Nokugcina Elsie Mhlophe was born on 24 October 1958 in Hammarsdale to a Xhosa mother and Zulu father. She matriculated at the Mfundisweni High School in the Transkei in 1979 and briefly worked as a housemaid in Johannesburg before beginning as a cadet journalist at Rhodes University. After a brief course in filmmaking she started as a newsreader for the Press Trust, BBC Radio’s Africa Service and ZBC.
Mhlophe went on to establish herself as a multi-talented multilingual actor and activist, poet and playwright, composer and director, infusing storytelling with poetry. Widely translated into all of South Africa’s official languages as well as internationally, into German, French, Italian, Swahili and Japanese, Mhlophe has received a terrific array of prizes and awards, including the BBC Africa Service for Radio Drama, the Edinburgh Festival's Fringe First Award, the Josef Jefferson Award, and the OBBIE. An ardent campaigner for literacy, Mhlophe’s endeavours in this regard have been recognised with honorary doctorates from the Universities of London, KwaZulu Natal, Pretoria and Fort Hare. Her guest appearance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup South African handover ceremony in Germany and the Arctic Winter Games in Canada, 2010, brought South Africa’s rich cultural heritage to the world’s attention.
When Gcina Mhlophe steps onto the stage she announces her entrance through ritual. And then you are drawn into the ritual: it holds on to you because she holds on to it, and you hold on to it too. The medium of announcement is usually a song, a familiar act – what speakers do at many African funerals. Called upon to deliver their eulogy, they rise from their seats among the democracy of mourners and begin a hymn that is taken up immediately by everyone. By the time the speaker reaches the podium, the community of mourners has accompanied him or her to it. They will be there until the end. The most accomplished speakers take more than their allocated time, because in their hands, time vanishes, forcing the Master of Ceremonies to hope that lesser speakers will make short presentations. ‘How to Take Your Audience with You and Buy Time’ could be the title of a performance manual inspired by this experience.
This ritualistic stepping into the performance space has become Gcina Mhlophe’s signature. She takes the audience into her performance of stories or poetry or drama through total movement: her body, her arms, the movements of her facial muscles, of her eyes, and the modulations of her voice: they all become one. Language and voice and movement converge into performance; and a reader of her poetry in her physical absence involuntarily invokes her presence.
The cover of the Journal of Southern African Studies (Volume 16, Number 2, June 1990) has a picture of Gcina Mhlophe on it. This picture was taken in 1987 during her performance in her play Have You Seen Zandile? at the Market Theater in Johannesburg. That was twenty-three years ago. While the energy and passion captured in the picture remain today, an authority and maturity – which set out not to prove anything nor to establish credentials, but rather to share a remarkable artistic life – now accompany them.
So, as I read her poems, it is impossible to resist the sense that I am listening to her; that I am watching her; and that in doing so I am being let into the artistic experience of a tested and accomplished artist that I’ve seen grow and mature in front of my eyes.
Whether reflecting on history, as in ‘Umlando Yinto Enzima’, or performing a tribute to O.R. Tambo in ‘Sikhokhele Mfo ka Tambo’, or calling for a loving and caring Africa in ‘Qinisani uthando’, she blends poetry, drama, storytelling and song in an unforgettable performance.
Rooted as it is in contemporary cultural practice, her poetry taps deeply into a resilient past. She uses the time-tested repertoire of mnemonics that are a definitive feature of oral poetry, and makes use of salutations, injunctions to the audience, changing meanings, repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia, allusion, parallelism, play with noun class prefixes, and many other verbal techniques mostly recognised and admired by audiences as a mark of compositional dexterity.
In a country still very much a democracy in the making, African artistic forms continue to inhabit informal, unofficial and peripheral spaces of national life. They still come across as having to make a case for themselves. Historically, this is understandable. But there is a positive and organic revival underway. Gcina is part of the emergence, giving it shape and character. Interestingly, the Zuma presidency has been more catalytic at an organic level, as opposed to at a policy level. Much of the changes to the latter were laid during the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies.
For this current trend of artistic revival to be sustainable, it will require rigorous institutional support, though not steering. The infrastructure of cultural institutions needs to be as increasingly innovative and sophisticated as the arts that they have been established to support. Performing artists such as Gcina Mhlophe are constantly raising the bar, leaving government institutions so far behind that they have to change out of necessity, to escape irrelevance through their currently limited public accountability.
Gcina Mhlophe can be counted on to push the limits, and she always will.
Prose and poetry
Love Child, UKZN Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2001
Have You Seen Zandile? UKZN Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2002
The Snake with Seven Heads, Skotaville, Braamfontein, 1989
The Singing Dog, Skotaville, Braamfontein, 1992
Queen of Tortoises, East African Educ Press, Nairobi, 1995
Fudukazi's Magic (CD: lyrics and music), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999
Nalohima, the Deaf Tortoise, Gamsburg, Windhoek, 1999
Nozincwadi, Mother of Books, Maskew Miller Longman, Cape Town, 2001
An African Mother Christmas, Maskew Miller Longman, Cape Town, 2002
Hi, Zoleka!, Shuter & Shooter, Pietermaritzburg, 2003
Stories of Africa, UKZN Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2006
Our Story Magic, UKZN Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2006
Ithemba Means Hope, Shuter & Shooter, Pietermaritzburg, 2006
Golden Windows, Shuter & Shooter, Pietermaritzburg, 2007
The Singing Chameleon, Shuter & Shooter, Pietermaritzburg, 2008
The Barefoot Book of African Tales, Barefoot Books, 2009
The Magic Horns, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009
Audio and video
Victor Dlamini interview Gcina Mhlophe on BOOK SA
Gcina Mhlophe tells an African story on the BBC
Nellie Hlongwane interviews Gcina Mhlophe on video
Gcina Mhlophe performs ‘A New Dawn for African Women’ on video at the Spier Festival
Gcina Mhlophe tells a folk tale on video
Gcina Mhlophe on Wikipedia
The Drama and Theatre of Two South African plays under Apartheid: Michael Picardie’s MPhil thesis from Aberystwyth University
The Singing Chameleon translated into five languages on BOOK SA
‘Praise Poem for Nokukhanya Luthuli’ on KZN Literary Tourism website
‘A Brighter Dawn for African Women’ on the Poetry Africa Festival website
‘Sometimes When it Rains’ on Mrs Sandra Claassen’s website
‘Praise to Our Mothers’ on the On the Issues Magazine website