It was growing up surrounded by “really strong women, in both a personal and professional capacity” that has brought Thuto Thipe to where she is today.
And though she acknowledges the importance of her grandmother and aunts, Thipe, a PhD candidate at Yale University in the departments of history and African-American studies, says it was her mother who played the seminal role in shaping her world view.
“My mom started working for government pretty much when democracy started. She was the first director of nutrition for the department of health in those early days when they were building a government from scratch. So, growing up seeing service as a model was really important for me — seeing yourself as part of something much bigger than yourself. That model of service I saw in my mom and other women in my family was something that has played a big role in my life,” says the 30-year-old.
Thipe holds master’s degrees from Yale University and the University of Cape Town, a bachelor’s degree from Macalester College in Minnesota and has been published in a range of local and international journals.
Her dissertation builds on nearly three years of her work as a researcher in the University of Cape Town’s law faculty. Here she worked in archives and conducted oral history interviews with people across rural South Africa who experienced insecure land tenure, because of historical racially discriminatory laws.
Thipe was also part of a research team whose work contributed to litigation, including at the Constitutional Court level, to debates in Parliament, and to policy development. This was in addition to having to shape young minds by lecturing in history, gender studies and African American studies.
According to her blog, she is “committed to the production of knowledge that disrupts the silencing of historically marginalised voices and to empowering students and broader audiences through more holistic understandings of how the world that they inherited came to look the way that it does”.
In what could be considered something of a homage to the older women in her family, Thipe’s research also partly draws inspiration from the stories that she grew up hearing about the four generations on both sides of her family who lived in Johannesburg before her.
“Having such role models is crucial to help you see what the world can really look like,” she says, adding: “Seeing that their worlds were big was really important.”
As to whether paying this forward is important to her, she says: “Absolutely. If you’ve been given, you must give. Even if you haven’t been given, you must give. Because you’re supposed to leave things better than you found them. Those of us who have been given a lot should have even more impetus to really work hard to share what we have been afforded with as many people as we can touch.
“I’ve ended up as an educator because I’ve had such generous and inspiring influences in my life. There are also professors and teachers who have helped me to see the world in creative, critical and inspiring ways. That is something that I want to share with other people. That’s my inspiration as an educator. I want to help build people the way I have been built by other people.”