Youth Month 2022: Dr Lorato Mokwena

Youth Month 2022: Dr Lorato Mokwena

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the youth of the NRF who are working towards achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young NRF-affiliated researchers who are helping to ensure a sustainable planet for all.

Dr Lorato Mokwena is a Linguistics Lecturer and Researcher at the University of the Western Cape. She is an NRF Thuthuka grantholder and also received NRF grantholder-linked support for her PhD studies.

This is her story…

I was born in Kimberley, Northern Cape, and I am the first born of my parents’ four children. I come from a working-class family – a family that predominantly holds jobs that involve menial labour but values education. I am the only PhD holder in my family and probably one of the few that have attended a tertiary institution.

I could have never imagined that I would be a Doctor of Philosophy because of the working-class environment I was raised in. Growing up, I wanted to become a social worker because I yearned to be of service to humanity. I am from a rural area and in 2007, the Northern Cape did not have a university and access to the internet was extremely limited, which meant information about universities and their application processes was not “at my fingertips”.

After a late yet successful application to the University of the Western Cape, I relocated to pursue a BA after I declined an offer to study Law at Stellenbosch University due to lack of funding. I completed all my degrees at UWC.

I do not regret the decision to become a researcher – it is in perfect alignment with the reality that I am a nerd. Creative writing, reading and storytelling have always been strengths I possess and the privilege of being a researcher enables me to advantageously draw on these skills.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

My parents could never afford my tertiary education. After I registered for my first year at UWC, my dad gave me R3.50 to see me through January. That was all they could give me. I quickly realised that I was granted an opportunity very few children in my community got – a chance to obtain a degree – and that education would provide me with a chance to get out of poverty. Although NSFAS gave me a loan for my first year (2008), they randomly stopped funding me at the beginning of my second year – from that year onwards, I juggled work and studies until I completed my PhD (2017).

Irrespective of these financial troubles, I obtained my BA summa cum laude with 22 distinctions and I was awarded various fellowships and bursaries during my postgraduate trajectory.

I received my basic education in Afrikaans and my home languages were Afrikaans and Setswana – I only spoke English during the English period in high school. As a result, I was not confident in my English writing and speaking skills when I entered the tertiary education space. However, I didn’t allow that to hinder my academic success – I read English texts, intentionally spoke English to my peers and practised my English writing skills. Eventually, my English writing and talking skills improved and continue to do so.

I learned three lessons throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate studies:

  • Firstly, talent and hard work are not everything– manners, humility and heart posture count too. Never underestimate the value of “thank you”, “please” and “I apologise”.
  • Secondly, lift as you rise– I was blessed with encouraging, supportive and visionary mentors. Subsequently, I serve as a mentor to others whenever possible.
  • Thirdly, remain teachable– the world is in a constant state of flux. Never get too comfortable – you are never just “one thing” – broaden your skillset, network outside of your circles and expand your profile.

I recently reflected on my PhD journey and this conversation is available on YouTube here.

What is your research focus/area of expertise?

I am a Social Semiotician whose research focuses on the linguistic landscape of sparsely populated areas. I am specifically interested in the relation between (toponymic) inscriptions and orality; the prevalence of multilingualism in toponymic ambiguity and plural toponymies, and the spatial navigation practices in sparsely populated environments.

The United Nations identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure “…a better and more sustainable future for all…” by 2030. Which of these goals are you addressing through your research, or in your personal life?

My research, community engagement endeavours and personal life primarily address the following SDGs.

Goal 3: Good Health & Well-being and Goal 5: Gender Equality

I am the author of Giving Birth to Death – an online series and yet-to-be-published book that narrates the experience of giving birth to a stillborn child. Giving Birth to Death shines a spotlight on a taboo topic in the South African society – pregnancy loss. It provides readers with a personal account of how a grieving mother grappled with the loss of her son. I also produced a YouTube interview titled How do you Deal with a Pregnancy Loss in a bid to a) problematise the association between womanhood and the ability to bear children; b) assist bereaved parents and families; and c) help women in dealing with the guilt associated with losing a child.

Goal 4: Quality Education

Dit is ‘n Noord-Kaap Ding colloquium is a platform that invites interested parties from various sectors to partake in the production and consumption of knowledge related to the Northern Cape. As the founder of the colloquium, I strongly believe that the creation of knowledge should not be reserved for certain sectors and that communities should be involved in constructing narratives about their places. The colloquium thus serves as an example of a platform that provides quality education – education that is holistic and collaborative in nature.

There is a dearth of knowledge related to the Northern Cape’s semiotic landscape and research of the Northern Cape’s linguistic practices. In producing publications about these study areas, I contribute to increased knowledge about the Northern Cape and such information can be used in various contexts (schools, government, tourism sector). In doing so, my research adds to quality education.

The inaugural colloquium was held in September 2021 at Sol Plaatje University. The 2022 instalment is scheduled to take place in October 2022.

Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

A portion of the research I do in the Northern Cape focuses on written signage (including road traffic signage and street name signage) and, recently, the implications that non-existent written signage and the lack of unambiguous physical addresses hold for the delivery of services such as policing. As I write up my conclusions and findings, I can furnish local municipalities with this report which could assist them with the betterment of toponymic inscriptions in cities and villages. Ultimately, such an endeavour will enhance service delivery to communities and improve spatial navigation.

Goal 10: Reduced Inequality, Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals

The documentary film, The Broken String, provides an undiluted account of a people in South Africa that continue to be marginalised and forgotten – the Bushmen. Such conversations are rarely explored in mainstream media and this documentary film challenges this status quo. It ‘reinserts’ the Bushmen back into the South African society and joins the Bushmen in their call for their history, values and language to be recognised. The film is a collaboration between myself, Dr Jacob Cloete (the film’s director and owner of Abrasive Media) and two Bushmen based in Upington, Hans Springbok and !Aru|’Khuisi Piet Berendse.

The Broken String is a documentary film that offers a sombre reflection of past and current injustices endured by the Bushmen in South Africa. By producing this film and making it available to audiences, we raise awareness about the plight of the Bushmen. Subsequently, this film aims to reduce social inequality and advocate for justice for the Bushmen and all other Khoi groups in South Africa – justice in the form of legal recognition of their existence and enabling laws that are aligned to their traditional practices and values.

The Broken String was born out of the research I am currently conducting in the Northern Cape – the research is supported by the NRF Thuthuka grant I hold. During my research trips, as I interacted with individuals from various Khoi and Bushman groupings, there was one recurrent theme – The need for healing, recognition and acceptance. The first screening took place on 25 May 2022.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

To date, three of my greatest achievements in my career are:

  • Being one of the editors of the Routledge Handbook of Language and the Global South/s.
  • Founding the Dit is ‘n Noord-Kaap Ding (It is a Northern Cape Thing) colloquium.
  • Being the producer of the documentary film, The Broken String.

Also, in less than five years after obtaining my PhD

  • I have published five single-authored and four co-authored research outputs and I have published three research-related newspaper articles.
  • I was nominated for the 2021 Deputy Vice Chancellor’s Research and Innovation Award in the Category of Women in Research.
  • I have served as a reviewer for various international and local journal articles and as an external examiner for two South African universities.
  • I serve as a faculty representative on two senate committees and a departmental representative on various faculty committees.

12. What are your career aspirations for the future?

  • I intend on applying for an NRF C-rating by 2024/2025.
  • By 2024/2025, I envision being ranked as an Associate Professor.
  • It is my vision and intention to grow the prestige associated with Dit is ‘n Noord-Kaap Ding colloquium. I plan on entrenching it as a permanent socio-academic event on the Northern Cape’s calendar.
  • By publishing more journal articles, newspaper articles and books about the Northern Cape, I aspire to increase knowledge about the province’s semiotic landscapes.
  • I desire to be involved in community engagement projects that are aimed at empowering communities by assisting communities to appreciate their history and indigenous knowledge.

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