In celebration of Women’s Month, Stellenbosch University is shining a spotlight on the exceptional women of our institution. As we celebrate the remarkable achievements of female academics with this series of profiles, we also illuminate the transformative power of mentorship. Through their own experiences with mentors, these distinguished staff have not only excelled in their fields but also embraced the vital role of mentoring, guiding and inspiring younger colleagues and students towards success, fostering a more inclusive and empowered academic community.
Nyeleti Precious Mabaso comes from a line of strong women. Born to a royal family that has been ruling the Vhavenḓa nation for over 300 years, Mabaso, a speech-language pathologist who is working towards her master’s at Stellenbosch University (SU), has a strong sense of service and community upliftment.
She and her younger sister were raised by their mother. “My grandmother and mother, Queen Phophi and Princess Valdah Tshikonelo, were my mentors who shaped my moral compass and modelled me on serving society in accordance with our Vhavenḓa customs.”
Mabaso explains that as a royal, it was expected that she would choose a career that would enhance socio-development in Venḓa. In Grade 11, she started researching the needs of her community and found that hearing loss in the older generation was quite prevalent. Furthermore, she noticed signs of neglect of disabled people. Literacy among children was also poor. “In response, I opted to follow a career in speech-language pathology as it addresses these factors holistically.”
Mabaso has gone on to change lives with her groundbreaking research and community involvement. She received a merit bursary to study speech-language and hearing therapy at SU. In her final year, she was one of seven recipients of the AB Clemons Prize for best research project in South Africa, conferred by the South African Speech-Language and Hearing Association.
The translation of the Multilingual Instrument of Narratives (an instrument for assessing narrative skills in children who acquire one or more languages from birth or from early age) to Tshivenḓa led her back to SU to do a master’s in speech-language pathology. “The aim is to ensure that the instrument is linguistically and culturally equivalent to the original English version and fit for assessment within the Vhavenḓa nation.”
As an active agent of change at SU, Mabaso was awarded a merit award for culture by the Tygerberg Student Council in 2020. Some of her contributions include being part of SU’s centenary celebration in 2018. As part of these celebrations, Mabaso was asked to provide a Tshivenḓa greeting and quote that was engraved at the Rooiplein on the Stellenbosch campus. “I chose the Tshivenḓa proverb, ‘Tshakule tshi wanwa nga muhovhi’, which loosely translated means, ‘things that are afar are attained by a go-getter’. I wanted all Venḓa people at SU to be encouraged to persevere with their studies despite being miles away from home.” She also translated the Hippocratic Oath to Tshivenḓa.
In addition to her academic research, Mabaso is also a volunteer researcher and clinical expert at the Early Care Foundation in Gauteng, where she helps to manage children with special needs. She also pioneered an early childhood intervention programme that helped over 200 neonates and children at Themba Hospital in Mpumalanga.
Recently named one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans, Mabaso attributes her success to having strong mentors, both women and men. In addition to her mother and grandmother, she says Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, who hails from Venḓa and later became a vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg and who is now the rector of the United Nations University in Japan, is one of her academic role models. Prof Daleen Klop, retired lecturer in the Division of Speech-Language Therapy at SU, is another mentor who made a significant impact on Mabaso in areas of research and enhancing effective clinical practices in the health fraternity.
Mabaso believes in the value of mentors for young women, and she has trained and guided fellow clinicians in the hospitals where she has worked. “It is vital for young women to be mentored by seniors and those who are knowledgeable because one gets to be anchored by their wisdom and it makes one’s path easier to navigate. Moreover, the chances of success are greater when one is mentored, supported and challenged by those who have already walked that journey.”
She says she has not let stereotypes about race or gender deter her from her objectives to make a difference. “These should not be detrimental factors that hinder your success. Rather, let this be a contextual strength. Be the change you want to see in (your chosen) profession by contributing your ideas, innovations and solutions that are rooted from your experiences or cultural heritage.”
Photographer: Stefan Els