Durban Living Legend – Gcina Mhlophe-Becker

Nokugcina Elsie ‘Gcina’ Mhlophe born in Hammersdale in 1959 is a well-known South African freedom fighter, activist, actor, storyteller, poet, playwright, director and author. after completing her matric at in 1979 at Mfundisweni High School. She did a Cadet Journalism course at the Rhodes University, 6 months Film Making Course as part of Interchurch Media Programme’s Community Project and Part-time news reading for the Press Trust, BBC Radio, Africa Service and between 1982/83 she was writing for the Learn and Teach magazine.

She does her most important 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 Mhlophe has appeared in theatres from Soweto to London and much of her work has been translated into German, French, Italian, Swahili and Japanese.

Theatre

  • 1983 Lead actress in Umongikazi – The Nurse by Maishe Maponya, later touring England, Ireland, Holland and Switzerland.
  • 1984/85 Acting in the workshop play The Black Dog – Injemnyama, directed by Barney Simon, touring South Africa
  • 1985 and 87 – 89 Writing and acting in the autobiographical piece Have you seen Zandile?, touring South Africa, Lesotho, most of Europe – participating at the Edinburgh festival. Mounting the piece as a Visiting Director at the Chicago Theatre Co. and at Knoxville’s Carpet Bag Theatre in Tennessee with different US. actors, who later went touring USA.
  • 1986 Acting in the workshop play Born In The RSA, directed by Barney Simon, touring South Africa, England, most of Europe and the US. Participation at the Edinburgh festival.
  • 1987 Visiting assistant director with Barney Simon at Boston’s Brandeis University, workshoping and staging the musical play Written By Hand.
  • 1989/90 Resident Director at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. Co-writing and singing in the musical Inyanga, directed by Barney Simon. Writing and directing Somdaka, touring Johannesburg’s Townships and Zimbabwe.
  • 1995 Co-writing an adaptation of Brecht’s The Good Person Of Sechuan with Janet Suzman for BBC, London and the Market Theatre, Johannesburg
  • 1998 Wrote and performed in the one woman show Love Child, by Mannie Manim Production. Took it to Japan to the Solo Festival in Tokyo

Theatre Awards 

  • 1987 OBIE Award as best actress in Born in the RSA – New York
  • 1987 Fringe First Award for best production of Have You Seen Zandile – Edinburgh Festival
  • 1988 Joseph Jefferson Award as best actress in Have You Seen Zandile – Chicago
  • 1988 Sony Award nomination for best production of Have You Seen Zandile – BBC Radio Africa

Mhlophe has travelled extensively in Africa and other parts of the world giving storytelling workshops. Currently, 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. Not just satisfied with contributing to the arts, Mhlophe also wants to help preserve the work of other African artists and lay people through the Khumbulani Memory House, an oral history museum and has also established the Gcinamasiko Arts and Heritage Trust which helps to promote African writers, fostering a culture of story-telling through its various edutainment programmes.

Dr Gcina Mhlophe has been the recipient of numerous awards (more than we can list here!), and was included as one the BBCs 100 Women for 2016, a programme that celebrates influential and inspirational women around the world. See below to watch a short video that shows just how inspirational the incredible Gcina Mhlophe is!

Praise Poem

Praise poem performed in 1989 in honour of Nokukhanya Luthuli, widow of Chief Albert Luthuli – past president of the ANC in the ’50s and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1961:

If the moon were to shine tonight
To light up my face and show off my proud form
With beads around my neck and shells in my hair
And a soft easy flowing dress with the colours of Africa

If I were to stand on top of a hill
And raise my voice in praise
Of the women of my country
Who have worked throughout their lives
Not for themselves, but for the very life of all Africans
Who would I sing my praises to?
I could quote all the names
Yes, but where do I begin?!

Do I begin with the ones
Who gave their lives
So that we others may live a better life
The Lilian Ngoyis, the Victoria Mxenges
The Ruth Firsts
Or the ones who have lost their men
To Robben Island and their children to exile
But carried on fighting
The MaMotsoaledis, the MaSisulus
The Winnie Mandelas?

Or maybe I would sing praises to
The ones who, have had the resilience
And cunning of a desert cobra
Priscilla Jana, Fatima Meer, Beauty Mkhize
Or the ones who turned deserts into green vegetable gardens
From which our people can eat
Mamphela Ramphele, Ellen Kuzwayo

Or would the names of the women
Who marched, suffered solitary confinement and house arrests
Helen Joseph, Amina Cachalia, Sonya Bunting, Dorothy Nyembe,
Thoko Mngoma, Florence Matomela, Bertha Mkhize,
How many more names come to mind
As I remember the Defiance Campaign
The fights against Beer Halls that suck the strength of our men
Building of alternative schools away from Bantu Education
And the fight against pass laws

Maybe, maybe, I would choose a name
Just one special name that spells out light
That of Mama Nokukhanya Luthuli
Maybe if I were to call out her name
From the top of the hill
While the moon is shining bright;
No-Ku-Kha-nya!
NO-KU-KHA-NYA!
Maybe my voice would be carried by the wind
To reach all the other women
Whose names are not often mentioned
The ones who sell oranges and potatoes
So their children can eat and learn
The ones who scrub floors and polish executive desktops
In towering office blocks
While the city sleeps
The ones who work in overcrowded hospitals
Saving lives, cleaning bullet wounds and delivering new babies
And the ones who have given up
Their places of comfort and the protection of their skin colour
Marian Sparg, Sheena Duncan,
Barbara Hogan, Jenny Schreiner.

And what of the women who are stranded in the homelands
With a baby in the belly and a baby on the back
While their men are sweating in the bowels of the earth?

May the lives of all these women
Be celebrated and made to shine
When I cry out Mama Nokukhanya’s name
NO-KU-KHA-NYA! !
And we who are young, salute our mothers Who have given us
The heritage of their Queendom!!!

From Women Writing Africa: the southern region. Margaret Daymond et al. (eds). Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2002.

Interview with Nellie Hlongwane

In a personal interview with Gcina she shared something of herself, the person behind the personality. Her name Nokugcina Mhlophe means ‘last one’ because she is the last born in her family. Her family clan praises are: Mhlophe kaZindela kaNonkomonhle kaChanca. She comes from Hammarsdale, a small village between Durban and Pietemaritzburg. She grew up in the Eastern Cape and had to learn isiXhosa and English there

She married Mr. Becker from New Hanover, Germany in 1996. She is a biological mother to one daughter and mother to many other children that she is working with. Her daughter’s name is Nomakhwezi meaning ‘brand new day’. Gcina remembers her grandmother as a good storyteller who used to tell fairy tales and legends in a way that made her feel part of the story that she was telling. Her father was her role model, and she remembers him teaching her to respect all people, no matter what kind of work they do, and also to respect herself, because she portrays her family and her country.

Gcina began her writing career when she was 17, writing poems. She lacked self confidence because of her voice, but Mr. Firkin encouraged her by saying she’s got a poet’s voice. That was when she started to love her own voice. Her first poem was titled ‘Sanele Arobi’. Some of her earliest books published were ‘Inqubeli’ and ‘Imvozabantu’. She is also an accomplished actor, having played in many productions, and a director.

She likes to work with young people and always tells them that she loves them, because she believes that it is important to make young people feel that they are loved; then they will be able to focus on what they do best. Gcina has been travelling since 1983, and she is still traveling today, doing shows all over the world. She admits that it is wonderful for her when performing abroad to tell her audience from KwaZulu-Natal. Her life has changed from a journalist to an interpreter, to a script writer and a professional actor.

Dr Gcina Mhlophe, activist, author, playwright and eThekwini Living Legend (amongst other things!), announced last year her plans to set up an oral history museum in Durban. “My own people have named me Gcinamasiko, which means the keeper of heritage; I wear this name like a blanket and honour it with my being”, Mhlophe said when talking of her plans to establish the Khumbulani Memory House, which is to be set up in Pixley House in the Durban CBD. A number of fundraising events have taken place, with the most recent being a celebration in Newtown Johannesburg where Mhlophe collected signatures in support of the Memory House Campaign.

Click here to listen to Dr Mhlophe talking about her plans for the oral history museum.

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