A senior lecturer in the Department of English Studies at Unisa, Dr Naomi Nkealah’s passion for feminism was born when she was still just a teen and, growing along side it, is her lifelong love and commitment to research and academia


“I became a feminist the day my father told me I could not learn to drive, only because no daughter of his would drive his car. I was 19 then and had just finished high school. From that time, something in me rebelled: against patriarchy, against a system of gender discrimination, against a culture of women’s subjugation. From university until now, I have remained that ‘rebel’,” she says.

Armed with a master’s degree with distinction, in pan-African literature from the University of Pretoria (UP), Dr Nkealah obtained her PhD in African Literature from Wits in 2011, where she was also a part-time lecturer in the Department of English and the Department of African Literature.

A full-time senior lecturer at the University of Limpopo from February 2012 to March 2015, Dr Nkealah also served as Deputy Chairperson and later, Chairperson of the University of Limpopo’s Women’s Academic Solidarity Association (ULWASA). Her contributions to the organisation had a strong focus on mentoring women academics in research productivity and excellence, as well as steering the organisation towards sustainable development.

During this time, she has successfully supervised three young black South African women, one master’s and two honours students, and is currently supervising four master’s students, in addition to being an external examiner for theses and dissertations from various universities. She also does peer reviews for a wide range of journals in her area of expertise.

A highlight of her career, Dr Nkealah won the award for the Distinguished Young Woman Researcher at the Women in Science Awards (WISA) in 2016. The theme for the 2016 awards was ‘Women’s Empowerment and its Link to Sustainable Development’ and the aim of the event was to recognise and reward excellence by women scientists and researchers, and profile them as role models for younger women.

“I think the main aim is to encourage women researchers to continue to excel in what they are doing to enrich South Africa’s knowledge base. To me, it was the best thing to have happened to me in my professional life. It made affirmed my belief in myself, knowing that my work was being recognised and that it was having an impact on the community of scholars. With such high recognition, I was determined to carry on in my research, no matter the challenges,” Dr Nkealah says.

Given the low number of women scientists and researchers, she also believes that these awards have a significant impact in encouraging younger women to consider and explore science-related careers.

“I do think that the more young women become aware of these awards as they finish school, the more they would be motivated to pursue careers in science-related fields. These awards are inspirational because young women will aim to win one of them some day. There are many rising stars in South Africa today, young women who are doing outstanding research. So there has certainly been a success in terms of WISA achieving its goals,” she adds.

Specialising in feminist theory and African women’s writing, this renowned researcher also studies the intersections of gender and sexuality in African literature. Using her work to bring the voices of emerging women writers into mainstream literary criticism, Dr Nkealah has helped to shine the spotlight on writers such as the South African poet, Gabeba Baderoon and the Cameroonian playwright, Anne Tanyi-Tang.

“Their published works not only offer salient additions to African epistemologies but also challenge the marginalisation of certain clusters of women’s writing,” she says.

To date, Dr Nkealah has presented papers at 14 local and international conferences. She is currently working on a book on gendered violence and human rights in African literature and film—a collaborative project with internationally acclaimed feminist scholar, Obioma Nnaemeka. She has also published widely in South African journals such as English in Africa and the English Academy Review, in international journals such as Research in African Literatures and A Review of International English Literature, as well as in edited books such as Style in African Literature: Essays on Literary Stylistics and Narrative Style’.

“My published work is my most significant contribution to the field of gender equality. I was recently at Yale University for a conference and I had three different women walk up to me and say, ‘I love your work so much. It is a great honour to meet you.’ And these are women I respect because they are scholars in their own right. Nothing beats that as a measurement of one’s achievement,” she says.

Boasting a Y1 NRF-rating, Dr Nkealah has positioned herself as a leading emerging researcher in her field, showing great potential to become an internationally established scholar. In a relatively short period, she has also received a number of different awards, including the Most Resourceful Staff Member Award from the University of Limpopo in 2013, a Golden Key Membership Award from the Golden Key Society in 2012 and a Scholarship for Young Academics and Scientists from DAAD, the German academic exchange programme in 2009.

“To young girls looking at research as a potential career option, I would say that research is definitely exciting. I urge all young girls, especially those at matric level, to make it their goal to become scientists of note, to aim to be persons who would be spoken of someday, the same as those women who have changed the world for the better,” she says.

However, she emphasises that research is, or should be, a team effort, highlighting the importance of scientists collaborating with local and international partners in order to solve some of the country’s biggest challenges, particularly poverty, health and economic growth, education and gender equality.

“Collaboration is essential. How would you know the different dynamics of the phenomenon you are investigating if you do not engage other researchers in different localities?

“Or how would you secure international funding without involving international scholars in your project? I am sure a close-knit project with participants from the same institution can succeed. However, the experience would be much more enriching if there are participants from other universities in South Africa and from abroad. Such inter-institutional links are also beneficial to the profile of the universities,” she says.

“But as a researcher, you do need to be careful when it comes to who you collaborate with. There are some academics who ride on other people’s backs to get themselves published. And it is often too easy to be exploited, especially as a woman. As a result, I am very cautious about who I do joint research with,” she adds.

There are a number of other unique challenges that women, working both in the sciences and the corporate working environment, often face, particularly in what is often seen as male-dominated industries.

As a wife and a mother, Dr Nkealah finds that balancing family responsibilities and work is often the biggest challenge for most women researchers. Earlier this year, she participated in a roundtable discussion on gender mainstreaming and found that this was the most recurrent problem that came up in their deliberations.

“Along with that, there are institutional roadblocks to women’s progress, such as unfavourable maternity leave policies for contract workers like myself. At the work place, women are often turned into ‘tea ladies’ at critical board meetings. They are often the ones to run errands and manage crises, while their male counterparts get to focus on the ‘important tasks’

“And how many women with children, especially young children, can attend two conferences in a year?

“Some of my male colleagues can easily do four conferences a year. This just highlights critical issues in the work place and the family that still need to be addressed if women are to reach their full potential while they are still young, and not later on when they have been battered by age,” she says.

Despite these challenges, she does, however, believe that gender equality has improved in the country, with significant progress made for women in male-dominated industries, though there is still more that could be done to put women on equal footing with their male counterparts.

“So, to some extent, yes, we have achieved equality, because some policies and laws are explicit about that. But at a practical level, women still need to work twice as hard to attain equality with men.

“I think our women leaders in the government are in a position to help us eradicate some of the deeply entrenched patriarchal practices in the labour force that are also very capitalist. Women need to be given more flexible working hours so that they can be productive without burning out,” she says.

But, has the message that women can be anything they want to be infiltrated sufficiently through the ranks of South African society, and is the government and society doing enough to reach those young girls growing up in rural areas? Dr Nkealah says not, and her own experience of young people living in rural areas only cements her belief.

“For women living in urban areas, yes, there is ample awareness about their potential to fulfil any dream. But for those in rural areas, it is not the same.

“I used to work in Limpopo and I had students who did not own a TV set at home. How does the message then reach these youngsters? This is where community outreach becomes crucial,” she says.

Another important thing for young girls to consider when entering one of any number of professions within the sciences field is to ensure they have a good role model or mentor. For Dr Nkealah, three strong women regularly make an impact on her life and career.

“I have been privileged to have many role models in academia. Professor Rosemary Gray at the University of Pretoria embodies resilience, the kind that I need to keep going. Professor Obioma Nnaemeka at Indiana University in the US is my model feminist because she does not apologise for her stance. And now I have Professor Mmamokethi Phakeng at the University of Cape Town to look up to because she is one woman who can move mountains with her determination,” she says.

And when she comes face to face with instances of sexism, a regular occurrence for many professional women across the globe, she says she is often quite careful with her response, choosing her battles wisely.

“Oh, I do not waste time in pointing out sexism and condemning sexist ideology. Depending on the circumstances, I may be a little discreet about challenging it but if I sense real arrogance behind it, I respond with equal force. I have a former colleague who always had to remind me to take it easy on myself,” says Dr Nkealah.

“I also don’t believe that leadership should mean tyranny; neither does it mean slavery. What it does mean is service to the best of your ability, with compassion when necessary and firmness when required.

“And, another personal philosophy for me is never to start what you cannot finish. Thus, I always aim to complete projects I have started, irrespective of the odds. And I do not start those I know are beyond me, and this applies to every sphere of my life,” she elaborates.

Transforming science and innovation in SA

The National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), supported by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (Act No. 55 of 1997), is mandated to advise the Minister for Science and Technology on the role and contribution of science, mathematics, innovation and technology, including indigenous technologies.

NACI also plays a critical role in promoting and achieving national objectives in order to improve and sustain the quality of life for all South Africans, develop human resources for science and technology, build the economy and strengthen the country’s competitiveness in the international arena.

“Science, technology and innovation (STI) play a critical role in addressing economic and social challenges. People no longer dispute the importance of STI in the development of a better South Africa. In fact, our own national development plan has brought STI to the forefront, highlighting how we, as a country, need to invest more in STI and related activities. The NDP will tell you how successful countries have become and they have done so through STI. It not only positively impacts the economy but also society, it goes a long way to improving lives,” explains Dr Mlungisi Cele, Acting CEO of NACI.

“Our role in this regard is to make sure that we are able to assess the role of STI in improving the quality of life, partly by looking at other countries and their systems. There are a range of areas where we could still improve. NACI has a dual advisory function, in that we provide advice at the request of the Minister for Science and Technology, as well as providing advice based on our own mandate. In respect of our own advice, critical issues and challenges that impact on STI are identified by the council,” he explains.

Over the last financial year, NACI has accomplished a number of their goals, including the establishment of a system to provide rapid responses to requests for advice. During the year, the organisation also produced 11 advisory opinions and submitted them to the Ministry, hosted eight round tables/stakeholder engagements and produced seven research reports on topical matters related to the National System of Innovation (NSI).

Of these reports, one of the studies commissioned by NACI looked specifically at the extent of gender mainstreaming and racial inclusion in the public sector for the science, engineering and technology workplace.

Titled ‘A Diagnostic Review of Science, Technology and Engineering Skills in the Public Sector: Gender and Race’, the study provided a review of the SET skills supply and demand in the public sector, particularly in the context of developing a knowledge-based economy.

The major findings of the study, extracted from a sample of 28 institutions, found that more than a third of SET graduates and professional employees were men and more than half were Africans. Men made up the largest proportion of SET workers in the technician and technologist levels, and the representation of the African race group was substantially higher at this level than at the graduate and professional levels. Nearly all (92%) of SET artisan employees were men, the majority of which were Africans.

“Transformation of human resources in STI has been a strong focus for us. Our job is not just to produce reports, but also to advise the Minister, and the reports are necessary for allowing us to advise her on how the government can expand and transform properly. In this case, we looked at students, whether they were undergraduates, postgraduates or doctorates. We also looked at researchers from different levels in their career, both those who were established and those still emerging.

“While we have seen progress in the number of black students obtaining PhDs, they are still outnumbered by their white counterparts in the private sector. In terms of employments, most of these students go to the government and science councils and so the next question we need to ask is why business is not able to absorb these graduates? It’s no good we produce more PhDs only for them to remain unemployed,” says Dr Cele.

The Minister has requested NACI to provide an in-depth analysis on the declining business expenditure on Research & Development (R&D) as indicated by the results of 2012/13 R&D survey and by the 2015 South African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators booklet.

“Our analysis showed that the lack of private investment in R&D and other fixed capital investments can be attributed to a low business confidence in the country. Only 6% of government funding of R&D goes to the business sector compared to a proportion of 27% in 2008/09. NACI has provided some key policy recommendations from these analyses for policy advice going forward,” says Dr Cele.

While research capacity is critical in the stimulation of industrial competitiveness through innovation, creation and retention of jobs and improvement in the quality of life, the number of researchers per thousand in South Africa is still deficient.

“Although there has been an increase in the percentage of SET graduations over the past ten years, the level of SET graduations is still relatively low, compared to other countries. Of grave concern to us is matric maths and science performance and it is an area we are very passionate about, especially since this is where the foundation is laid for the future of STI,” he says.

Adding to Dr Cele’s concerns is the low percentage of Grade 12s obtaining quality passes in the National Senior Certificate (NSC). In 2015, the number of students who earned 50% for mathematics was 51 500, and those who acquired 60% or more was only 31 000.

“Twelve years ago, one and a quarter million students began schooling in public schools. In 2014, however, only 2.5% of them managed to obtain a 60% pass for mathematics and only 1.6% managed to obtain 60% for Physical Science,” says Dr Cele.

Improving access to mathematics and physical science, especially in underprivileged schools, will, therefore, be necessary if the National Development Plan is to achieve its targets. While there has been a gradual increase in science, engineering and technology enrollments at the undergraduate level, relative to overall enrollments, it is unlikely that the country will accrue significant benefits without a real improvement in school-level mathematics and physical science passes.

There has, however, been a marked improvement in the number of Doctoral degrees awarded in science and technology domains, although the overall ratio of science and technology Doctoral degrees has been declining relative to the total number of Doctoral degrees awarded.

“There has also been progress with regards to transformation through education, though not in the manner meaningful to impact economic growth. We have observed a steady increase in black students, in particular, Africans who are obtaining Doctoral degrees. Comparing figures from 2013 to now, the increase in black students now surpasses the number of white counterparts receiving the same degree

“In the workplace, the largest proportion of researchers is observed in the higher education sector with 65%, compared to the business sector with 22%.

“In the corporate sector, in particular, most of the researchers are predominantly white, making up 68% of researchers in that area. I certainly think it would be worthwhile for the government to look at the extent and nature of this phenomenon, and it may then warrant further policy interventions to facilitate employment opportunities in future,” he says.

Innovating for a better South Africa

NACI’s own assessment of the national system of innovation shows that while inputs are increasing, both in terms of money and students, the industry does not seem to be yielding an adequate return on investments. South Africa still pays much more to access technology than it receives from selling its technology abroad, with approximately US$2 billion paid for accessing technology, while only about US$100 million is received for selling our own.

“We are looking at the low uptake of locally produced technology and we’ve been asked to assist the country as the DST is committed to transforming us from a results-based economy to a knowledge based economy. We do import a lot of technology and NACI is working to understand this phenomenon. Once we do, we can then determine what could be done to minimise our reliance on foreign innovations but first, we need to make sure we thoroughly understand the problem,” says Dr Cele.

Another one of the objectives of the NDP is to upscale manufacturing that is both labour intensive and closer to townships, and to promote IT-enabled service exports to attract business process outsourcing from countries like the USA, the UK and India.

According to him, one of the primary constraints to innovation is a lack of skills—an area which often requires high, intense technology skills. In this regard, the country needs to look at development finance and the role of the institutions in that context. Otherwise, he says, it will be very difficult to see the country rising above 3% of gross domestic product before 2019.

NACI was also asked to review the 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology against its stated objectives. This study analysed the NSI policy context and international trends in respect of the broad notion of innovation and a number of achievements with regard to implementing the White Paper were identified.

“We have provided a report and presented it to stakeholders, which was included in the budget. Essentially, the report gives you an idea of what worked and what didn’t work regarding policy. It gives you a real sense of the challenges we are faced with as a country. We also provided a situational analysis which was then useful in providing information, which could be utilised in our 10-year innovation plan,” he says.

NACI’s review found that the White Paper had succeeded in terms of the establishment of the necessary institutional landscape for science, technology and innovation (STI); the introduction of policies and strategies covering research and development (R&D) in general; improved output in terms of the performance of science and technology institutions and funding for the science and technology base.However, several areas that require further government attention were also identified, including interdepartmental coordination and coherence within the NSI; human resource development to support STI; the promotion of an information society; more government incentives for innovation and a more efficient use of the science budget.

“To enhance monitoring and evaluation mechanisms within the NSI, the Minister also requested us to conceptualise and develop an STI information portal. The portal, intended to be a single point of access for STI data and information, will serve as a common reference point for information about the NSI. In addition to being a platform for a repository of STI data and information, the portal will also provide an interface to other systems.

“Measuring the performance of government investments in the NSI will ensure better planning and resourcing of STI programmes in the face of competing demands and austerity measures. The portal will be useful as a common source of evidence in forming perspectives about the NSI,” says Dr Cele.

“The portal will be available to a variety of different stakeholders, including universities and government departments. We are now in the process of demonstrating the portal to the Minister. Next year, will see phase 2 of the project, where we plan to upscale the portal. Still, in the pilot phase, the portal will serve as a deposit of data, helping to create a large platform for information. I’m quite confident that this will help SA track, monitor and evaluate the health of our systems. I am also very proud of the design, especially since we used internal expertise, avoiding the need for consultants, and ultimately, saving a lot of money,” he adds.

Another highlight for Dr Cele will be South Africa hosting this year’s Global Forum of National Advisory Councils, a meeting of the top officials of councils or similar institutions responsible for providing strategic advice on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) to the highest public and private level in their countries of origin. The forum aims to serve as a platform for councils to share best practices and seek strategies for guiding national STI policy.

“We met for the first time two years ago in Chile and last year in Korea. South Africa will be hosting this third meeting and it’s incredibly exciting for us. Essentially, these members advise presidents, prime ministers, and parliaments. It is a huge forum bringing people, who could be held accountable for developments or lack thereof in their countries, together. These advisors share their experiences, and we can utilise this for the benefit of our nation. It is a huge honour to host, and I believe that this will go a long way to helping us move up to next level,” he says.

About Dr Mlungisi Cele

Currently leading NACI, an amalgamation of various councils and appointed by cabinet, as Head Secretariat, Dr Cele provides the organisation with both administrative and technical support.

“As the head of NACI, I have been tasked with articulating the council’s broad ambition, as well as making sure that the council functions optimally and achieves its goals. The most difficult task is managing the relationship between the council and the Minister and between the council and the other director and councils.

“It is essential for us to have a good relationship with the Minister in order for our advice to be taken seriously. We also need the Director General to be on board in terms of financial support. We need their buy-in in order for us to make any breakthroughs and sometimes this is not an easy task. I also need to provide guidance to my own bosses and, of course, make myself accountable to Parliament. Whatever I do, I always need to make sure that I don’t make life difficult for the department, and represent NACI in national and international forums and build relationships. All of these things require a lot of hard work and I need to be sure I keep up to date and sharp,” he says.

Dr Cele, who holds a PhD in education and policy studies, as well as a Master’s in Science and Technology, remembers wanting to be a scientist from a very young age. However, having attended poor schools, he acknowledges that he was not provided with a foundation.

“I always had a passion for science and wanted to contribute in any way I could. I was first introduced to research when I moved to the University of the Western Cape, where I worked on a number of different projects,” he says.

He then moved up to join the DST as a government policymaker, before being asked to head what is becoming an increasingly important organisation. “I am also quite passionate about youth, and I have a vested interest in ensuring that they are able to play their role in society,” he says.

“As a leader, I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is my ability to work with people, and by that, I also mean different people across all sectors. I think it’s essential for me to have the capacity to identify and maintain different networks and relations with people. You also need to think ahead as a leader in order to inspire.

“You need to be quite confident and resilient, otherwise, it becomes too easy to quit in the face of challenges. If you make sure you work smart and hard, incredibly hard, look at your approach and always be positive then the sky is the limit. We need to teach these character traits to our kids from a young age. They could be brilliant but if they don’t have these qualities, they’ll be in trouble. From childhood to adulthood, it’s important that we are always hungry for knowledge,” he concludes. 

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