In celebration of Youth Month 2018, the National Research Foundation is paying tribute to young people across the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We share heart-warming stories of these students whose lives give us great hope for the future of South Africa. We thank the students for volunteering to tell us a little about themselves and their research.
Meet Andile Joyce Mthombeni
Q: Tell us briefly about your background?
A: I was born in Ekurhuleni, East-Rand. My life growing up hadn’t always been carefree and pleasant. We endured some hardships seeing that I was raised by an unemployed single mother; we moved from backroom to backroom and from one location to another. However, we managed and that motivated me to seek higher education so that I could get us out of that situation. My mother only went to school up to standard two. Due to my family’s financial situation, none of my siblings completed high school or college. As a result my family look to me as their hope for the future. Their dream is that, someday, I would graduate from university and be their ticket out of poverty. I want to be the realisation of their dream but the truth is that I, too, have my own dreams. My childhood was instrumental in shaping who I have become.
Q: What did you study and where?
A: I hold a BA (Honours) in Sociology and am currently enrolled for an MA in Research Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Q: What made you decide to choose your field of study?
A: Initially I joined university with an intention of becoming a psychologist. I had seen on tv once people going for counselling and I thought that is a cool job to have and I also want to help people. It wasn’t until my third year of undergraduate studies that I encountered a setback that would later change my whole career trajectory. I failed one of my courses and it cost me an extra year before I could graduate as I had to return the following year just to repeat that one course. It also cost me financially.
However, it was in that year that I also landed a research assistant job which exposed me to sexual reproductive health & rights (SRHR) research work. I learned about the great power that lies behind research. I realised that I did not wish to pursue a career in clinical psychology but rather to pursue research and use it as a tool to advocate for change and the rights of young black adolescent girls and women like myself. Failing the course helped re-direct myself to my passion and I do not regret it for one second.
Q: What is the aim and focus of your research?
A: My research focuses on fatherhood and looks at the constructions of fatherhood as published in selected well-known South African psychology journals. My aim for this study was to explore and critically analyse discourses of fatherhood as produced and published within the psychology journals.
My research is located within a Research Cluster Team in the School of Human & Community Development (SHCD) at Wits University. The team is called FACT, which consists of a group of academics and postgraduate students that conduct research on fathers and absent fathers in South Africa. This research work is funded by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence (COE) in Human Development. In addition, I am also employed part-time as a Research Coordinator and involved in two additional research projects within the Research Cluster Team. The projects are in the following areas:
- Sexual Reproductive Health & Rights (SRHR), which focuses on issues affecting young black women within and outside the university context. In 2014/2015 we published research on sexual harassment within institutions of higher learning to highlight the detrimental health consequences of gender-based violence against women. As a result of that research output I was appointed as a student representative in the South African Ministerial Technical Task Team for Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) in Institutions of Higher Learning, a team tasked with coming up with a SGBV policy for higher education.
- Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) in Institutions of Higher Learning. The project focuses on research and publishing academic work within the LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex) subject. We have partnerships with nine other rural universities within South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017, the team published a research paper that is a part of a special issue journal that was put together to highlight the SRHR challenges faced by students in higher education.
Q: How do you think your research will impact the lives of South Africans?
A: Our research in sexuality and sexual health has resulted in a number of outputs such as the network of regional university partners working on sexual orientation (LGBTIQ) with the aim to destabilise heteronormativity, with academic and non-academic outputs that I have coordinated. A rare achievement for my young age is to have successfully coordinated three FatherConnections special journal issues and co-edited one. This knowledge decolonises and transforms the curriculum as we know it and further disrupts the perceptions of who gets to write, publish and produce knowledge within our South African context.
Q: What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?
A: As a young black student from an impoverished background, being the first at home to go as far as university level, I am the lottery ticket out of poverty for my family. I owe ‘Black tax’ like many others. However, I chose to overlook the instant gratification of finishing my undergraduate degree, getting a job, making money and getting my family out of poverty. Rather I chose to pursue postgraduate studies until I obtain my PhD and use my career as a resourceful tool to change not only my family’s life but many other South Africans’ lives. This comes at a cost as it means I have to continue to see my family struggle and suffer whilst I pursue further education. That is one of the biggest emotional challenges that I have had to overcome, as well as the fact that my NSFAS student loan is still accumulating interest.
Q: Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential and encouraged you when the going got tough?
A: First and foremost my greatest source of inspiration is God the Almighty and my church which supports and encourages me greatly. Secondly I draw inspiration and courage from my family - my mom and my nephews. I wake up and show up every day with them in mind. Most importantly I have to say my biggest inspiration and encouragement comes from my mentors, Dr Peace Kiguwa as well as Prof Mzikazi Nduna, who is currently the Head of School in the School of Human & Community Development. She is the one that identified me four years ago and put me on the path of greatness that I’m in today. I follow in her footsteps, she has exposed and taught me a lot. I partially owe my success to her.
Q: What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
A: In the next ten years I hope to be a PhD graduate and be on the road to full professorship. I wish to have also mentored other up and coming young black female scholars and researchers and hopefully create a wide platform for female youth voices to be heard nationally and internationally. I wouldn’t mind becoming a Minister of Higher Education in the next ten years. Ms. Naledi Pandor is one of my favourite members of parliament. Her style of leadership inspires me and thus following in her footsteps wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
Q: What is your advice for young people who want to pursue a career in STEM?
A: During Apartheid, black people were taught ‘Bantu Education’ - we were told that we cannot do science and mathematics. However we are 20+ years post-democracy and it is up to our generation and the generations to come after us to prove that we, as Black people, can actually do science, that we can do mathematics and be innovators. Needless to say we need both natural and social scientists in order to transform and bring innovation to our society.
Q: What other interests do you have outside of your chosen career?
A: Recently I co-chaired the first ever and successful HEAIDS Youth Conference, after which I served as a Track co-Chair for the 7th National AIDS Conference in 2015 and was appointed to serve as a young Board of Trustees member in the SANAC Civil Society Sector.
My other interests include researching South African black fatherhood and absent fathers, young womxn, and knowledge production. I participate in various #FMF decolonisation projects and have co-edited and published a chapter in the book Writing & Rioting: Diaries of the Wits Fallists. I also served as a postgraduate Associate Rep at Wits University, with a portfolio on research in 2016. I served the PHASA Gauteng Committee branch as secretary; and served as a research committee member of the national Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition network. I like to think that I am an influential young womxn who attends, presents and coordinates symposiums at national and international conferences to bring young women’s voices in addressing psycho