Dr Mpho Tshivhase always wanted to be a doctor and she recently graduated with a doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Johannesburg. This makes her the first black African woman in South Africa to be awarded a doctoral degree in the subject.
When Dr Mpho Tshivhase, 32, decided to follow her passion and study philosophy, there weren’t that many people who were taking the subject or who even knew what it was.

“I would go home and people would ask me ‘what are you studying?’ and I’d say philosophy, but they’d confuse it with psychology. I’d correct them and they’d say ‘what’s that?’” she said.

“That was demotivating.”

Despite that, she persevered, finished her studies and graduated with a doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in April.

This achievement makes her the first black African woman in South Africa to be awarded a doctoral degree in the subject.

Despite her history-making achievement, her journey to the degree wasn’t an easy one.

She began her doctoral degree in 2011 and completed it in 2017. Her research was delayed when her mother and only parent tragically passed away in 2013.

Tshivhase didn’t know that there wasn’t another black African woman in South Africa who had achieved a doctoral degree in philosophy.

“I’ve known that there were African men who have done this in South Africa but not women,” she said.

“I’ve never been to a conference where there was another black female philosopher. I’ve never seen publications where they mention a black woman.”

Once she had completed her qualification, research was done on how many black African women had been awarded this degree.

“They realised that while there were Indian and coloured women who have this (degree), there weren’t any indigenous black women who had it,” she said.

Tshivhase was raised by her single-parent mother who was a teacher in the small township of Makwarela in Limpopo.

She is the youngest of three children and has an older brother and sister.

She went to a boarding school, Louis Trichardt High School, where her Grade 8 group were the first English-speaking learners to attend the previously fully Afrikaans-language school.

“It was interesting to see how to navigate our spaces and in terms of interacting with people of different races,” she said.

“It wasn’t quite welcoming because it was different and there was still a lot of discrimination going on.”

Her passion for philosophy began when she was a tutor at UJ.

“I started working at the department and through discussions with other people outside the classroom it became very interesting to see that, with philosophy, we can ask questions that go into analysing the stuff that we take for granted,” she said.

“One of the things that philosophy teaches you is that there are different aspects and views about one thing in the world.

“There weren’t that many people who were taking philosophy,” she said. That made it quite challenging, she added.

Her family would question her and she would sometimes doubt her decision, but she said she loved the subject.

She continued with her Honours degree and was motivated to do her Master’s.

“As soon as I was done with my Master’s, I told myself ‘hey, I’m almost there, why don’t I just do this and then I’ll never have to register for another course’,” she said.

Tragedy struck when her mother died in 2013 when Tshivhase was 27 years old. She was doing her research and had just started a new job.

“Life happens when you are studying. My mother passed on in between my studies and I just couldn’t continue,” she said.

“It was horrible and it still is.”

She said her mother’s wisdom and encouragement also motivated her to do a doctoral degree and to complete it.

“My mother taught me that if you start something, make sure you finish it. No matter how difficult it is, you have to see it through.”

Tshivhase’s mother enforced disciple in her home and she took those lessons into her research.

“There is discipline that you need when you are completing a doctoral degree. It’s easy to get distracted and to procrastinate. She taught me how to have priorities,” Tshivhase said.

She also taught the budding doctor to be inquisitive and strong.

“She was always patient with my questions and she would always answer them.

“In doing that, she allowed me to be myself.”

Tshivhase’s thesis is titled “Towards a Normative Theory of Uniqueness of Persons”, and it focuses on how an individual’s unique qualities are valuable and can be revealed in a person’s life.

“If you look around our society, a lot of the way that we understand ourselves and interpret who we are has to do with other people,” she said.

“There is always a relation to other, it is something that is outside the self, and we often put ahead of ourselves our relation to other people.”

However, Tshivhase felt there was something else about a person that was not in relation to other people or an institution.

This made her think about what it means to have an identity that is completely different from somebody else’s.

“I started thinking, it’s got to be something that comes from within for it to be unique.

“It’s got to be something that you define without being led or dictated to by other people,” she said.

Tshivhase is currently teaching and supervising students at the University of Pretoria.

She is also working to apply for grants that will enable her to establish research projects that will fund developing female Master’s and doctoral students.