoral degree in Philosophy.

Yet as a teenager at Louis Trichardt High School in Limpopo, Dr Tshivhase had a different plan in mind – she wanted to be a psychologist. During her third year of BA Psychology, while volunteering at an HIV clinic, she was trained as an HIV counsellor. It was the intense emotional and mental health strain of counselling that steered her towards Philosophy.

“I was not emotionally ready,” Dr Tshivhase says. “The classroom and the textbooks had not prepared me for the sheer depravity that resides in some human beings, and exposure to such wickedness traumatised me in ways I had not thought possible and was simply unequipped to handle as a 20-year-old. Once I graduated, I received an invitation to do my honours in Philosophy and I went for it! It took some convincing and the financial support from scholarships for me to register for a master’s in Philosophy, after which I thought it rational to register for doctoral degree in the subject.”

Inquisitiveness and strength are traits she learned from her late mother, and they have equipped her with the tenacity she needed for what would be a roller-coaster of a journey. In the beginning, however, she had two challenges to face: studying something that was barely heard of in her community and responding to the question: “Ni do fhedza lini tshikolo?” (When will you complete your studies?) in TshiVenda, Dr Tshivhase’s home language.

“Throughout my postgraduate studies, I had an underlying fear of unemployment,” she explains. “I dreaded the ‘we regret to inform you’ job application rejection letters, and I thought if I got more qualifications, I could ward off those letters. My family thought I was crazy. When asked when I would be completing my studies, I’d answer: ‘When I can present a CV that will give potential employers no chance of considering other candidates.’ I have since built a compelling CV, so I did not quite disappoint the younger version of myself.”

Much of her postgraduate studies were financially challenging, she says. “I had to work while I was studying – in fact, I almost dropped out of honours because my part-time jobs did not cover my tuition and accommodation. At some point I juggled three part-time jobs while working on my MA, and somehow, I still found time to socialise with friends. The emotional support from friends was invaluable. I am thrilled that I did not give up, even when it would have been understandable to do so.”

Dr Tshivhase wears many hats: she is a researcher, lecturer and a faculty house guardian. She hopes that more black women and those who identify as women study Philosophy, and that they are given sufficient encouragement and support to succeed in academia.

“I hope to influence the lives of students in ways that reignite their passion for their dreams, reinforce confidence in their capabilities and drive them to live lives that they can be proud of,” she says. “Above all, I aspire to contribute to creating a space where women, especially black women, can confidently interact intellectually and offer one another support as credible knowledge producers whose ideas and capabilities are not threatened or oppressed by the presence of cis-gender males.”

According to Dr Tshivhase, part of the solution to the crisis of gender-based violence that has reached epidemic proportions in the country is for there to be a review of systems and policies that govern institutions and society.

“Protests and speeches against gender-based violence are useful in demonstrating women’s frustration and exasperation,” she says. “However, as long as the system turns a blind eye and pays lip service to the fears and struggles of women at the hands of men, we will consistently fail to eradicate gender-based violence. Policymakers tend to neglect to take into account the power dynamic that drives instances of gender-based violence. This neglect exacerbates the element of fear that cripples victims. We need to redesign policies with the aim of deterring perpetrators from causing harm, instead of deterring women from reporting harm.”

Her advice to women is that they should accept that they aren’t less than men.  

“Unlearn that a man is the standard by which to judge your worth as a person in whatever circumstance. Embrace and protect the magnificence that resides within you and do not let any man (or woman) tell you that you are incapable. You are limitlessly brilliant.”


- Author Masego Panyane

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences