Gcina Mhlope was born Nokugcina Elsie Mhlophe, in October of 1958 in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Her mother was Xhosa and her father was Zulu. As a young woman, she attended Mfundisweni High School in 1979. She also worked as a domestic servant and then began to pursue a career in writing and journalism. Mhlope found work as a newsreader at the Press Trust and BBC Radio. Her later life would see her work for Learn and Teach as a writer. This publication was focused on helping those who are only newly literate. She is recognized today as a tireless advocate for literacy among adults and children.
As mentioned above, Mhlope’s life saw her embark on a number of different career paths. In 1984 she acted in a film called Black Dog and then in Place of Weeping two years later. As she performed, her interests began to narrow and she developed a love for storytelling. Mhlope’s writing and performing is known today for its combination of current events, son, and folklore.
In 1988, she traveled to Chicago where she shared her stories with the community. She was in demand throughout the city and performed for audiences in largely black neighbourhoods. It was in 1989 that she performed a praise poem in honour of Nokukhanya Luthuli, who was the 1961 Novel Peace Prize winner. A year later she performed as the Edinburgh Festival and toured this performance, known as Have You Seen Zandile? through Europe and the United States. In the later part of 1989 and 1990, she was the resident director at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and the coordinator at READ.
Although it was clear her work was successful, it was not until she met with an imbongi, also known as a Xhosa Praise Poet, when her career became clear to her. In 1997 she was named as the presenting poet at Poetry Africa and then later as a guest speaker at the Perth Writers Festival. Her performances expanded in size and audience, leading her to book larger venues such as Royal Albert Hall in London.
More recently, Mhlope received an honorary doctors from the Universities of Natal and London Open. In 2016 she was chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 Women. You can read Mhlope’s poems here.