Mulweli Yolanda Mafukata went from a high school nestled away on a farm, to studying towards a career in engineering in a big city. On the 8th of January 2018, she tweeted an image of herself on-site, wearing a hard hat, high visibility vest, and a pair of robust boots.
Her tweet read: “What a man can do, so can a woman”. It provides the world with a window into the life of a modern South African engineering student. She had been tasked with collecting samples from a coal processing plant - samples that were to be analyzed in a coal laboratory.
Back in 2013 the Engineering Council of South Africa revealed that only 4% of engineers in the country were women. This story is therefore heartening - Mulweli serves as a working example of what South African, school-leaving, female students can aspire to.
The school years
Mulweli’s interest in engineering slowly developed during her secondary education years. She explained:
“Like many children in South Africa who are exposed to very few career paths, I wanted to be a medical doctor and save lives as a child. I grew up as a very bright and confident learner through my primary and high school years. I did my high school in a farm boarding school in the outskirts of the Limpopo province. My main subjects were mathematics, physical sciences, agricultural sciences and life sciences.”
During high school, Mulweli discovered that she had an affinity for physical sciences and mathematics, but less of an appetite for biology. That was when she settled on becoming an engineer.
She matriculated in 2013, earning distinctions in all her subjects. She was also the top performer in Agricultural Science in the Limpopo province of South Africa. Exxaro, a South African mining company, awarded her a bursary.
Going to University
She is currently studying towards her Bachelor in Engineering in Chemical Engineering at the University of Pretoria. She is in the fourth year of a five year program. Mulweli believed that this field of engineering would maximize her chances of being employed in the engineering world. She explains:
“One of the main reasons why I chose chemical engineering is because of the flexibility it presents me with. It does not confine me to just one niche or industry. A chemical engineer can find a role in mining, food, medical, environmental, business, banks, and in research industries. I am fascinated with how engineers are able to take something as useless as used cooking oil and use it in the making of biodiesel on a commercial site. Energy is a big interest to a chemical engineer and if we can use what we have to get more energy... I think we are winning then.”
Because of the discipline’s breadth she says it has been a challenging degree. Mulweli says her modules have covered a “bit of electricity, a bit of drawing, mechanics of materials, and a lot of programming”.
She is a shining example of how a previously male-dominated industry in South Africa (and indeed the world) is becoming more gender inclusive. Mulweli believes that without women engineering workplaces would be depriving themselves of great minds and unique ideas that could solve critical engineering problems.
Mulweli thinks that some women are turned off by the ‘hard-hat’ lifestyle that sometimes typifies engineering. She commented:
“Women should be made aware that although there will be some dirty work, an engineer’s job is mostly strategic planning, calculating, solving problems, designing, and optimisation of processes...and also managing people. An engineer is someone who can sit down and solve a problem by just looking at the numbers and applying all the knowledge obtained over the years.”
It is clear that Mulweli is enterprising, but to her great credit, her ambition encompasses a highly developed social conscience too. Mulweli explains:
“My dream is to get to a position where I can use my chemical engineering degree in an entrepreneurial way to make money and to also help other people.”