Gcina Mhlophe, Writer, Director, Story Teller

Words of Wisdom: “Anyone who is successful today is not successful because they failed, it is how they stood up after failing.” – Gcina Mhlophe

Interview with Gcina Mhlophe, Writer, Director, Story Teller, South Africa

Gcina Mhlophe, Writer, Director, Story Teller, South Africa

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 Gcina 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 has received 5 honorary doctrines.

Gcina has worked tirelessly for the past 11 years running NOZINCWADI – Mother of Books Literacy Campaign to help make South Africa a Reading Nation.

Gcina Mhlophe website: www.gcinamhlophe.co.za/

Gcina Mhlophe, Writer, Director, Story Teller, South Africa

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

What was the catalyst to become a storyteller?

To be a storyteller you need to love stories. I was very lucky at a very young age to have a grandmother who was a master storyteller. I grew up with stories and children in my neighborhood would beg their parents to come spend the night to hear my grandmother’s stories.

To be a good storyteller, you need to love stories and want to travel on a journey to where your imagination hits the sky.

I never thought of myself on stage when I grew up. I just wanted to be a writer. When I was seventeen I wrought my first poem and was inspired by a traditional poet. I hated my voice and I prayed for a ‘sweet womanly voice,’ which never happened. For me story telling gave me back the love of my voice, but also allowed me to express what I feel inside.

Not only do I tell stories of long ago, but also what I call history telling and contemporary stories that connect me to other people in my country and other parts of the world.  I have been lucky to travel for the last 29 years.When I share this thing that I know that is so universal it is easy as water. No one can live with out water. Every human being has a story to tell.

We all have a story, but not everyone wants to listen to our story. What do you do to make your stories compelling to your audience?

I am so excited about sharing these stories; the operative word is ‘sharing,’ stories. I tell stories to wake-up stories in other people. My job is to get on stage, go under that tree or in that village to wake up stories in other people. I know I can and I am very excited about that on a daily bases.

I want our audience to think about something very important as I am asking you these questions, no matter if you are a businessperson, educator or philanthropist, you can use stories in ways to communicate. How Gcina uses stories can be used in your everyday communications.

How do you think people can use stories help their communications come to life?

One of things when I teach librarians, teachers to tell stories, I tell them:

  1. Select a story you love – you put everything into it.
  2. As a business persons, leader or sales person who wants to share an idea or ideology with people when you bring a story your idea you must know everything about the idea and the story before you can have that passion that can take your idea to people’s minds and they can see themselves living that, doing that, buying that or accepting that.

What else does it take to communicate that story effectively?

Be yourself. Sometimes people see a story being communicated in a particular way and they say “they want to tell stories like so and so,” you can only tell stories like yourself.

Know everything you need to know.

It is like putting a recipe together, all the right ingredients come out and the smell takes you, then the taste – the story needs to do that when people are listening to it.

What goes into the recipe?

  1. You need to have a ‘grass mat’ or foundation. You need to lay down the foundation of the story so you can build on it.
  2. Then you build on that foundation. Where is the door? What type of roof? How many people live there? Is there an old person in the house?
  3. You must make sure that the content of the story is communicating what you want to communicate. This is the plot, these characters, time and place. When the story ripens and the listener says – ‘I get it.’ Give that story as a ‘gift’ to your listeners.

If you are a manger and you have a strategy that you want to communicate to your listeners, you can write a long speech, read it well and use wonderful words and quote a politician or philosopher, or you can give a story.

Use a story that leads me to choose this concept that will lead our company into the future. When you say that story you know for a fact that nobody will doubt why this concept for this company.

You get the audience to visualize the story.

You know that saying: ‘it is not what you say, but how you say it,’ what are some of the techniques you use to engage your audience?

When I left full time theater I gave myself the democratic right to ask where every I go from Vancouver to Brazil, to Japan, the first thing I do is tell the technicians, can I see my audience?

  • I want to interact with my audience. I don’t want to be on stage with the bright lights and the blackness out there. I want to see my audience.  I interact with people
  • People say, “what you give to that audience” – and I say it is a circle – I give out and the audience gives back to me, I give out and the audience gives back to me. And sometimes I am in the wrong place, and I just not myself. I had a performance and I know I was not myself and when I walked into the room to observe the other speaker so I can work effectively with them, I became more of a distraction, as people knew I was there and detracted from the speaker. I was not feeling right. When you are going into that space and you know everyone is happy to see and hear you, you have to center yourself.
  • One of the things that is typical in my family when we come together is song. Song is the glue that draws our family together. We can have all the food and drinks, but until we start singing as a family we are not together yet.
  • When it was my time for me to stand-up on stage I started with a song. A song that I know these people will come and sing with me. The entire auditorium rose and started singing with me. Song is just another thing that centers me and places me where I want to be spiritually and this human being that deals with a universal audience all the time.

Have you ever been in an audience where you were not getting anything back? How did you deal with that?

You give more and more. Those are the exhausting performances. The ones that give back are a pleasure, but when you are not getting back it is not easy, but every performer needs to go through that. I just give more of myself. I am sincere as I would be if the audience was giving back.

You can’t let your audience affect you. The difference is you know why you are doing what you are doing.

You need to have downtime to replenish.

Recently I had a lot going on personally and I had a very hectic schedule and need to get to Durban to Pretoria. I missed my flight and I was going to be late. I hate being late, if you say you are going to do something, you must do it. You must be reliable. You must deliver when your name is on the line. I am not feeling good at all. There were just finishing dinner before I was going to go up to speak. There was a problem – my basket was empty.

As soon as it was time for me to speak, I got up in front of all women, the Tutu Bishop’s Trust, many of high profile women in business and leadership.  I started speaking and said “Ladies, Gcini Mhlophe basket is empty.  “I am standing in front of you and I am suppose to bring you gifts of wisdom and I bring you an empty basket, what does that say?” That has to do with that sincerity and honesty. Maybe it happened for a reason. We people who are successful, we people who are in leadership positions, we people who are prominent and visible to society, sometimes are baskets are empty. We have nothing to give. It is time for ‘operation lie down women, be still, replenish yourself and refill the basket again. The discussion and audience participation was amazing. It would never had been that way if I had come the usual Gcini in charge.

What a more appropriate time to have your basket’s empty then with a group of women! I think our baskets are often empty with all the demands placed on us.

What advice do you have if people are going to use stories in their talks beyond be passionate, authentic, be yourself and be present on how to construct the right story and how long should that story be?

  • The length of the story I can not say, but if your still insecure using stories, the shorter the better.
  • Tell a story about something about what you know about.
    • Not everyone feels comfortable telling autobiographical stories
    • It can be a topic that you know about.
    • Make sure you are using a language that you are comfortable with. That is something else Africans need to deal with because we are using colonizers’ languages. When you tell a story in your own language to an audience understands that language, then that is delicious. Then you come to the English language, French or Portuguese. Borrow from the idioms of our own people.
    • The story you choose to tell make sure it is succinct, to the point and it is what you want to communicate. It should never be just a story.

I often refer to that as story, point, and relevance.

Sometimes Africans make the story too long with no point. When you are giving a story do you have objective and what is that objective?

When I am hired as a storyteller to entertain, my bag is flowing with stories so that is easy.

If I have to communicate a certain message, I want to select a story that will climax with the message I want to put across.

Another situation is when I have to communicate a message, but I don’t have a story that will communicate that message, I write a brand new story that will have elements I want.

When I had to do the reveal of the World Cup Logo in Germany in 2006, I had to write something new. I knew the Presidents of different countries and the top people of FIFFA where there, the sports ministers and billions of people are watching around the world. For that fifteen minutes on stage I am representing my country. I was caring the message for the country.  Sometimes it could be a message for school kids or businesses and I decide what the message is that needs to be communicated or that is asked to be communicated. As I unravel the story and watch my audience settle into the story bit by bit. They start to lean forward and they are getting it. It is like you have been cooking something and you have been laying it on the plates and you hand it over. They are with you. It is wonderful to be able to that.

For me, I am very selective about the story I choose to tell.

If am not given an objective, I create one. Audiences should all go home with goody bags.

When you are writing a story, how do you structure it so that the objective of talk is achieved?

I want to encase it in a package of the story of long ago. Sometimes it surprises the audiences. The information that is relevant to this particular subject and I put all the facts in there. I then wrap it up as a gift and then hand it over to the audiences.

  1. It is important to have the encasing,
  2. Have all the facts that need to be in that story
  3. Find a way to wrap it up in a beautiful way.

Sometimes things need to be serious you need to do that as well.  Last year on Freedom Day, I was boiling with anger when I walked on that stage but I had to reign it in. I got on that stage to say a message that I want South Africa to hear. Someone had to say it.   Not being a card caring member of any political organization so I could say it. Sometimes you have to say want needs to be said.

  • I would not get up to rant and rave, that is not my department.
  • My department is to give a message across, but it doesn’t always have to be in a story. That is what I believe people expect from me when I get on stage.

I have read that you feel that story telling is a great way to preserve culture. Why do you feel it is so important to preserve that culture?

  • I have been awarded a name from the rural communities “keeper of heritage” I started a new organization GCINAMASIKO ARTS & HERITAGE TRUST.
  • Story telling is wonderful way to preserve our heritage. Telling stories of long ago encourages us to take all the lessons of values to bring to the future.
  • History telling-it is important for our people to be heard.
  • Telling stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
  • Also stories about the way of dong things. Caring ourselves as a mother, father or a leader.
  • Sometimes we may tell stories so we don’t forget our history. Often people will say: “black people in South Africa are always going on about apartheid. They say forgive and forget. Who invented those twins? Who was the mother of forgive and forget. You can’t forgive if you chose forget. You need to remember what you are forgiving.
  • It is curious what you lay behind and what you bring back and how we do it. We have to be honest, but certain things we need to talk about in context.


You spend a lot of time on Nozincwadi, Mother of Books Literacy Campaign, what do you think Parents can do to engage children in stories?

They need to engage children in stories and reading. Children need to hear stories so they can tell stories. Parents need to plant in gardens of children’s minds. Literacy is an issue in our country.

  • Tell your children stories of long ago as well but stories of their parents. It is wonderful for children to learn about their parents so when parents tell children not to do something they wont know why. And why is a very important question. When children know where you coming from, you as a parent say no, they will know where you are coming from
  • It is important to share stories with our children, in schools, in the community and also to write them down so they keep them for prosperity.
  • Nozincwadi, Mother of Books Literacy is also about visiting schools for young people to meet and interact with people that are prominent in society.
  • Many kids would not expect to meet me and yet I will spend all day with them and answer questions. What many of them have gone through, I too have gone through. This thing called poverty has been around since biblical times and it will be around for a very long time. I want young people to know where I have come from. I came from a very poor background, but hard work and the love of education took me to where I am today.
  • A person learns until they die.
  • The gospel I preach is “if a nobody like me can be a somebody, so can you.”
  • Work hard, study, don’t miss opportunities on the way, grab them. Accept the detour of life, and sometimes they are there for a reason. When you come back on track it is often so much more fulfilling because you took that detour.
  • Anyone who is successful today is not successful because they failed, it is how they stood up after failing.  

Nozincwadi also stands for that. We need to build the future leaders of this country and continent.

What has been the most significant impact you have made in your career today?

When I meet a younger person, they will say you heard what you said on a particular day in an interview. I live by what you said that day. The number of people that I meet that say that are so grateful that what I said caries them forward.  I may not be their mother, aunt, sister, but I am related to them because I believe in making a difference in this life. If I make a difference in their lives I am very grateful and humbled by it.

I know the continent needs people like me. I can’t be down, I must rise up.

Why do you leave theater and go into story telling?

Although I was at the top of my game in theater, there was things not going right in the theater world. I told my mentor “I am flying with crooked wings.” As soon as I got into story telling my wings started to straighten out and I felt, this is why I was put here. I have been telling stories since 1991. Now and again go back to theater.

What does story telling give you that theater didn’t?

I love the direct interaction with the audience. I can do the best character, but there is a blackness out there. People talk to you as a character. When I am storytelling I am dealing with the audience directly. The audience meets me and I meet them, and I love that.

If there was on thing you would attribute your success to, what would it be?

When I do something I want to do it well. Everything that has happened in my life unto the time where I can be called ‘successful’ no matter how difficult things were, they were preparing me, they were chiseling me, shaping me to be the person I was going to be.

I think my success has to do with open-mindedness. If I have never done it before, I just go for it. I will do it and do it well.

What is the most challenging aspect of our career?

You end up doing several things at the same time. I am at a place where the writer and performer need to be balanced.

When I am home, not travelling I am here. My family needs to eat what I have cooked, I read, play in the peace garden, listen to what my child has to say. I love just being with her.

Have you ever done an initiative that didn’t work the way you intended?

I was writing a script for Christmas season and put it on, it was very well attended. Every show there was an outfit that the main character designs. People came to back stage wanting to buy the cloths at the end of show. They assumed we were selling them. We weren’t. I never thought about it, didn’t see it coming. It shows my lack of business skills. I don’t have a business mind. 

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

Working with young people. They wont buy that I know what I am doing. They have questions. They don’t have to listen to you, they know much more then you do. They keep me on my toes. I can’t just show up. The make me so much more alert and focused. I am grateful all the time.

What is one thing you would do differently to achieve the success you have achieved?

I wish that I learnt to understand business earlier in my life. I do believe it is never to late to do business course. “Not knowing is as good as being blind.” I just need a course.

What does success mean to you?

Reaching the place you want to be, but sometimes you are propelled to bigger than you even imagined. Success is not money to me. To do the best you can be at your chosen field is success.

Leadership Lessons from Gcina Mhlophe

  1. Be clear to where you are going so people can actually see it.
  2. Lead by example
  3. Humility – this should be patented.

What is next for you?

To have a big structure that is memory house. Where people of all races and all cultures can come to tell their stories.  When I get that place going I want to run the memory house and frame the passport and relax and watch people come in. I want people to tell their version of the truth as history comes in many faces, shapes and sizes.

Reflective Realizations

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?

Enjoy being young. Be hungry for knowledge.

Words of Wisdom from Gcina Mhlophe

We are the backbone of this continent. Not the rib, like they talk about in the bible. We need to move to reshape and redirect the continent. The way it is going now it is not going to work for the women of the continent nor for the children of this continent. Lets raise up like that backbone we are.



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