Change the world

14/08/2023

Young Muki Moeng’s first teaching tools were an old car bonnet and a piece of charcoal. After class, to mitigate the effects of disrupted education during the height of apartheid, the Graaff-Reinet teenager started study groups, helping friends to revise their schoolwork.

 

At 15, the outspoken Congress of South African Students (COSAS) member spent two months in jail. During the turbulent 1980s, many student activists missed class – she and her peers repeated Grade 8 three times.

Ironically, the architects of black education failed to break her spirit. Instead, they achieved the opposite.

Dr Muki Moeng, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching at Nelson Mandela University, holds a Doctorate in Education and decades of dedication to a love of learning.

Years later, she would beat the odds again, surviving breast cancer following a shock diagnosis in March 2020.

But, like her mentor mother, a domestic worker-turned-entrepreneur, she’s always dusted herself off, choosing determination over defeat.

A will to win

Dr Moeng became the first person in her family to attend university, graduating with a BA degree and teaching diploma.

“I always wanted to teach. Surrounded by passionate teachers, I felt safe, loved, heard, and excited at school.

“I’d come back from class and teach my friends what I had been taught. I used an old car bonnet as my blackboard and charcoal from burned wood as my chalk.”

Dr Moeng received a scholarship to study at St Cloud State University in the USA, completing an MSc in Curriculum and Instruction. This led to a lifelong career in higher education: first as a junior lecturer at then UPE, a move to North-West University and then back home to her alma mater, Nelson Mandela University in 2015, initially as Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education and now DVC: Learning and Teaching from 1 June this year.

Weighty wish list

Dr Moeng has translated her own educational experience into a set of progressive, ambitious goals for her Mandela University students.

“We want students to graduate with attributes that prepare them for the world of work, jobs that do not exist and life in general.

“Our students face myriad complexities: climate change, artificial intelligence, political uncertainty and human strife. They need critical thinking skills to help them interpret a new and unimagined world.”

The impact of COVID-19 is still keenly felt across the higher education space – and this is a particular focus.

“There’s been uneven preparation of learners because of societal inequalities; the pandemic deepened and exposed this.

“Even though online learning tried to bridge that gap, the perennial problems of connectivity and loadshedding have made matters worse, especially for those already on the socio-economic backfoot.

“Universities will have to invest more in student academic support and development.”

Striking a balance

Dr Moeng and her team focus on putting students first, which means confronting stumbling blocks in higher education’s biggest chestnut in a post-COVID world: online education.

“An element of online learning is here to stay and we have to prepare ourselves and our students to fully engage with it.

“But our country’s history has resulted in an unequal society, so our students face challenges in accessing technology, data and devices that support learning.

“We have to be careful not to create other inequalities when responding to the immediate need of connectivity and online learning.”

It takes a village

As a mother of three, Dr Moeng values the role adult guidance plays in the lives of children, and feels that they need more definitive, committed help to map their goals and career pathways.

One solution is better career counselling from a younger age. “We’d like to see it introduced in Grade 7, giving children a better foundation and understanding of what’s available to them.

“It’s amazing how we ask children in Grade R, and in their formative years, what they would like to become when they grow up – and then leave it there.”

A woman of substance

As she breaks in her mantle of leadership, Dr Moeng is carving space for a passionate goal: drawing more women into STEM education.

“Research has shown how women are likely to be more humane in their approach and how they tend to go back to their communities and develop others.

“Can you imagine what it would mean if we had more scientists who understand what it means to improve the human condition in its totality?

“If you teach a girl child, you teach and develop a nation.”

Her own journey has moulded an instinct for servant leadership, and she’s comfortable sharing her life battles if they inspire people – particularly women – to greater heights.

“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had a lumpectomy, went through chemotherapy and radiation. I lost my hair and gained a lot of weight. 

“That whole experience gave me a different perspective on life: we must do our best with every opportunity that we get, be courageous and lead with humility.”

Depending on each other for the greater good, she says, is always the best disposition to have.

Contact information
Director: Communication & Marketing
Tel: 0415043057
Primarashni.Gower@mandela.ac.za