Two UKZN students Dr Lilly Phiri and Dr Sophie Mahloane were awarded their PhDs posthumously during UKZN’s 2017 graduation ceremonies.
Phiri, who died after contracting malaria, received her doctorate in Religion and Theology, while Mahloane, who died from injuries suffered in a motor accident, received her PhD in Education.
Phiri, an emerging scholar and recipient of the UKZN Doctoral Research Scholarship, planned to become a lecturer and to publish widely. One of her goals was to be the first African woman theologian with expertise in African alternative identities and sexualities.
Phiri’s research focused on how gay Christians ‘self-construct’ their identities and sexualities and the role of religions and cultures in this process. The study, framed by social constructionism and self-verification theories, uses the concepts of incipient theologies and borderland gender and sexualities as analytical frameworks.
Her research demonstrates the argument that the gender binary model is inadequate for the conceptualisation of sexual identity construction, as study participants who identify as gay Christians express their sexual and gender identities in fluid ways.
Professor Sarojini Nadar, Phiri’s PhD supervisor said: ‘She was nicknamed “bullet train”. She had “feisty ambition,” which I believe is a quality of resilience that women need to develop within an academy that is unfortunately all too often hostile to women.’
Her masters supervisor Professor Gerald West added: ‘I was deeply impressed by Lilly’s critical and caring scholarship. She combined a remarkable ability to relate her research to the lives of those in our African contexts who have been marginalised because of their sexual identities. Furthermore, she constantly pushed herself to revise her work until it was in a form that could be published, thereby making it accessible to many others.’
Mahloane, who worked for the Lesotho government’s health communication section, focused her Adult Education study on how students at tertiary education institutions in Lesotho responded to HIV prevention materials. Being based in Lesotho, she had to travel regularly to Pietermaritzburg and made many sacrifices in order to progress.
Professor Julia Preece and Dr Kathy Arbuckle co-supervised Mahloane’s research. According to Arbuckle, among other interesting findings, Mahloane discovered that dialogue played an important role in influencing how the participants engaged and interpreted the materials, and she produced a communication model that accounted for this aspect.
Mahloane was injured in a traffic accident, but in spite of this she struggled bravely to put finishing touches to her thesis so that it could be submitted for examination. Sadly, while waiting for the examiner reports, she suffered complications and passed away suddenly, before receiving her results.
Preece describes Mahloane as ‘a committed and caring individual who dedicated her career to the health sector in Lesotho.’
Her PhD study was directly relevant to the Lesotho government’s efforts to reduce the spread of HIV infections in that country.
Her children are very proud of her achievement and attended the ceremony to witness the award to their late mother.