“I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Apparently, one of the things I tried to do when I was about six or seven years old was to teach my little brother how to read,” says Sithembile Mbete (33).
As to whether she succeeded, she laughs: “I thought so, but it turned out he had really just memorised the story.”
She says her interest in politics was formed at an early age: “We lived in Sebokeng, then moved to Spruitview in the East Rand, from 1990, when the political transition was taking place. Katlehong was right next door and with all the violence that took place there, I suppose just being a child in that turbulent time meant that you couldn’t really live without politics being a big issue. My parents were also very politically involved, so I was exposed to political discussions from a very young age.”
A PhD candidate and lecturer at the University of Pretoria’s department of political sciences, Mbete previously worked at the Presidency of the Republic of South Africa, where she was an assistant researcher in the secretariat of the National Planning Commission, and contributed to drafting the National Development Plan.
This followed a stint as a political researcher at the Institute for Democracy in Africa, where she was responsible for parliamentary monitoring and political analysis. She was also a member of the founding working group of the Right2Know campaign.
Working as an activist in civil society and as a civil servant for government, she says she “found some of the gender politics really difficult”.
“People often find it difficult to take a young woman seriously. In civil society, there was a lot of space for me to push back, which I did, and there were a lot of allies who could assist. But I was also very young and naive, and was quite idealistic,” she laughs, “so a lot of my pushing back was more naive bravado than anything else.”
“When working in government, I experienced people making assumptions about me and my abilities before I even said anything. And even when I did say something, I would be sort of shouted down or talked over. I often had older male colleagues speaking over me or second-guessing some of the things I said. I found this quite difficult.”
Mbete used these experiences to push herself to achieve more. “This was really one of the things that made me want to get my PhD. I wanted it to serve a signalling function ﾑ that I am not just some young person you can speak over.”
As a lecturer, she wants not only to empower other young women, but “also try to resocialise young men”.
“As a lecturer, you have quite a bit of power in that space to create the kind of learning environment and context that allow students to be heard. As much as it is about teaching them the theory, it is also important for young men to know what it is to listen attentively to a woman. Or even to be shown when they are not doing that, because it is often so ingrained and accepted that they don’t even realise what they are doing. I’ve been given this great position of privilege and this space to be able to try and contribute to the world, and to contribute to it in a different way.”