Dr. Tshivhase, a first black South African woman to obtain a PhD in Philosophy. (This interview took place early this year as a feature for The Open Journal, but never got published).
It was rather a shiny day considering the warmth that chased the dew off the grass outside the art centre at the University of Johannesburg. I was walking as fast as I could, but my heavy one-arm bag seemed to slow me down, I stopped at the Madibeng entrance to look for this lady I’ve only seen in a picture on the university’s website. I was late and nervous. Finally, when I looked on my left I saw her; she seemed even more beautiful than that picture I saw of her and that pink blazer made her complexion look even more brighter. She turned to talk me the moment I walked up to her and with a bright smile she politely asked ’are you Nokulunga?’, and when I responded with a yes that had confidence, she held out her hand for a shake and she continued to say, ‘nice to meet you’.
From the way she was dressed one could tell that she was clean and that she loved herself. She kindly showed me to an on-campus restaurant near the art centre which was where we were going to hold the interview in. she asked a lot of questions about me and The Open Journal, she showed interest in knowing who and what she was dealing with without being rude or scaring me off as we walked towards the restaurant. We walked into the restaurant and she asked me which table I was comfortable with and I chose the middle one which was set for four, so we could place our bags on the empty chairs. The waitress came to take our order; Dr Tshivhase ordered first, a take away and I didn’t order anything instead I took out my dragon energy drink that I had bought the previous day.
She continued to make conversation with me which put me at ease, and her smile showed that she was a nice person. We talked about life in general and varsity life. I then pulled out my Hisense phone to start recording the interview which then felt like a conversation with an old friend that I haven’t seen in years. “Do you mind if I record this?”, I asked. “Oh no problem”, she answered. ‘Does that make it easier to get everything than writing word for word?’, she continued; “It’s much easier to record and then I jot everything down and get to relive the moment when I’m writing the story’, I replied.
New title and achievement
To Mpho all this seems to have not yet sunk in. You can tell that she was excited but at the same time not used to her new title and she now recognises why everyone is stunned and some inspired by her achievement. “Well, it’s still new, because I didn’t know that this was the fact. It is quite overwhelming, I think part of the overwhelming aspect of it is that it is bigger than what I imagined, so when I was doing this thing it was just I’m doing a PHD, like anything else come first year, second year and then third year and there’s honour’s, master’s and then you like ‘oh I want a PHD’, so I did that and there had been chatter about it but I didn’t believe it. What makes it big for many is that it is a symbol, for me it is just another degree but for other people it’s inspiration, it is a sign that there are possibilities out there, it’s also a breaking of a particular barrier. I feel like I’m contributing positively’’, she said.
Background: parents, family and school
Charity begins at home; this saying does not only refer to home as the house you are raised in, but it can also mean the community you live in. Dr Mpho’s story is proof of this, she grew up in a community that believed in education being the key to success and emphasised education. “The community that I come from, school is a very big thing so from being a toddler you go to creche, move on to primary and then high school where you must now think about what you want to do with your life. I went to a boarding school, I was very active there, I played netball, participated in the choir and at some point, I played hockey, but I had to choose one in the end because it was all too much and interfered with my studies. I have two siblings and I am the youngest one. I always wanted to be a psychologist, I thought that was my calling since I was that girl friends came to for advice and so I thought; ‘no man I’m a natural at this’. I got to university and I started to learn what psychology really is and I realised that I don’t have the emotional capacity to be a psychologist that’s when I decided to do philosophy”, said Dr Tshivhase. Teach them while they are young, and they will grow with it.
“My mother was a teacher so there was a lot of discipline involved, she would check our homework. She was a single parent so it was a lot for her to do that because she had her job in the rural areas and so she had to leave the house at around 5-6 in the morning and came back at 4; but she did a very good job and I wouldn’t blame her for anything because we had everything we needed and almost everything we wanted too she was able to provide, so growing up with her was normal as you know mothers can be very strict at times; I remember when I told I wanted to go to boarding school she could not understand why but when I had finally convinced her she allowed me to go to the one near home where I can be home for weekends’’, says Mpho with a proud face. You could tell that she is very proud of her mother’s ability to raise Mpho and her siblings the way that she did. Even though she was a single parent, she became both their mother and father at the same time.
Funding for postgraduate studies:
Most people get their degrees and run out to look for jobs, for some of these people this is purely their choice but some of them have no choice but to search for jobs because they cannot afford to further their studies to post-graduate studies. This was also the same case with Dr Tshivhase but when you work hard great things follow you, some may call it luck but it is all one’s work. “When I was in Honour’s I was lucky because I remember when I was halfway through my family did not have the money to get me through, so I remember the one I said to my mother just give me money to register and I’ll see what I’ll do, she managed to get me money and I registered then I got a tutor job, I stayed with relatives in Soweto but I still had to buy bus ticket(s) and so by May I realised I wasn’t going to be able to pay, remember you get those letters from the university reminding you to pay so in May I decided to write my first semester exams and then I could come back and continue in second semester when I had the money and so I wrote my exams. I remember telling my friends that this is goodbye, they were like no, we could speak to our parents and figure something out, but I couldn’t accept that because it felt like it too much”, says Mpho. ‘Then the head of the department managed to find me money so when I came back the university found money to pay for my fees, so my fees for the year in Honour’s were paid up. And then coincidentally when I came back I had applied for NRF bursary and when I came back around August NRF contacted me and told me that I was next up on the list and it just so happens that someone dropped out so there are funds available, so I used some of that money to register for my Master’s. I continued applying for funding and I got into the Next Generation Scholarship (NGS), I my second year of my master’s I was on the NGS, I had NRF in the beginning and then NGS throughout the year and PHD until I got a job at the University of Pretoria and then I had to cancel the bursary given that I now had a job’, she continued.
Postgraduate studies are very expensive, the price of studying grows every year as there are increases in tuition fees, but I think what’s more expensive is the general upkeep; rent, transport costs, food and those kinds of things. All in all, it becomes very expensive to study your master’s and PHD and it’s easy to see why people would rather get a full-time job as opposed to squander for money to get through postgraduate studies. It is advisable for students to apply for funding because there are funds available for post-graduate studies, one just must work hard because the competition is high.
Thesis: Towards A Normative Theory of Uniqueness of Persons
“Well it comes from my Master’s in which I did my thesis on Identity; basically, who are you, what does it mean to have an identity, what is it made up of and when you say I am this particular person what are you referring to? And then in my PHD I thought okay, I’ve sort of defined what identity means but how does that make you different, is it possible to actually create an identity that’s different from another person’s identity? And that’s when I sort of bumped into uniqueness. As I was doing my research I realised that what has been written has to do with distinguishing things of different natures, so the thing here is that it’s a comparison of things of different nature”, said Dr Tshivhase. Good things come to those who wait and put in the work. “It took me five to six years to write my thesis because along the way I got sick and then I started a new job and so there were disruptions there for about two years there was no work on the thesis”, she added. Another thing about post-grad studies that people need to understand is that life happens while you’re studying, you can lose a loved one, lose your home, get sick and even run out of money. “A lot of things can happen and I think the key thing there is to find the strength to go back and strength comes from your commitment to your goals, if you’ve told yourself you want to go a certain space and things happen then you ought to adopt an attitude like water: when it encounters a solid object it goes round it and that’s how one should approach post-grad studies”, she continued. A positive mindset and dedication are two major factors that contribute to success.
Supervision: Prof Thaddeus Metz
“Prof Metz is an A rated scholar; a philosopher and he works at the field of African Philosophy. I worked with him and he was a very good supervisor, I learnt a lot from him. He was supportive, very patient and very encouraging as well. I don’t think people realise how important a supervisor is to a project because post-grad stuff is very lonely, it’s a single person’s sport like tennis there are no teammates it’s just you and your coach so if you get a bad supervisor someone who doesn’t read your work often, doesn’t meet with you often and whose feedback always takes forever it can delay you in very negative ways because post-grad studies are also very emotional and the risk of getting depression and other psychological disorders is very high especially in PHD studies, and so you need somebody whose supervision style is one that is responsive to your personality as well because you work with that person for years therefore if your personalities are different it is not going to work and what suffers in the end is your work and progress”, says Dr Tshivhase. The two had a good working relationship which led to Dr Mpho’s success. Without a support structure you can never make it as far you would have with one. Dr Tshivhase recognises the need of a supervisor during post-grad studies.