A much bigger world out there

Celebrated South African storyteller, author, poet, actress, playwright and director, Gcina Mhlophe, has travelled the world, sharing her stories. On receipt of an Honorary Doctorate from Rhodes University on the 11 April this year, she explains that of all the experiences and awards her rich life has offered, she most values the foundation of love she was given by her Gogo.

As a young girl living with her Gogo in KwaZulu-Natal, Gcina Mhlophe thought she was “the most travelled thing on two legs”.

“My Gogo, Mthwalo Mhlophe, was full of adventure and she would spontaneously say ‘let’s go visit our relatives in Nongoma’ or ‘let’s go to Port Shepstone’ and we would hop on a bus and explore the length and breadth of KwaZulu-Natal,” says Mhlophe who, until the age of ten, was raised by Gogo Mthwalo – her father Thomas’ older sister – in Hammarsdale between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

“Gogo Mthwalo had lost her own children to illness and she started looking after me when I was just two years old and she was in her fifties. She gave me all the love and adventure a little girl could desire. With her, I truly imagined I had seen the world.”

Then one day Gogo Mthwalo sat her down and explained there is a much bigger world out there. “She told me that our Hammarsdale is a very small place near Durban and that Durban is only one of cities in South Africa; that there are many, many other places and a far bigger world out there for me to discover.

“Her words were prophetic and I have been traveling for the past 33 years,” says Mhlophe who has journeyed from Japan to Kenya, from South America to Sweden, sharing and performing stories and gathering material for more stories, books and plays.

In this time she has significantly contributed to the revival of the African storytelling tradition, and performed in theatres from Soweto to London. She has 18 books to her name, including children’s books, adult poetry, short stories and plays, published all over the world and translated into German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swahili and Japanese.

Gogo Mthwalo is no longer with us but Mhlophe closely feels her presence. “When I am given wonderful recognition like this Honorary Doctorate from Rhodes University, I feel her smiling at me,” says Mhlophe, adding that various traditional healers and people attributed with powers to see beyond have told her that Gogo Mthwalo is constantly with her, shining a light for her.

For Mhlophe the lives of the living and those who have passed are all part of a great circle of knowledge that needs to be honoured.

In 2001 she started the Nozincwadi Literacy Campaign in honour of her paternal great grandmother Nozincwadi MaMchunu whom her father told her had collected “a suitcase full of words”.

“She is said to have collected anything with words – books, articles, old Bibles, newspapers – and she kept them all in a suitcase. She told my father that these words were magical things that would speak to her one day.”

Mhlophe never saw inside that suitcase, which was lost in time, but the power of the message spoke so strongly to her that she launched her literacy campaign fourteen years ago and has continued with it ever since.

“It’s like Nozincwadi is delivered from the grave through this campaign, and since 2001 I have travelled throughout South Africa, visiting schools, doing performances, donating books and encouraging young South Africans to read. And my goodness, we have a beautiful country!” says Mhlophe who would have loved to share her adventures with her Gogo.

“A lot has happened since those wonderful times in her company. Like all of us, I’ve had my fair share of crying and hardship but I was so lucky to have the foundation of love she gave me at the beginning of my life. It’s the all-important foundation – like when you are going to build a high-rise building.”

From the age of ten Mhlophe’s life dramatically changed when her estranged mother Nomanina Shezi came to fetch her. “My mother had been working as a domestic worker in Brighton Beach, Durban, where she had met my father who worked nearby. She was Xhosa-speaking and from a village in Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape where she had returned, leaving me with my father. Then one day she arrived out of the blue in a white car driven by her employer and took me away.”

It was highly traumatising for Mhlophe. She emphasises that if she hadn’t been obsessed with reading and books she does not know what would have happened to her.

“When the river is flooding and you are being sucked by the current, and a branch comes along, you hold onto that branch for dear life. For me books were the branch and I held onto them for dear life,” she explains.

During this time Mhlophe got to know her mother better, and discovered she had been a celebrated wedding dancer when she was young.

As part of the Xhosa tradition, the wedding dancer would dance at weddings just before the bride emerged. Mhlophe discovered her mother was known far and wide for her exceptional dance ability.

“People would say ‘turn around, let me see your legs. Can you dance like your mother?’” continues Mhlophe who wrote a poem titled The Wedding Dancer for her mother.

In time, Mhlophe mustered sufficient courage to ask her mother why she had abandoned her as a baby. “In those days it was taboo to ask these questions and parents didn’t give you proper answers. My mother said she had been in a very difficult marriage in the Eastern Cape, which didn’t explain anything to me when I was young.

“As I got older I understood better and I learnt that she had run away from that marriage to KwaZulu-Natal where she had met my father and given birth to me. I realised that sometimes no matter how hard it is, you have to return and sort out what you left behind, which she did. When her abusive husband passed away, she came to fetch me.”

Those were hard times for the teenage Mhlophe who was separated from her beloved Gogo and her Zulu-speaking family, and who was sent to boarding school for her high school years. Displaced from all that was familiar she was also treated like a foreigner in the Xhosa-speaking Eastern Cape.

“With hindsight I can appreciate that those hard times made me stronger and gave me a sense of self love and self reliance. My mother also taught me to work hard – she worked like mad and never ever walked slowly. She couldn’t tolerate it when people dragged their feet.”

During school holidays Mhlope’s mother would awaken her before sunrise so that they could start tackling all the tasks that needed to be done around the house.

“I hated it at the time but it groomed me to be hard-working. To be a successful person you have to work hard. And it never stops. The more successful you are, the harder you work,” says Mhlope who believes that she would not have achieved the success she has if she had not been taught to work hard. “We need to inculcate this in our children.”

Today she has a 17-year-old daughter, Nomakwezi, with her husband Karl Becker whom she met while she was on tour in Germany in 1988.

“I have been blessed with many, many awards but I regard being a mother as one of my top achievements and one of my greatest challenges. How do you protect a child and at the same time let them be free? It’s not easy.”

Mhlophe has traveled the world with Nomakwezi since she was six months old. Home is the Bluff in Durban overlooking the Indian Ocean. “I always wanted to live in a house where I can see the ocean and where I can hear the ocean when I awaken and go to sleep.”

This year she will head for Grahamstown on two separate occasions: to receive her Honorary Doctorate and to attend the National Arts Festival. For once she’s not performing, she is going to enjoy the experience of being an audience member in the university town.

“If I had had the money to go to university when I was young, I would definitely have headed straight for the Linguistics Department because I really love languages,” says Mhlope whose writing career started in 1981 with a magazine called Learn and Teach.

“I was living in Alex township working as a domestic and freelance journalist when the then editor of Learn and Teach, Mark Suttner, saw a story I had written about an arranged marriage called Nokulunga’s Wedding, and he offered me a writing job. The magazine was aimed at the recently literate and I learned to write strong stories in simple English.”


At the same time she was writing and performing praise poetry, which landed her a part in a 1983 production at the Market Theatre called Umongikazi or The Nurse, based on the true life experiences of nurses at Baragwanath Hospital, and directed by Maishe Maponya.


She has since performed all over the world and she has a long list of accolades including an OBBIE Theatrical Award in New York, for her role in Barney Simon’s Born in the RSA – about a cross-section of characters living in South Africa during the 1980s state of emergency.


Today, with decades of writing and performing behind her, Mhlophe remains entirely dedicated to the art of storytelling, education and the growth of women:


“Storytelling is the basis of all cultures and the mother of all art forms,” she says. “A dancer needs a story to dance to; every song is based on a story, irrespective of whether it’s a traditional African song or a more contemporary classic like Lady in Red,” she explains.


Two of her favourite songs are Joan Armatrading’s Baby I and Miriam Makeba’s Gauteng.


“Gauteng tells a beautiful, poignant story of how our gold ends up being worn as jewellery by Americans and Europeans who know nothing about the men who physically mined that gold and who will never be able to afford a beautiful gold ring for their own wives.”


Where women are concerned, she says that as patriotic as she is, she feels it is “a scourge on our society” that women and children are not safe in their own country.


“This isn’t something we can blame on the apartheid government, this is a situation where our own men are making life unsafe for us,” says Mhlope who wishes that more men and religious leaders would stand up and say ‘This is not the way’.


“Where are these voices? Where are the political and religious leaders who used to be so vocal about these issues?”


At the same time she urges young women to develop their sense of identity to find out whom they are and what they want to study.


“A strong sense of identity and self-respect starts with informing yourself,” she says.


“Today there is so much information available to us and it all starts with literacy. You need to be able to read and write well, and you need to achieve this for yourself because this is your path to freedom.
“This year government is going to spend tons of money celebrating 20 years of freedom, this is wonderful, but if they spent more on education and skills development, we would have so much more to celebrate.”