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Chasing her destiny: USB lecturer becomes the first woman in SA to receive a PhD in Development Finance

  • Sep 18
  • Tags Technology, Business, News, University

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Lecturer. Researcher. Poet. Commissioner. Dr Nthabiseng Moleko is a busy woman. And in between all the different roles she fulfils, she managed to find time to complete her PhD in Development Finance from Stellenbosch University earlier this year – making her the first woman in South Africa to have a Doctor of Philosophy in this field behind her name. The title of her PhD is, Pension Fund reform towards development of national economy:  A South African Case Study.

Moleko, who lectures Managerial Economics and Statistics at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), started with her PhD journey in 2014 with a scholarship from the business school. “I worked in the pension fund industry prior to entering the public space. I’ve always had an interest in how finance, and in particularly pension funds, can be used in developing economies and infrastructure.

“When I was formulating my problem statement, I had a discussion with my supervisor (Prof Sylvanus Ikhide), who saw the potential in this topic. We agreed on various research questions to address, including whether pension funds could be related to the economic growth of the country, looking at the Public Investment Corporation that remains one of the biggest asset managers in Africa, and just trying to understand Africa’s pension fund sector and history,” she says.

Her PhD is a robust assessment of pension funds in South Africa and its contribution to South Africa’s economy. The central question answered is that pension fund assets do have a positive effect on economic growth, namely through capital markets. We also found that despite the highly developed banking sector and capital markets, households have not channelled their income to savings. Income levels are a linkage to boosting savings, thus it would be important to prioritise labour-intensive economic growth whilst improving incomes.

In 2017, with her full-time scholarship coming to an end, she became a lecturer at the business school while continuing with her studies part-time. She still teaches at USB and graduated with her doctorate at the university’s graduation in April this year.

She says a highlight during her PhD journey was being able to present her papers at international conferences. “There are three conferences that stood out for me. I presented one of my papers in Accra (Ghana), where I have never been to before.

“The other conference took place in Zurich (Switzerland) and I presented a paper on poverty in Africa and how it can be reduced,” she says. “It was rewarding being at a conference with not only Europeans but a mix of practitioners and academics from all over the world who all want to alleviate poverty. Poverty is a global problem that requires global collaborations and think tanks to come together, and conferences like that enables the opportunity to collaborate and engage with other thought leaders and practitioners.”

The third conference is attended by mostly academics and will be her third year that she attends if her paper gets accepted this year. “It is very encouraging to hear from other peers, who are experts in their field, that your work is good but also getting feedback on how I can improve.”

She says as an academic how to lessen poverty is key to her. “How do you translate your policy recommendations and reviews into things that can translate into real world policies and applications? That for me is critical,” she says.

Contributing to knowledge and realising that she can contribute ideas to society, is another highlight. “You make contributions to public discussion of the greater society. For example, I wrote a piece for a financial magazine that had a special report on retirement funds. I focused on how we need pension funds and products for the low income market, especially those who are not in the formal economy.

“Having completed a PhD, I have gained more in-depth knowledge and therefore have more authority and a voice in that area. I am able to influence thoughts and thinking in my field, which is great.”

Moleko also serves as a Commissioner on the Commission for Gender Equality and her role often requires her to write. “As you grow you become more confident to write; you find a voice. One of the biggest accomplishments for me is developing a stronger and unique voice,” she says.

Academic papers is not the only form of writing she enjoys. She also has a passion for arts and culture and during October 2017 she launched her first poetry book, Been Chasing Destiny. The book is an anthology about the different phases one undergoes when journeying through life, attempting to figure out your purpose and chasing your destiny.​

Moleko has a deep passion for South Africa and represents a unique voice – a mix of factual and spiritual on South African issues pertaining to governance and also the economy perhaps. “The book is a story of hope and attesting to the love I have for South Africa, by connecting to my audience with my voice,” she says.

So how does she balance it all? “I think you have to have your priorities set out. I knew that I came here originally to do a PhD – everything else was secondary.

“I focused and put all my energy into my research. I ensured that even if I did my teaching and faculty-related work that I didn’t compromise the pace at what I was moving on my research. I had to balance my time and sacrifice a lot of my social life. I didn’t sleep much; I still don’t sleep much!”

She says she works well under pressure and produces a lot of output when she has too much to do. ”Previously I worked in a very intense job with minimum resources and high expectations. So you have to perform. I think because of this background I was able to balance everything.

“Also, when you start producing academic papers and see the results, it encourages you to pursue with the PhD. That kept me going,” she says.

Being a people’s person, one of the biggest challenges the past few years was the amount of time she had to spend alone reading and doing research. “During the PhD you spend long amounts of time alone reading. Alone, thinking. It’s a very solitary journey. But it’s part of the process – you have to read a lot; gather your thoughts. So you have to be very comfortable in your own space,” she says.

“I also had to learn to receive critique, whether it’s a submission of your work to your supervisor or a journal. You become very humble as you realise that even if you think it’s your best work yet, there’s always a way to revise and improve on it,” she says.

Now that she has achieved her goal that she set out in 2014 to achieve, what’s next on her list? “My life has taken a course that I don’t really plan what happens to me. Opportunities come when they appear. I look forward to make use of this new skill set that I have,” she says.

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