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Former kiosk cashier, now executive dean

From Ga Masemola, a small village about 80km from Polokwane, to making sandwiches for students at Unisa's Good Hope kiosk, to acting Executive Dean of the College of Economic and Management Sciences, Dr MaseTshaba Mantepu's life story is an extraordinary one and a source of hope and inspiration to all, especially women, from disadvantaged communities.

Mantepu says she has always loved mathematics and was the best at it in school. While she wanted to become an actuary, she rerouted into teaching. First, though, she had to learn to make sandwiches for queuing students in the Good Hope kiosk - something her mother couldn't believe as she never liked housework.


Dr MaseTshaba Mantepu

Background story

In August 1996, on the cusp of adulthood at 18,  Mantepu says: "I spotted an intriguing advertisement outside the OR Tambo building at the Unisa main campus. It beckoned with various student vacancies, and without hesitation, I threw my name into the mix." The invitation for an interview filled her with hope, although it wasn't her first rodeo in the job market. She had been on the job hunt since she was 16, but luck had been elusive.

She explains: "I vividly recall the interview day, seated across a colossal table from Ntate Mokobedi and Rynie, flanked by a panel that included a couple of members from the student representative council." She adds that they posed two memorable questions: "Honesty and reliability" and an arithmetic puzzle encompassing all mathematical operations. "Both seemed deceptively simple, and my responses were swift. For the second question, I confidently stated 21.  To my chagrin, the correct answer was 22. Yet, to my astonishment, I was offered the role," she narrates. Despite her mathematical slip, she appeared to be the closest and quickest to respond.

The Good Hope cafeteria became her workplace for the next three years. There, she made sandwiches, brewed tea, and sold chocolate bars while polishing her Afrikaans language skills. "I even learned the curious combination of 'spek and piesang' - bacon and banana. The cafeteria was a culinary classroom, teaching me the art of food sophistication. I applied my mathematics, statistics, operations research, and computer science module content in the kiosk."

Initially, her contract was from October to the end of January, coinciding with the registration period. However, her adeptness at typing, data capture, and comprehensive knowledge of food codes earned her an extension. The Good Hope cafeteria, an unassuming place, would become the birthplace of her love for academia. She says: "In this humble cafeteria, I watched a young Raphael Mpofu, who later became the Deputy Executive Dean of the College of Economic and Management Sciences, and a handful of other black academics stroll past my till daily. I was encouraged that I could be an academic as well."

Determined to connect with the masses, she stopped eating her lunch from the Good Hope cafeteria. She started buying bread from Mphebatho and sharing it with a group of ladies who introduced her to the Unisa women's soccer team. "I met Ntate Akilla and Mme Annah Monate, my mentors, on and off the pitch. They were my guardian angels, guiding me to become the first to be selected for a SASSU (USSA) team, leading Unisa to affiliate for my participation," says Mantepu. Soccer became her first love and first option, overtaking her degree. "Unfortunately, soccer could not pay the bills. I was not a TEFSA (NSFAS) recipient; I had to fend for myself," she explains.

In 1999, she left Unisa for the financial markets, embarking on a journey that eventually led her from a Sage Life actuarial assistant to UBS Investment Bank as an equity derivatives sales trader. However, the 2007-2008 global financial crisis was a stark reminder of uncertainty. Despite staying for three more years and navigating discrimination, the diminishing bonuses prompted a change.

A student lekgotla in August 2010, called by Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, the then Executive Dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, reignited her passion for academia. "I cleaned my desk at the office and left the corporate world. For the remainder of 2010, I travelled to Southern Africa with my late wife and son," she says.

In 2011, she registered for an honours degree in mathematics at Sefako Makgatho University. She intended to study towards her honours and masters and return to investment banking in 2014. "I was allocated a mathematics class to teach during the honours studies. What I thought was temporary turned into a full-time job. Three years turned to six years, and a PhD instead of only a masters degree," she explains.

Where to from here?

Look out for ScholarSphere, a hub for research, learning, and engaged scholarship. She concludes: "While the School for Economic and Financial Sciences boasts exceptional talent, resource optimisation remains challenging. I have dedicated five years to Unisa, with five more to give. My mission is to keep Unisa relevant in social justice and education."


*Submitted by Ilze Crous, former Communication and Marketing Specialist. College of Economic and Management Sciences

Publish date: 2024/01/22