Well-known South African freedom fighter, activist, actor, storyteller, poet, playwright, director and author, Nokugcina Elsie Mhlophe was born on the 24th of October 1958 in Hammarsdale, KwaZulu-Natal.
In 1979, she matriculated from Mfundisweni High School in Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape. She completed a Cadet Course in Journalism through Rhodes University but started her working life as a domestic servant. She later landed a job as a newsreader at the Press Trust and BBC Radio, and then began writing for Learn and Teach, a magazine for newly-literate people.
Several experiences inspired Ms Mhlophe to turn to a career as a storyteller. She credits her storytelling ability to her grandmother, who brought her up in Durban.
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, Ms Mhlophe only began to think of storytelling as a career after meeting an Imbongi, one of the legendary poets of African folklore, and after strong encouragement by Mannie Manim (the then artistic-director of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg) and Barney Simon. In 1989 she became the Resident Director at the very same Theatre.
Ms Mhlophe has appeared in theatres from Soweto to London and much of her work has been translated into German, French, Italian, Swahili and Japanese. During her theatre days, Ms Mhlophe received numerous awards including an OBIE Award as best actress in 1987, a Fringe First Award for best production at the Edinburgh Festival in the same year and the 1988 Joseph Jefferson Award for best actress.
Ms Mhlophe has travelled extensively in Africa and other parts of the world giving storytelling workshops. Her stories meld folklore, information, current affairs, song and idiom. Recognition for her writing has come in the form of many awards, some of the most significant being a writers’ fellowship at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy to work on a children’s musical in 1997, SAMA Awards in 2009 and 2010 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arts and Culture Trust in the same year. In 2003, her “Stories of Africa” garnered her a nomination for Exclusive Books Publisher’s Choice and in 2011, she received an Award for Contribution to Arts in Education by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education.
She has had a successful TV career being a presenter for Art Works and Literacy Alive at the SABC, a nine-part storytelling series, a 10 part history series and in 2005 and 2006, she presented a traditional music programme. She has also done extensive narration and voice-over work.
In 2006, Ms Mhlophe represented South Africa at the FIFA World Cup in Germany and performed at the South African World Cup Logo Reveal, a performance that was broadcast to billions of television viewers.
Storytelling is a deeply traditional activity in Africa and Ms Mhlophe has managed to embrace different media like radio, TV and does motivational speaking at corporate events. She does her most important work through charismatic performances, telling her stories in English, isiZulu and isiXhosa. The realisation of her dreams is a visceral motivator for her and she has passed on her infectious enthusiasm by developing young talent to carry forward this heritage through the 1991, Zanendaba (Bring me a Story) Initiative.
She is currently Director of Gcinamasiko Arts and Heritage Trust, an umbrella body hosting all her other initiatives like Nozincwadi, Mother of Books Literacy Campaign. In collaboration with Biblionef and other national literacy organisations, Nozincwadi (established in 2001) focuses on making books available to poor South African rural communities by making sure that libraries are built, and stocked with locally and culturally relevant books.
For her work to preserve storytelling as a means of keeping history alive and encouraging South African children to read, it is an honour for Nelson Mandela University to confer the degree of Doctor of Literature (honoris causa) on Nokugcina Elsie Mhlophe.