Transforming Chemistry Education in South Africa

Kgadi Mathabathe reflects on the impact of her Canon Collins and RMTF on her life and career

Kgadi’s speech was delivered at the Canon Collins 40th and RMTF 20th Anniversary Celebrations at St Paul’s Cathedral, 28 June 2022

I grew up in a small town not too far from Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa. I am a proud Canon Collins scholarship programme alumna, wife, mother, academic developer, mentor and researcher.

I come from a low socioeconomic background. My parents never went as far as high school. I am the first and only one to achieve a PhD in my family. Since completing my postgraduate studies I have been able to participate actively in decision-making and management at the University of Pretoria, one of the largest universities in South Africa, with over 50,000 students enrolled. I moved from being a science teacher, lecturer, head of community-based research, to Deputy Director now, providing strategic leadership in a teaching and learning centre which focuses on the academic development both of academic staff and of students. This transition would not have been possible without the funding I received from Canon Collins Trust for my Masters and RMTF for my PhD studies. With the continuing and increasing inequalities in South Africa, most scholarships focus on funding a first degree, but there is also a great need for funding for postgraduate studies. Graduate and postgraduate studies equip us with the necessary skills to move to higher positions of influence where we can be part of decision-making and be a voice for others coming from similar backgrounds. My funding ensured that I could focus on my studies and complete my degree on time.

Being a Canon Collins scholar brings a lot of social capital that many of my peers still battle to attain. The conferences and networks have enabled me to meet like-minded young people, influential individuals such as yourselves who have made it their business to see me succeed and pave the way for others. My nomination for the Mail and Guardian top 200 young South Africans in the Education category was made possible by the Canon Collins scholarship programme. You made it possible for me to come to London, twice. These opportunities resulted in me being elected to participate in Barack Obama’s flagship leadership program, the Mandela Washington Fellowship, in 2016.

I received a medal for the contribution my research has made to chemistry education in South Africa. I have published widely nationally and internationally in the field of science and chemistry education. I continue to present my work at national and international conferences. I have been invited to speak at the 2022 International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry conference on chemistry education, which will be hosted for the first time in South Africa. I have received a rating as an emerging young researcher. I have had my first supervised PhD student graduate in 2020. I now supervise four PhD students. Two Masters students have completed their studies under my supervision.

My current work entails managing a division that fosters access and success in higher education, conceptualising systems and programs that promote a sense of belonging, persistence, resilience and minimum time to graduation, particularly for first-generation students and students coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The orientation programme led and presented by a division I manage has recently received an international award for using an online learning-management system to promote equity of higher-education access and success through a first-year students’ orientation programme in 2020 and 2021.

The work that we do through the professional development of academic student advisers has also seen us receive an international collaborative grant with Michigan State University — the Alliance for African Partnership — geared towards initiatives that strengthen HE institutions. Through my work I have an opportunity to influence teaching and learning policy and practice in one of the largest and internationally best-ranked universities in South Africa. I provide strategic leadership to the managers of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and MasterCard scholarship programs, which have achieved more than 97% graduation rates and have seen 80% of their students employed or becoming entrepreneurs. Many of the students I have taught and continue to mentor have gone on to achieve qualifications as geologists, engineers, science teachers, etc.

RMTF may have invested in a few of us, but let me assure them that the investment is far reaching and the returns immeasurable.