Nokugcina Elsie Mhlophe (born 1958) is a well-known South African anti-apartheid activist, actress, storyteller, poet, playwright, director and author. Storytelling is a deeply traditional activity in Africa and Mhlophe is one of the few woman storytellers in a country dominated by males. She does her work through charismatic performances, working to preserve storytelling as a means of keeping history alive and encouraging South African children to read. She tells her stories in four of South Africa’s languages: English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa.
Gcina was born in 1958 in KwaZulu-Natal to a Xhosa mother and a Zulu father. She started her working life as a domestic servant, later working as a newsreader at the Press Trust and BBC Radio, then as a writer for Learn and Teach, a magazine for newly-literate people.
Several experiences inspired Mhlophe to turn to a career as storyteller. She credits her storytelling ability to her grandmother, who brought her up in Durban. Mhlophe says, “My grandmother taught me everything about telling stories. When I was growing up, half the kids in our neighbourhood would come and spend the evening at home so that they could listen to izinganekwane (tales).”
She began to get a sense of the demand for stories while in Chicago in 1988. She performed at a library in a mostly-black neighbourhood, where an ever-growing audience kept inviting her back. Still, Mhlophe only began to think of storytelling as a career after meeting an Imbongi, one of the legendary poets of African folklore, and after encouragement by Mannie Manim, the then-director of the Market Theatre, Johannesburg.
Since then Mhlophe has appeared in theatres from Soweto to London and much of her work has been translated into German, French, Italian, Swahili and Japanese. Mhlophe has travelled extensively in Africa and other parts of the world giving storytelling workshops.
Mhlophe’s stories meld folklore, information, current affairs, song and idiom. The realisation of her dreams is a visceral motivator for her and she is passing on her infectious enthusiasm by developing young talent to carry forward the work of storytelling through the Zanendaba (Bring me a story) Initiative. This initiative, established in 2002, is a collaboration with the Market Theatre and READ, a national literacy organization.
Mhlophe currently serves as the patron of the ASSITEJ South Africa, the International Association for Theatre for Children and Young People.
Mhlophe focuses on making books available to poor South African rural communities by making sure that libraries are built, and making sure they are stocked with locally and culturally relevant books. Mhlophe currently serves as the patron of ASSITEJ South Africa, the International Association for Theatre for Children and Young People.