Women’s month

Celebrating women in history and those making history

Nokugcina Elsie Mhlophe (born 1958) is a well-known South African freedom fighter, activist, actor, 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 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.

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.

  • Nominee for the Noma Award for Queen of the Tortoises, 1991
  • Book Chat Award for Molo Zoleka
  • OBIE Theatrical Award (New York) for Born in the RSA 
  • Fringe First Award (Edinburgh) for Have you seen Zandile?
  • Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actress (Chicago) for Have you seen Zandile?
  • Sony Award for Radio Drama from BBC Radio Africa for Have you seen Zandile?
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