Mhlophe, Gcina 1960–

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Gcina Mhlophe 1960-

(Full name Nokugcina Mhlophe) South African playwright, poet, short story writer, and children's writer.


Mhlophe is an award-winning playwright, children's writer, stage and screen actress, storyteller, poet, and director. Her most famous drama, Have You Seen Zandile?, was first produced in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1986 and has since been performed in Scotland, Switzerland, England, Holland, Germany, and the United States. Mhlophe is dedicated to preserving the art of storytelling, finding in the oral tradition a means of preserving the indigenous South African folktales, myths, worldviews, history, and values. With this goal in mind, she has established "Zanendaba" ("Bring Me a Story"), a program that trains storytellers as professionals and provides them with avenues for performing, including in schools and other organizations. In addition to giving a voice to the often-silenced women who have experienced the oppressive systems of apartheid and their own patriarchal society, Zanendaba also serves to educate the country's youngsters, many of whom cannot read and have been separated from the histories of their own cultures by colonial institutions that were dismissive of and discouraged oral practices. Mhlophe has won several accolades, including an Obie Award for her performance in Born in the RSA (1987); a Noma Award nomination for her children's book Queen of the Tortoises (1990); and a BBC Africa Service Award for radio drama, the Sony Award in Britain for best actress in a radio drama, and the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival, all for Have You Seen Zandile?.


Mhlophe was born in 1960 in Hammarsdale, near Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal, a province of South Africa. From an early age she was profoundly influenced by an elderly aunt and her paternal grandmother, both of whom inspired her imagination and passed along their passion for storytelling. She was raised by her paternal grandmother in the city of Durban, where she learned to speak Zulu. At the age of ten she was abruptly taken away by her mother to live in the rural area of the Transkei, South Africa, where she resided until she turned eighteen. While in high school, Mhlophe began writing fiction and verse in Xhosa, the language taught at the local school. By 1979 she had moved to Johannesburg, where she began writing in English and working variously as a household servant, a newsreader for such outlets as BBC Radio, and a writer for Learn and Teach, a literacy magazine. One of her first stories, "My Dear Madam," was published in 1981; its emphasis on Mhlophe's personal experience (her work as a servant) reflects what would become a rich source for her writings. She began performing in the theater in 1982, appearing in Maishe Maponya's play Umongikazi in 1983, and acting in film, playing a role in the movie Place of Weeping in 1986. Mhlophe wrote her first full-length play—the autobiographical Have You Seen Zandile?—around this same time. By the late 1980s she had begun producing books for children, including The Snake with Seven Heads (1989), and in March of 1989 began working as resident director at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, the first woman and the first black individual to hold that position. In 1991 she began focusing her energies on storytelling, combining this interest with her devotion to the issue of childhood literacy. To this end she has traveled throughout the rural areas of South Africa, visiting schools with her "reading road show." In addition, she has provided narration for Gift of the Tortoise, a recording released by the internationally known Zulu a cappella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in 1993; performed her own stories and written the musical accompaniment for the television series Gcina and Friends for SABC-TV; released the storytelling CD Fudukazi's Magic in 2000; and performed in television shows and documentaries, including Art Works, Literacy Alive, and Songololo. She is the recipient of honorary doctorates from London Open University and the University of Natal, and has lectured at several universities.


In Mhlophe's best-known work, Have You Seen Zandile?, the author explores such themes as how one's identity is defined by one's relationships to others, the correlation between identity and language, the centrality of women as custodians of the African storytelling tradition, and the vital importance of an oral community. Though Mhlophe is listed as the primary author of the play, she collaborated on it with playwrights Maralin Van Renen and Thembi Mtshali. Zandile opened at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1986. The play is written in three languages, Zulu, Xhosa, and English, and revolves around the title character's mutually de- pendent relationship with her paternal grandmother, Gogo, a loving Zulu woman who imparts to her granddaughter a deep appreciation for storytelling. When the play opens in mid-1960s apartheid South Africa, Zandile is eight years old, living with Gogo in the modern city of Durban, enjoying time for stories, creativity, and play. As the narrative progresses, Zandile is abducted by her mother, Lulama, and taken to an entirely different world—an agrarian world filled with hard work and the crushed dreams of her emotionally vacuous mother, who was forced to abandon her own dream of becoming a singer due to government policies and gender restrictions. Although Zandile attempts to communicate with her grandmother through letters, these are destroyed by Lulama; in the meantime, her grandmother desperately shows photographs and pleads: "Have you seen Zandile?" The play ends as Zandile, who has survived all these years on the stories and memories instilled in her by her grandmother, finally returns to Durban to reunite with Gogo, only to discover that she has passed away.

Among Mhlophe's many short stories is "The Toilet" (1987), an often quoted tale about the act of writing. In the story, the narrator hides in the back room of the house in which her sister works in order to avoid being discovered by her sister's white employers. After she finds a job in a factory, the narrator must leave the house hours before she starts work—again to avoid detection—and searches out a place where she can await her starting time. Finding refuge in a public toilet that is hardly ever used, the narrator begins lingering there, then begins to write, reflecting that "the walls were wonderfully close to me—it felt like it was made to fit me alone." The tale revolves around the narrator's need to venture beyond the "safe" confines of cultural notions that teach her to be quiet and obedient, and to begin to publicly express herself. Mhlophe is also the author of several children's books, including Queen of the Tortoises, The Singing Dog, (1992), Hi, Zoleka! (1994), and Stories of Africa (2003), many of which reflect her belief in the educational and moral value of traditional African folk tales. Our Story Magic, published in 2006, consists of original fairytales and fables written by Mhlophe in the ancient tradition of South African folk tales.


Although Mhlophe's writing has been praised as lyrical and her play Have You Seen Zandile? lauded for the universality of its themes, Mhlophe has most often been criticized for not writing more overtly political pieces. Mhlophe has responded by stating that she articulates a political statement each time she writes about her life as a South African woman, communicating a story that does not often get told by the Western-dominated press. Several commentators echo this sentiment and view her emphasis on the personal as a means of defying those who defend apartheid, who advocate the depiction of blacks as part of an anonymous mass—one-dimensional and stereotypical. Several observers add that her focus on the particular, or local, simultaneously addresses universal themes that permeate across cultural, gender, class, and political boundaries. Above all, she is applauded for her efforts at promoting and encouraging the tradition of storytelling, which has benefitted both South African youth and South African women. According to Marcia Blumberg, "Mhlophe's storytelling … energizes women's voices in South Africa, making them audible and valuable; it also helps to restore them to the community at large, where they have been mostly silenced yet have always belonged."


Have You Seen Zandile?: A Play Originated by Gcina Mhlophe, Based on Her Childhood (play) 1986

The Snake with Seven Heads (for children) 1989

Somdaka [and director] (play) 1989

Queen of the Tortoises (for children) 1990

The Singing Dog (for children) 1992

Hi, Zoleka! (for children) 1994

Durban: Impressions of an African City [with Paul Weinberg and David Robbins] (nonfiction) 2002

Love Child (short stories) 2002

Stories of Africa (short stories for children) 2003

Our Story Magic (short stories for children) 2006


Gcina Mhlophe with Linda Parris-Bailey and Patrick Kagan-Moore (interview date February 1989)

SOURCE: Mhlophe, Gcina, Linda Parris-Bailey, and Patrick Kagan-Moore. "The Zandile Project: A Collaboration between UT, Carpetbag Theatre, and South African Playwright Gcina Mhlophe." Drama Review 34, no. 1 (spring 1990): 115-30.

[In the following interview, conducted in February 1989 by Kagan-Moore, Mhlophe and Parris-Bailey, cofounder of Carpetbag Theatre, discuss such topics as the inception of Have You Seen Zandile?; their mutual desire to preserve the tradition of storytelling; the political nature of Zandile; race relations in South Africa; the importance of music to the play; and Mhlophe's role as director.]

In 1987, Tom Cooke returned to the University of Tennessee as chair of the Department of Theatre. Since then, Cooke and Phillip Arnoult, founder and director of the Baltimore Theatre Project, have made Knoxville the site of a series of collaborations between foreign and American theatre artists. These projects represent an alliance among professional, academic, and alternative performance agencies; they signify Cooke and Arnoult's intent to build an international theatre research center at UT. In the latest of these efforts, 29-year-old South African playwright, performer, and poet Gcina Mhlophe was brought in … to stage her play Have You Seen Zandile? with actresses from Carpetbag Theatre, a professional black theatre company from Knoxville. The production previewed at UT, moved to Baltimore for a month-long engagement at the Theatre Project, and remains in the Carpetbag repertory.

Have You Seen Zandile?, first produced at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1986, is an autobiographical treatment of Mhlophe's childhood in South Africa. Until she was 10 years old, Mhlophe was raised by her paternal grandmother in Durban, a city on the southeast coast of South Africa. Stolen away by her mother, she was taken to live in the rural Transkei, where she spent the next eight years of her life. The play chronicles the life of Zandile, the central character, from the age of 8 through her young womanhood at age 18. Following its performances at the Market Theatre, Zandile traveled to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, winning the 1987 Fringe First Award. Subsequent performances included trips to Zurich, London, Holland, Germany, and Chicago.

Linda Parris-Bailey, cofounder of Carpetbag Theatre, described the Knoxville collaboration as a venture that had been under consideration for over a year, since Arnoult had brought an Argentinian theatre troupe to Knoxville:

We had been talking about working with Baltimore Theatre Project, building a relationship, since they worked with Teatro del Sur. And Phillip [Arnoult], having seen Zandile at Edinburgh, suggested to us that it might be of interest.

Arnoult, an adjunct professor at UT, sees the Zandile project and other collaborations as important to the development of training programs at UT:

We brought Teatro del Sur, six months later we had [Soviet designer] Nikolai Vagin, and now Zandile, and next year we're bringing in Gerry Mulgrew to direct the Clarence Brown company in Blood Wedding. And what I'd like to get out of this is to see that stand-alone collaboration seep in and around the ongoing training that goes on at UT—to make that pedagogical link.

While all of these collaborations center upon artists outside academic settings, Arnoult sees the facilities and climate provided by the university to be critical factors in organizing such events:

I've worked for international theatre organizations for over 15 years. It's my opinion that the real place that meaningful change can happen is in the university setting as opposed to the regional theatre setting where agendas are so tightly drawn that risks are getting less and less easy to take. So it's fitting that this should happen here at the university, and it'll probably have a greater long-term impact.

Cooke agrees and sees long-term university-based collaborations as an alternative to shorter ventures at international festivals: "This kind of thing can't happen at festivals; I mean we're going to try to make it happen at our festival [in Fall 1990], but the way it's set up now it doesn't happen." As Cooke sees it, the Zandile collaboration exemplifies much of what he'd like to do in the future, particularly in its benefits to the locally based Carpetbag company.

The centerpiece of the research institute was the idea of trying to get important international artists to spend time with American companies, American artists, in a place to create things, to work together, and share. This project is an ideal example of that—it is giving a local black company an opportunity to work with an important South African playwright.

And Arnoult sees the collaboration benefiting international artists as well:

When Gcina [Mhlophe] was in Edinburgh, she was downstairs at the Travers, and I might have seen Zandile with all of 40 other people in this tiny theatre. And then it was in Chicago. But now it'll go into the repertory of the Carpetbag Theatre; it has a chance to be around for awhile. That's one of the things I like about Linda Parris-Bailey, and one of the reasons I wanted her company for this collaboration. She doesn't do disposable theatre.

Describing their goals for the research center, Arnoult and Cooke outline several:

1. Artistic collaboration, with particular emphasis on giving a boost to smaller companies.

2. Greater exposure for little-known artists, both foreign and domestic.

3. Pedagogical linkage with UT training programs.

4. Scholarship, research, and documentation.

5. Service to other departments within the university.

6. Service to the community through local and regional performances, including touring groups and Knoxville-based festivals.

I was invited to Knoxville in February 1989 by Phillip Arnoult to see a rehearsal and speak to the artists.

[Kagan-Moore]: How did you come to writeHave You Seen Zandile?

[Mhlophe]: When I started acting I was mostly doing poetry. I do poetry with song and dance. It's called praise poetry. And I wrote in Xhosa because that's where I went to school. It wasn't a conscious decision to say, "Now I'm going to write a play." I just wanted to do this story. I wanted to do another story, really, but it was going to demand a cast of fourteen, and we didn't have money. And so I had to think of something smaller; and then came the idea of doing Zandile.

You were acting at the time?

[Mhlophe]: Yes, I was doing a lot of workshop theatre where actors, say six actors, meet for the first time, they hardly know each other, and talk, and decide "What do you want to be?"—"I want to be a truck driver"—OK, and somebody else would be a nurse, or anything under the sun. You can choose any character you want to play. And then we find stories for those kind of characters, and find how they're going to meet, all those people.

This was in Johannesburg?

[Mhlophe]: Yes. At the Market Theatre. So that was my training in terms of writing plays. I've done something like three or four plays now where I wrote my own lines. You go out and search and realize things you never thought about, you know. And you watch people in the streets. So when I began to write plays, of course, that helped a lot. That workshop helped a lot.

Where have you found common ground in your collaboration?

[Parris-Bailey]: Our work in Carpetbag has a very strong base in storytelling. It's rooted in telling one's own story and telling it honestly. And that's one thing that we share in terms of our attitude about our work. Also that, in telling those stories, we're very much involved in a community, where relationships between parents, grandparents, family are highly respected.

[Mhlophe]: As she is saying, it's something that's very special for me, storytelling. It's very much a part of our culture. Storytelling which is all about animals and things like that, which is all about being able to speak, and also stories that are real and historical.

In Carpetbag then, you rely on oral accounts in constructing your performances?

[Parris-Bailey]: Yes. Very definitely. Both of our current pieces are based heavily on interviews, particularly our new piece, Red Summer. And obviously we draw on newspaper accounts, written accounts, those sorts of things, but our work is very heavily based on oral accounts of the incident, and how people felt about that community. It was interesting, I didn't know it when I met Gcina, but I found out that she's also a storyteller.

Are you a storyteller as well?

[Parris-Bailey]: I'm basically a performer and writer. I tell stories in the context of our show. But the two other women in the company are individual storytellers.

What other things do you share? Besides a tradition of storytelling?

[Mhlophe]: I'd like to say that the first half of the play happens on the southeast coast of South Africa, in a place called Durban. The lifestyle Zandile's living is fairly modern. She wears these beautiful dresses, she's having ice creams, time to play. And the second half of the play happens in the Transkei, which is a very rural area, and there's no time at all to play. There's work, work, work, and she has to learn all these things, and she's constantly being told that she's being groomed to be married off. So there are those two different things as well. And I know that you live in modern houses compared to the kind of houses we live in—having water inside the house, and not having to go and fetch firewood from the river, but there are places that are quite rural in the United States as well. I think that there is common ground there, too.

This division she speaks of, between urban and rural setting—is that a particular focus for the Carpetbag Theatre? Politically?

[Parris-Bailey]: Not specifically. A lot of our work is historically based. Red Summer is our latest piece and it looks at an historical event and deals with the strength and power of the community. But not in an urban versus rural context. It talks about racial conflict in an area that was historically seen as being very rural, very balanced, very open—in a sense enlightened. We're trying to get people to see that such a perception was based on some very dangerous ideas: paternalism … and when these two communities confronted each other, there was a violent clash.

The other piece we do, Dark Cowgirls and Prairie Queens, is also historically based. It's about black women who settled and traveled throughout the Southeast and Southwest between 1830 and 1890 looking for freedom. It's about how they created an environment that was liveable for themselves, created changes in the country. It's a kind of hero-worship piece, in a sense, but it talks about people who are lesser known, tells their stories. And the purpose of telling those stories is to empower people, to make people understand that these were common people, just like any of us, and when they were confronted with things that had to be done, they did them.

Is theZandile work consistent with these other pieces?

[Parris-Bailey]: It's consistent in that some of the questions we ask ourselves in our work are, "Whose story are we telling?" and, "Are we telling it correctly?" and, "What's the purpose of telling that story?" And when we looked at Zandile the story was being told by the person most intimately knowledgeable about the experience. And because it had the ability to touch us all, and to make us understand those involved, we began to feel as if we understood more about South Africa, more about another community.

Is that one of your goals? To educate us about South Africa?

[Mhlophe]: Yes. Because somehow South Africa looks so small in the news, it just becomes "South Africa." But it's a big country, very big. Sections of South Africa are very different from each other and all kinds of things happen there every day. And I've found, since I started acting in 1982, I've done plays that deal with the political conflicts and with the police and the shooting and the dying and detentions and everything. Every single play I've done—this is the first different play. And I've found that in people's minds they read the newspapers, they see the news on television, they listen to the radio, and that's all they know about South Africa. It was to a point where I was getting quite angry and thinking, "Do you think we spend our lives marching in the streets?" You know. As I'd say to them, "We do washing sometimes, sometimes we fall in love, sometimes children get born." There's all kinds of things that happen in the middle of all that. And those are things that can be easily overlooked while they're busy dealing with the conflict, the political situation.

[Parris-Bailey]: And I think for people who care, who want to assist, it sometimes becomes overwhelming, so that when they begin to relate to Zandile on a personal level, then their concern is rooted much more deeply. Because it's difficult to understand the things that go on in South Africa and be able to imagine people having normal lives, and when I say normal I mean having experiences that we also have. So in a very peculiar way, things get dehumanized.

[Mhlophe]: It becomes like what happens in the movies.

How would you like American audiences to respond to your work?

[Mhlophe]: I'd like to simply be accepted as a person, in the way I've said I'll accept them as people. And the other things of where you come from, background, and other things—those simple dynamics—just being people. That's what I wish for. Zandile does something altogether different than when we're performing political plays. It's not a particularly mental play.

Do you see it as political in any sense?

[Mhlophe]: In a certain way; you find things like children thinking that they're going to grow up to be white. You see, Zandile lives in a fairly small surrounding in the Transkei. She's not enjoying the standard of living of white people. And she thinks she's fine where she is, because she's black, but when she grows up she can be white, and she can get all those things. So those things are very—always they go on there; all the time.

[Parris-Bailey]: There are a couple of things I'd like to be sure to say here, and one is that I think it's a mistake to separate things out and say some things are and aren't "political." It's very political to tell your own story because our stories don't get told.

[Mhlophe]: Yes. That's right.

[Parris-Bailey]: So the act of telling that story is in itself political. That's the first thing, and the other thing is, and I heard this from Gcina, when you open your door and write about what you see in South Africa, then it becomes political, because that's what the environment is. Because, I would hate for anybody to say that Zandile is unimportant because it's not political. That's definitely not the case.

In climates of severe repression, doesn't the oral tradition take on added political importance?

[Mhlophe]: Yes.

Did you experience that growing up?

[Mhlophe]: For us, storytelling is something to teach children right from wrong. And then there are stories about history; history is passed on. I don't remember having such a lot of time to speak to my father when I was younger. But once I went back, after this experience in the Transkei, when I went back to Durban, we got this very close bond. And my father is telling me wonderful things about my family, about where they came from, about how that house we lived in was built, what happened, why our name is not Shlophe, our name is Mhlophe—things I would never have known. There is no book that is going to describe that to me. Nothing like that has been written; so that's storytelling. Sit down with my father, and he tells me why his name is Msgaiza; all of that. Our names have meanings; and when you're told the meaning of your name, when you meet other people, that's the beginning of the conversation—" What's your name?" And it's, "How did you get a name like that?" And then comes the whole story of what happened to the parents, and there's all of that. Which maybe is why we hated it at school when we were forced to take English names because the inspectors could not speak our language. They couldn't pronounce our names, so they gave us English names. You have a name, you don't even know what it means. Mary Jane, my God. What am I going to do with a name like that?

So, having your own name is a political act?

[Parris-Bailey]: And that's said in the piece; it's very funny, but Zandile is teaching the flowers to sing. And as she teaches them, she shares with them her school experience. She talks about the fact that the inspector can't speak her language, so they're going to have to take English names. And you get all kinds of wonderful names, like Violet.

[Mhlophe]: And Sunflower.

[Parris-Bailey]: And again, it lets you understand what that experience is about for a child.

[Mhlophe]: I don't know about here, but at home, white children are terrified of a strange black man. Not only children—the mothers are terrified when the husband is at work and there's a black man knocking at the door. It could be the lover of the woman who works for them, he could be her husband. But he's a strange black man, and that's scary. We grew up terrified of all strange white men driving into our neighborhood. Terrified.

That's built into the culture, then. Fear of the other.

[Mhlophe]: Yes. And then after school, I went to live in Johannesburg and got a job as a domestic worker looking after these children—four children. And the woman, this Irish woman, was lovely. She wasn't the usual white woman "madam." We used to sit and speak, and she took it as an advantage that I'm able to speak English. But the children couldn't understand that. They kept saying, "What kind of nanny are you? Our nanny never used to wear clothes like those. Our nanny never used to do her hair like that." And it took them quite a while to get used to this new kind of nanny they've got. That I speak English and I can play games with them. Normally they want a maaba, a grown-up person; someone they can ridicule, perhaps, because she can't speak English. But on the other hand they grow close to that woman, you know? Many times the mother is not at home and they are brought up by this strange black woman. And they grow to be quite close to this woman. And then, she could be fired, anything could happen, they could go to college, and they won't speak to her whatever happens.

Was your perception of the political climate different in the Transkei than it was in Johannesburg?

[Mhlophe]: In the Transkei it's very different. People still live a life that's fairly traditional. The way it was. I hated my stay there. I spent eight years there. I hated it, I dreamt of going away. Now I realize, I find a surprise in my writing, that it's still based out there in the Transkei. It's physically very beautiful. And maybe it was at a time in my life when my mind was ready to learn—I've learned a lot by living in the Transkei. And also having to survive. When things are not easy you seem to grow a shell to protect yourself, and your mind is all you have left to survive. So things are difficult, but in another way. There is a hard life in Johannesburg, and survival, and police raids at four o'clock in the morning, and all those hazards. But these things are very different.

You've mentioned acting in political plays. How political are you allowed to be? Is there censorship of the theatre?

[Mhlophe]: There is censorship, of course. The government sends people to come and see plays, and they read scripts and all kinds of things. But we have learned that—if they decide they want to ban a play—you are never sure, they keep you on your toes. They are not predictable in terms of what play they're going to ban and which they're going to let go. So all you can do is make sure your play is good, and if they decide to ban it, you change a few things and change the name and hit the stage again. You just keep going.

You've spoken about the need for greater support and nurturance of young black artists in South Africa.

[Mhlophe]: Yes. Not a lot of people are interested in theatre. Theatre is not something that's encouraged by family. You can't say to a young artist that you can get rich. It's very rare to get rich. It's always an advantage to be able to do something else besides acting. And those things I never hide from the young people that I work with. But my biggest thing is that people who feel comfortable now in theatre should be able to do it. I'm against building superstars. I hope that won't happen in South Africa. People you can't touch. I wouldn't like to have bodyguards, so that people wouldn't be able to speak to me. So I'm hoping that there is a big enough number of people thinking in that direction, wishing to help other people. And the universities—I don't know how many black people have tried to get into universities where they do drama, and have fallen and gotten out because it just wasn't worth it. It wasn't the kind of theatre they wanted to learn.

In what way? It represented another culture?

[Mhlophe]: Yes. I'd rather go and learn theatre in some workshop. So we need to help each other and help young people.

Many of your concerns are similar to those expressed by American artists, particularly black performers.

[Parris-Bailey]: Yes. We have to support the right of artists to not be superstars but to work and live in a community, in a region, and to develop there. It's very important to our company, and I think it's very important to people who are involved in the regional theatre movement. And I'm not talking about the large companies—I'm talking about community-based theatres in the South, Midwest—those theatres that are trying to work in the community context.

An alternative context?

[Parris-Bailey]: If you choose. I don't like that term. I prefer the term community-based, because of what we do. We serve a specific community, speak from a spe- cific community. And we make no apologies for that at all. We hope to nurture community-based artists. And community can mean many things. We're part of the community of Knoxville, of the Southeastern region, of the black community that is worldwide. So those are the places that we speak from; those are our communities. So we believe, as Gcina does, that we need to nurture artists, help them work, help them live, help them …

[Mhlophe]: And prepare them to deal with problems we've had. I've been writing for quite a number of years. And it's only recently that I've found myself being paid for published work. All these nice people who think the work is wonderful, and yet who come and take it away, and I'm supposed to be pleased that it's in print, that's payment enough. So because I've been through that, I wouldn't like a younger person to go through it if I can help it. It's like a mother protecting a child.

[Parris-Bailey]: And for me, I want them to understand that the work we do is very important. We want to teach them respect for the work, and the responsibility that goes along with it. Because our work does influence people in ways that are very tangible and ways that are intangible; people who come to sit in a theatre are moved by an experience, and they don't leave that experience behind. Particularly in the communities that we serve, which are not theatre-going communities full of people who go to a play every three weeks. That just doesn't happen. People that we tour to have made a tremendous effort to get us there; and what they know about our work is what we want to talk about. And that's why they trust us to come to their communities. We don't do Fences. When our work goes out, what we send out is "this is what our play is about." And that's what people want from us. So we have a responsibility that goes along with that.

Let's talk a little aboutZandile. This is a work with lots of singing, dancing.

[Mhlophe]: Yes. But … it's not like a musical. There's very little singing compared to a whole lot of other shows I've done. But there is singing, and it goes as part of the history. There's a very strong reason why those songs are there.

[Parris-Bailey]: Yes. That's another thing we share in common. Our company doesn't do musicals, but we do plays with music.

[Mhlophe]: Music—if you're going to deal with the political theatre—is unavoidable. It becomes people's strength. One thing I realized—we went to this Martin Luther King gathering one day—is that the singing is not as passionate as it is at home. People put their hearts to the singing, and some of the songs are based on traditional dance songs, so they change the lyrics to suit whatever occasion. And it's really hard to stop people once they start singing, to carry on to the next speaker. So it's unavoidable that political theatre will always have that thread of music.

[Parris-Bailey]: Yes. And broad political movements in this country have always had strong music; and I think that's consistent with giving that kind of inspiration to a movement.

Your actresses are learning South African songs …

[Mhlophe]: Yeah. They most certainly are.

[Parris-Bailey]: Uh-huh. She was making fun of us this morning [laughter].

As I watched the rehearsal, I felt the movement was important as well, the movement that accompanies the song.

[Mhlophe]: Well, the movement is just part of the enjoyment of the song. When I work with people that are not from South Africa, I have to look at myself in the mirror, because they try and copy what I'm doing. I realize that it's something that just comes with the songs, and I never thought about it before.

You don't think of it as dancing or choreography?

[Mhlophe]: Oh no.

What was it like teaching the movement to the actresses?

[Mhlophe]: Very interesting. Especially with somebody like Edris [Cooper] who plays Zandile. She's a very good actress, and she dances well, and suddenly she's out of place dancing South African steps with this song. It's like Michael Jackson is known to be such a beautiful dancer, but if you made him do a Zulu dance, I'm convinced it would take time. The rhythms are different.

You worked on the songs and dances separately from the rest of the text?

[Mhlophe]: Yes. But I also tried to put the songs in context in terms of where the songs come from. You know, one of the songs is a very popular wedding song. And you can place the song, explain to them what time the song comes in, the culture behind it. And that has taken a lot of our time. But I don't see it as wasted time. Sharing those things.

Many passages of the text are in Zulu.

[Mhlophe]: We translated those.

All of them?

[Mhlophe]: Most.

The ones you've not translated, the actresses learned those as they would learn a song?

[Mhlophe]: Yes. And also when people speak in a different language, they lose … it's like asking me to do a play with Spanish paragraphs in it. It's good that I'm here to guide them—tell them how to say that, tell them what it means in English, and where it comes from. So you can't literally translate things, but you can explain the background, where it comes from.

So they can communicate the situation, if not the language?

[Mhlophe]: Yes.

One of the images that struck me as I watched the rehearsal was the two South African girls, Zandile and Lindiwe, singing "Sugar, Sugar." I felt I was watching two American actresses pretending to be South African teenagers who were pretending to be American teenagers singing top-40 hits.

[Mhlophe]: They were top-40 hits in South Africa as well. We listen a lot to American music.

How much of city culture is determined by influences outside Johannesburg? It's an international city?

[Mhlophe]: It is international. It's the cultural heart of South Africa. Music, new fashions, theatre. I come from Durban, and you find that the majority of people in Johannesburg now, who are making it in show business, are from Durban or Capetown or other parts of South Africa. It's all happening there.

Much like L.A. or New York or Chicago here.

[Mhlophe]: Yes.

What's the importance of working together as black women in this project?

[Mhlophe]: First of all, the only thing I can say is that I'm very relaxed working with them, and I hope they find it relaxing working with me. I like that. I don't know, maybe it's the fashion in which we work, maybe we had something in common somewhere, even before we met. I don't like rules; so I don't enjoy working like that, receiving rules or giving out rules. So I find a lot of flexibility in the way they work. And I hope as a director, I'm being as flexible as possible. Being women together, there are a whole lot of dimensions, all kinds of wonderful conversations we can have, and I like that. I like to have fun while I'm working, and that's probably why I'm in show business. I don't think I could stay in a factory all day making clothes, clothes that are not mine, just carrying on.

[Parris-Bailey]: Gcina is a very nurturing person as a director, and we've had a ball working with her. We've really developed a relationship in a short period of time that is … I'd be reluctant to say that all this wouldn't be possible if Gcina were a man, but there is this kind of camaraderie—I don't know what to call it.

[Mhlophe]: Yes. To find that kind of harmony with people you don't know … How far is South Africa from Knoxville? Different backgrounds and different languages and things like that … but I'm really glad that there's that kind of common ground.

Is the piece still changing?

[Mhlophe]: Yes. We're still working on the mother. It's the most difficult part in the play. I've had a very, very difficult relationship with my mother, and all kinds of things could have grown from that. And when the play was first presented at the Market Theatre, it was a very hard script on the mother. So when I rewrote the script, I wanted to work on that.

Is this the first performance ofZandile that you haven't appeared in?

[Mhlophe]: Yes. And I don't have any reason to feel that it won't be carried across.

What's it like for you to let go of it in this way?

[Mhlophe]: I said the first day I arrived here, "I'm glad that somebody else is going to be able to do this." And maybe that means a longer life for the play. As a performer, I know the problem is that the play is so personal. It really eats at me sometimes. Sometimes I get so emotionally drained after the show that I find it difficult to come out from backstage. So maybe it's better for somebody who's not so personally involved to work with it.

What have you drawn on in working on the role of the grandmother?

[Parris-Bailey]: A couple of things. One, of course, is my experience with my own grandmother—and with my mother. But the real understanding of Gogo comes from Gcina. You sometimes meet people who you know have been given a tremendous gift in terms of their love and compassion for other people. My sense of Gogo I get through Gcina, and I understand the person who gave her this gift. And that's really what I draw on.

You've collaborated on this piece before, is that right?

[Mhlophe]: Yes, I have, with the Chicago theatre company. They went out shopping for plays to bring to their festival; apparently they saw the play the same time Phillip [Arnoult] saw it.

In what ways is this production different?

[Mhlophe]: I think that a person's character, no matter how much you tell yourself you're acting, sort of seeps through. People are very different; the woman who acted the grandmother in Chicago was about 53 years old, her knees pained her, so that added something altogether different to the play, something I wasn't prepared for. So I'm always ready for new things. And also, I didn't cast the people who are in this show.

You didn't cast the Knoxville production?

[Parris-Bailey]: That's right, she inherited all of us.

[Mhlophe]: And I was nervous. I didn't know what to expect. And on the other hand, I'm not exactly the kind of person who is into auditions; I've never had the misfortune of having to go and audition. I've always found they phone me, say please can you come and do this show; people say, come and do that, that part would suit you. I've been very lucky, in that sense. And being in Chicago watching the people who came to audition was a strange feeling. Realizing how much they give to it; there were 16 women onstage vying for the parts. And we're just going to choose 2 people out of the 16, and all of them are doing their best. And I realized even more how lucky I've been that I've never had to do this. So I chose the people that I wanted to work with. And even then, after I had chosen them, having had this whole selection, I remember phoning Michael—the producer of the play in Chicago. I realized that there's a whole section that deals with the size of the … of the breasts. And I realized that I didn't look at that in the woman I had cast. So I called Michael frantic in the morning: "Michael, does she have any boobs?" Things like that show how inexperienced I am, auditioning. So I think I would have been nervous anyway, if I had come and chosen people.

Had the company auditioned with the text at all?

[Parris-Bailey]: No. All the women in the show are in the company. The company consists of five actors, three women and two men. And there are also two other women who float in and out of the company, and one of the men. So Gcina inherited all of us, like family.

[Mhlophe]: And it's working out.

Do you have other projects lined up? What happens afterZandile goes to Baltimore?

[Mhlophe]: I've just accepted a job at the Market Theatre, as a resident director for a whole year, beginning in March 1989. While I'm in office, I'm going to produce three plays. One is a children's show. I've written a children's book called The Snake with Seven Heads. Very colorful. A book of folktales, from my grandmother's collection. I've written the script, but I'm not happy with it. I'm going to rewrite it, and the music is not strong enough. I'm hoping to open my first play in May, and go from there.

Your position with the Market Theatre—you're the first woman and the first black person to achieve such a post?

[Mhlophe]: Yes I am. Some people gave money to help a young black director. And people voted for me, and so that's why I'm taking the job. I'm looking forward to it.

Do you have further plans forZandile?

[Mhlophe]: Yes, possibly. We haven't toured such a lot in South Africa. Very little. People are still complaining that Have You Seen Zandile? has been all over the world—Germany, Holland, Switzerland, England, and now in the States, and now others are doing it—they're complaining that they haven't seen it. And I have a lot of friends in Capetown. There are people who wrote to me a few times, wanting to do Zandile if I can't do it. So there is that possibility, touring little towns in South Africa. I don't know, we'll see.

Would you perform in it there?

[Mhlophe]: No. I'd stage it to tour.

What have you learned about the play by producing it in so many places?

[Mhlophe]: That the play—it could have happened to anybody. The story could have happened to anybody. And that's a wonderful thing for me to have experienced, to find that when people come to me after the show, they don't say to me "Oh, it's terrible what those people are doing to you in South Africa"—the sorts of things that they usually say when they see political plays. Suddenly people start coming to me as people and start telling me stories—I don't know what the guy's name is, and he starts telling me about his grandmother. You know, he kind of just holds you.

Devarakshanam Betty Govinden (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Govinden, Devarakshanam Betty. "‘While she watered the morning glories’: Evaluating the Literary Achievement of Gcina Mhlophe."1 In Childhood in African Literature, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones, pp. 69-81. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Govinden offers an overview of Mhlophe's writings, concentrating specifically on how the author's use of personal experiences as a source for her art extends into universal themes involving issues of gender, race, and politics.]

While the feminist debate about ‘the subject’, or sense of self, is illuminated in the works of several South African women writers, both black and white, it is in the writings of black women that the question of a sense of self straddles issues of race, class and gender. Black women writers such as Ellen Kuzwayo and Miriam Tlali reveal in their work the interplay of competing assumptions about the identity and role of woman and mother, intermeshed in varying strands of theoretical, feminist and nationalist discourses. In her analysis of black women writers, and with particular reference to Kuzwayo, Dorothy Driver notes that ‘some space is being claimed for the voices of women beyond the careful definitions of mother in the discourse of Black Consciousness …’ and suggests that this ‘space’ is taken up by Gcina Mhlophe, projecting the ‘figure of "new" black woman’.2 In this essay I shall consider the writing of Gcina Mhlophe, with a particular analysis of Have You Seen Zandile?, 3 in her development of an independent and critical voice.

Gcina Mhlophe [her full first name is Nokugcina] was born in KwaZulu-Natal in 1958, and developed her talents for writing at primary school and at high school. In her writings she draws from her own experience. The story "My Dear Madam" 4 published in 1981, was composed from diary entries she had made when she worked for a woman for 37 days. Have You Seen Zandile? has autobiographical elements, with the story of her life with an elderly aunt (depicted as a grandmother in the play) and mother. Her aunt, who was a good storyteller, had a major benevolent maternal influence on her. Gcina Mhlophe's experiences included working at film making, news reading, journalism and writing for a worker audience. She states that she has a special feeling for words and for working with words, and wishes to dispel stereotypes one may have of black performance: ‘Sometimes people have this assumption that if something is black, then it must have music, it must have dancing. I love words, I think there is so much you can do in connecting with the audience without having music’.5 While Have You Seen Zandile? does have song and music, Gcina Mhlophe notes that the songs are not racy but intimate, between a girl and her grandmother—‘nothing to do with the usual energetic stuff’.6 She also points to the significance of teenage dances in the play, where the young people are conscious of their bodies. The need to love oneself, to love one's body is important, as Mhlophe points out. With children there is less self-consciousness about the body, and more readiness at ‘abandoning the body’.7

Gcina Mhlophe is clear that she wishes to claim a personal space or self as person/writer/performer. With the pressure to write about the masses, about larger political themes, and produce ‘political theatre’, she records that she has been criticized for concentrating on private concerns. Her reply is significant, for it shows that one cannot separate the personal and public: ‘I argue that if I am allowed to talk about the rest of South Africa, I'm more than allowed to talk about myself. I am one of those masses we talk about all the time, why not talk about me specifically…. My writing centres around people more than the movements …’.8 She finds a public self or voice ironically by being herself.

Her independent voice is illustrated in a piece entitled Somdaka ;9 it is about a man Mhlophe met in Mt Frere, who was not the typical black worker in the migrant labour system. She states that she could have ‘set it up in protest style’, with the use of authentic migrant workers, and the help of the Mineworkers' Union. The play, Somdaka, is not overtly political with all the dramatic effects of spectacle, such as marching, and revolutionary songs, and shouts of ‘amandlas’. But as the playwright explains, she ‘wanted to get to the heart of the man’.10

Njabulo Ndebele has made important critical statements, that resonate immediately with Gcina Mhlophe's purposes. He has stressed the need to present the interior lives of black people and has lamented that ‘writers can themselves be encapsulated by the material and intellectual culture of oppression’.11 He called for less prescriptive approaches in black writing and the need for critical distance. He makes the important point that writers are trapped in the very society they are criticizing, with the result that they unwittingly normalize apartheid. His dictum, the ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’, has become a critical touchstone in South African literary criticism, where he calls for the depiction of black lives in their particularity rather than the ‘human anonymity’ that is, in fact, a dimension of the oppressor's strategy.12 Ndebele's call for a radical displacement of the white oppressor as an active, dominant player in the imagination of the oppressed13 is well illustrated in Gcina Mhlophe's approach to her art and her sense of self.

What Gcina Mhlophe does is side-step the power games involved in cultural resistance to apartheid; she forges a ‘liberated zone’ through her writing, outside the regimes of truth of apartheid. She resists packaging one-dimensional, reductionist caricatures of political history. While she goes back to the wellsprings of culture, lost through urbanization, this is not a romanticized life of a remote past, but a life that is very contemporary. The tendency to compartmentalize people into rural and urban is resisted, as Gcina Mhlophe shows the way in which the lives of people from these two sectors are inextricably linked. In bridging the gap between rural and urban naturally, she dispels stereotypes of rural women. Lauretta Ngcobo notes that when rural women are mentioned there is a response such as: ‘You mean the ones who carry wood on their heads?’.14 Of Gcina Mhlophe she observes, ‘I think it is her rural background that makes her as rich as she is …’15 Nor is rural life idealized. In "Nokulunga's Wedding" 16 Mhlophe uses irony to show the entrapment of a black woman in traditional black society: ‘There is nothing to be done’. Driver argues that in this short story Gcina Mhlophe ‘exposes the voices of patriarchy that preside over the oral tradition, and thus exposes the voice of communal orality as a voice which curbs and controls female desire’. 17 One reads the silences of the text, its inevitability, critically.

Gcina Mhlophe draws from black women's experiences. Elaine Showalter18 distinguishes between feminine (imitative of men's writing), feminist (protest against oppression) and female writing (the use of female experience as the source of their art). Gcina Mhlophe uses female experience as the context to protest against oppression, devising various strategies that are in keeping with the circumstances of women. Cecily Lockett refers to Mhlophe as ‘probably the most overtly feminist of the black poets now writing’.19 In the poem 'Say No' Mhlophe is strident that women should resist all forms of oppression:

Say No, Black Woman
Say No
When they give you a back seat
in the liberation wagon
Say No
Yes Black Woman
a Big NO20

A different resolution is sought in her piece ‘The Toilet’, 21 which relates the problems a black woman encounters in finding a physical and metaphorical space in which to write. She draws from autobiographical details as she herself was confined to a back room in the house where her sister was a domestic employee. The story highlights the importance of making choices, and that black women cannot be passive, but must become agents of their own destiny. In ‘The Toilet’ Gcina Mhlophe does not project a ‘victim-image’ of black women but shows their determination to overcome obstacles. The physical problem of finding space to write is general for black women: ‘Living, in this our country, has made massive cultural and historical demands on us, so that the mere act of writing, of finding time, let alone space to do so, is in itself an act of monumental significance’.22

The underlying significance of finding a writing-space is noted by Driver, who states that ‘Mhlophe's narrative … is about finding a position from which to write, which is to say about constructing an identity from which to speak, a place from which she may both view herself (as writer) and her sister (she who forbids writing) and from which she may dream of a world which offers, through acting, the assumption of many more roles than a wife who makes baby clothes and does not read too much’.23 In the short story she feels the pull of the womb of security provided by the toilet: ‘the walls were wonderfully close to me—it felt like it was made to fit me alone’.24 Yet if she is to grow into her own person, become a writer, she must move beyond the safe confines of such enclosure, and seek the open spaces of the wider world. This means not accepting the ‘law of the father which demands her absence and silence’ but engaging in nurturing oneself, to use the maternal metaphor, in one's emergence as a writer.25

Mhlophe's claiming of her freedom as a person and as a writer has echoes in Zoe Wicomb's depiction of Frieda in You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town26, where Frieda moves from the foetal position when she hides under the kitchen table, in the short story, ‘Bowl like Hole’, to developing into an independent writer in the later stories.27

The disposition to find a unique and individual response to South African township life is shown in the short piece, ‘It's Quiet Now’. 28 The narrator is depicted as a self, alone, at the window, in the middle of the night, reflecting on an earlier scene of violence. While maintaining a certain distance, she is not detached, but reflective, finding a space between a sense of self and the affairs of the community. She does not set up any binary or hierarchical divisions, and resists the fashionable preoccupation to extol ‘the struggle’ and the macro freedom story of black South Africans.

This shifting link between the personal and political, and Gcina Mhlophe's claiming of an individual as well as a communal voice is well illustrated in Have You Seen Zandile? While the play is attributed to Mhlophe, as the principal author, the script actually developed experimentally, with Mhlophe collaborating with two other women playwrights, Maralin Van Renen and Thembi Mtshali. The play begins with Zandile alone on stage, singing about MOTHERS who will be coming home bringing their children sweets, rice and meat (p. 1). We note the difference between fantasy and reality, when the imaginary sweet becomes the real stone, in her mouth. Her dreamworld is conjured up with Bongi, the imaginary companion, and concerns the important elements in her world of experience—dresses, school, and beating … Zandile is eight years old at this point, and the inevitable question of what she will become when she grows up (p. 4) crops up. Zandile dreams for Bongi: she will become ‘a white lady with long hair like that, and you will have nice clothes and nice shoes with high heels….And Bongi, we can speak English … you can also have a car!’ (pp. 4-5). The content of her life is controlled by a distant white world, and is underlined once again when Zandile asks: ‘Gogo, I love this doll but why do they always make them pink?’ (p. 8). Fanon's classic observations of colonial and colonized continue to have grim validity here.

The important element of the play is that it revolves around Zandile's relationship with the women in her life. The identity of women is not connected with male figures, as in Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood or Flora Nwapa's Efuru. While this is a world where men are absent,29 the patriarchal world still remains intact. Her mother reminds her that she cannot perform traditional ceremonies without the male fig- ures, and the ideal is still marrying a man, and raising children. Even Gogo sees this as the ultimate goal for Zandile: ‘I can even see my little Zandile, wearing a white dress, walking slowly out of church with her husband and smiling with those dimples that I like’ (p. 26). Male values also dominate education, as they study the ‘white man's’ history. We note the aversion to the study of this history (and biology) at school.

The absence of men, however, has the ironic value of empowering women. Women are able to provide love and an atmosphere for personal growth for other women; women provide the security to develop a positive self-image, especially when one's sense of self is undermined. To adapt the concept of ubuntu, one may assert that ‘a woman is a woman because of another woman’. This bonding especially takes place in the context of story-telling between Zandile and Gogo, the grandmother. Kuzwayo points to the centrality of women in African folklore: ‘and in all this it was the women, the mothers and the grandmothers who did the communicating, the teaching’.30 Trinh Minh'ha also points out that ‘Every woman partakes in the chain of guardianship and transmission’.31 Gcina Mhlophe shows how each thrives on this relationship.

Other writers, such as Maya Angelou and Ama Ata Aidoo, have also depicted in their writings the pivotal role of ‘the grandmother’, as survivor of the extended family.32 In Mhlophe's story the grandmother gives the child the great gift of stories and the magic to tell them, and the child gives the grandmother a purpose (p. 11). We realize later that when the grandmother dies this is due to her bereftness at Zandile's absence. The life shared between Gogo and Zandile is one of sufficiency, if not of plenty. There is no sense of abject poverty, both materially and emotionally, and the continuity in and with an oral literary community is depicted naturally. Their lives are like the ‘"eet-sum-more" biscuits, the tin never goes empty …’ (p. 3) It is ironic that the picture of the HAPPY FAMILY is a consumer image on the Mazawatee Tea tin, and the words on the ‘Zulu Mottoes’—‘you are the love of my heart’ (p. 15) are, in fact, true. Eva Hunter and Dorothy Driver caution us, however, from claiming a special link between women and orality, illustrating their point of view with reference to Mhlophe's "Nokulunga's Wedding," where the predominant voice is a patriarchal one curbing the expression and will of ‘female desire’.33

One of the stories that Gogo tells is of a woman who faces difficulties in her life, and has to work on Sundays. We have an evocative picture of a madonna figure, with a child and dog of many colours. This story links women to the origins of the cosmos unobtrusively, as the woman in the story was translated to the moon. This seems to be consonant with the ‘yang’ principle, of origins of life and culture, rather than the western ‘man in the moon’ concept. During the story-telling that transports Zandile into another, wider world, Zandile goes off to sleep in the warmth of her grandmother's words, and is undergirded by the concluding prayer, ‘uJehova unguMalusi wami’ which is an interesting collocation between the ‘missionary faith’ that arrived in the last century and the reclaiming of an earlier, older spirituality.

Zandile's imaginary experience includes lessons to her grandmother's flower-bed as a class of children, with herself as teacher. In her imagination, she will have the children's eyes gouged out (p. 19) if they do not obey her, the teacher. In her new dress with patterns of goats, giraffes and elephants, she again shows the extent that they are ruled by values from a white world—they have to change their names to white names, as they await the arrival of the white supervisor. It is ironic that the children are like sunflowers—wanting to grow—but, Zandile, styling herself along the behaviour of her own teachers, is breaking the flowers—ten years before the Soweto Revolt. Gogo reminds Zandile of the sanctity of all life—including plants (p. 23). It is ironic that it is for this educational system that Gogo is prepared to sacrifice, to give Zandile an opportunity to study. As she says: ‘even if I have to die doing it, I'm keeping Zandile at school’ (p. 9). The Soweto youth were prepared to die rather than continue in apartheid schools.

Zandile is forcibly removed from her world with her grandmother when the feared white car does arrive and she is snatched away to live in the Transkei with her mother, Lulama. Zandile writes letters to Gogo in the sand, hoping the birds will carry her message to her. She writes to Gogo, recalling that she used to put Zambuk on her blisters (p. 34), ‘but they don't have Zambuk here …’ (p. 34). There is a significant relational difference between Zandile and Lulama, the mother, signifying two different worlds. As Lulama point out, ‘This is not Durban, this is the Transkei’ (p. 38). The mother, hardened by the circumstances of her life, wants to develop a tenacious personality in Zandile. The mother also tells her ‘stories’, but they are of the stark reality of her own struggle to survive. ‘When I was your age I cut the grass for every roof in this house’ (p. 39), she points out grimly. She loves to have her daughter with her, but has been the victim of tradition and circumstances, in marrying early, and with the responsibilities of caring for four children at the age of twenty two.

It is the stories of the imagination that have helped them survive the ravages of apartheid, stories set in a rural situation rather than the urban. A victim of bureaucracy and discrimination against women, Lulama had to give up her career as a singer, and is robbed of the creative energies that sustain the imagination; Gogo had escaped the debilitating effects of this truncated living. One is aware of a romantically promising picture of the life that Lulama had, being dashed to the ground, and this constrains her to teach Zandile to work to survive, ‘That is why I have learnt not to live on hopes, that is why I am teaching you to work …’ (p. 41). Lulama's life is emotionally denuded, without dream and story. In her poem, ‘The Dancer’, Gcina Mhlophe writes to her ‘Mama’, and there are overtones with her depiction of Lulama, the mother, in Have You Seen Zandile?, as in her own life:

they tell me you were a dancer
they tell me you had long
beautiful legs to carry your graceful body
they tell me you were a dancer
they tell me you sang beautiful solos
they tell me you closed your eyes
always when the feeling of the song
was right, and lifted your face up to the sky
they tell me you were an enchanting dancer
they tell me you were always so gentle
they talk of a willow tree
swaying lovingly over clear running water
in early Spring when they talk of you
they tell me you were a slow dancer
they tell me you were a wedding dancer
they tell me you smiled and closed your eyes
your arms curving outward just a little
and your feet shuffling in the sand;
tshi tshi tshitshitsha tshitshi tshitshitshitsha
o hee! how I wish I was there to see you
they tell me you were a pleasure to watch
they tell me I am a dancer too
but I don't know …
I don't know for sure what a wedding dancer is
there are no more weddings
but many, many funerals
where we sing and dance
running fast with the coffin
of a would-be bride or would-be groom
strange smiles have replaced our tears
our eyes are full of vengeance, Mama
Dear, dear Mama
they tell me I am a funeral dancer.

Gcina Mhlophe paints the image of a ‘prima donna’, wafting on the promise of a bright future, but unable to realize her dreams. Alice Walker, in In Search of our Mothers' Gardens, also draws attention to the way women's hopes to become creative artists and to write about beauty are dissipated. Through the life of one individual she also shows the tragedy of the whole community, with hopes of life turned to death, in the decades that followed. In contrast to the life of the grandmother, we see the effects of urbanization on Lulama. The myth of ‘Mother Africa’, of which her own mother is an individual example, is explored as women are caught in the wider forces of oppression. In her poem, ‘We Are at War’, Mhlophe writes:

Forces of exploitation
degrade mother Africa
as well as us, her daughters
Her motherly smile is ridiculed
She has seen her children sold
Her chains of slavery are centuries old
There is not time to cry now …35

Miriam Tlali, among other black women writers, has also drawn attention to the tendency to confuse ‘Mother Africa’ with the role of African mothers, when she states, ‘It is a problem when men want to call you Mother Africa and put you on a pedestal, because they want you to stay there forever without asking your opinion—and unhappy you if you want to come down as an equal human being’.36

The other main relationship in the play is that between Zandile and her friend Lindiwe. They share ‘stories’ of their adolescent experiences, and these are in contrast with those between Zandile and her grandmother and mother. The stories are of boys and of menstruation, of the new myths of growing up—that babies came from the aeroplane—and obsessions with being fat. Zandile regrets that she cannot ask her mother for answers to her burning questions. They look forward to reading BONA and DRUM—magazines from the alternative culture—which will provide them with further 'stories'—the ‘real’ knowledge they desire—not the history and other subjects that are dispensed at school. Zandile notes: ‘I hate history. The great trek, great trek every year it's the same, the great trek’ (p. 49). Trinh Minh'ha notes that ‘when history is separated itself from story, it started indulging in accumulation and facts’.37

The myth of an alluring life in distant Johannesburg is especially strong for Lindiwe, who dreams of meeting ‘sophisticated men’ there. The irony is that this is 1976, and the world of Soweto is also part of that reality. The pulp culture of Barbara Cartland is pervasive, and of American pop music, epitomized by the song ‘Sugar-sugar, honey-honey, you are my candy girl’, which also shows the way women are possessed by men. Zandile, however, does not see fulfilment in her life necessarily culminating in love and marriage, and this is confirmed by the promise of a different kind, as suggested in the concluding scene.

The poignant ending shows Zandile holding up a photograph, set in a Bible, and a suitcase full of presents. She holds up the dresses that her grandmother had been saving up for her, showing a longing to encapsulate her world in the beauty of childhood, of not losing one's innocence with the passage into adulthood. They also signify the timeless gift of storytelling which is the grandmother's real gift to Zandile (and to Mhlophe), and the celebration of this through the play, Have You Seen Zandile? Mhlophe has also subverted the ‘gift’ that was confined to storytelling in the (female) domestic domain by transporting it, with much acclaim, to the (male) public space of performance. It is important to note, then, that while Mhlophe weaves autobiographical elements in her writing, especially of her growing up experiences in the play, she, like Zoe Wicomb in You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town is not presenting an ‘autobiography of nostalgia’, that is directed towards some idealized past. In presenting both positive and negative experiences Mhlophe is producing ‘survivor-knowledge’, and creating the future.38

By depicting dramatically different worlds in Zandile's relationships with three central women in her life, Mhlophe is problematizing the concept of ‘sisterhood’ and ‘motherhood’ among black women, given the differences among individuals, within families, communities, and between age groups. M. J. Daymond's point that ‘"motherhood" in South African writing and criticism functions as a profoundly disruptive and simultaneously reintegrative metaphor’,39 is evident in Mhlophe, but in a different, and unique configuration of relationships. Mhlophe is depicting a black woman who is developing an independence from maternal influences, as well as acknowledging a maternal figure (epitomized in the character of Gogo) as an important formative influence. In her depiction of Lulama, she is critical, too, of the ‘controlling image’ that all black women are ‘natural’ mothers.40

Given the closeness to details of Mhlophe's own life, and her point that the play is her way of ‘exploring memory and disruption in a woman's life’,41 we see the intersection of the personal and artistic, in the effort to recuperate and assert selfhood, agency and subjectivity, rather than ‘blame herself on history’.

When we compare Mhlophe with say Kuzwayo and Tlali, we notice that black women writers depict a ‘variety of subjectivities’; the tendency to homogenize African women is resisted.42 In constructing an independent, autonomous space Mhlophe has worked with the experience of ‘difference’ without fetishizing and celebrating it for itself.43

The discourse of identity and difference within feminism, based on constructed binaries and linearity between men and women, and between white and black women is modulated, even disrupted, as we consider its fluid, dynamic nature, and as we consider difference within ‘difference’. In embodying a multiplicity of influences, all in interaction with one another, and projecting a complex self, as depicted in the character of Zandile, Mhlophe illustrates well the ‘hyphenated identities and hybrid realities’ that Trinh Minh'ha speaks of.44

At the same time, Mhlophe does not discount the place of solidarity among all women. In her poem ‘We Are at War’, already referred to, she sees that ‘women of my country / mother Africa's loved daughters / black and white’ face a common enemy.45 Mhlophe is stridently feminist in what she believes women can achieve from within a common solidarity shared by all women, both black and white. Yet she is claiming such a feminist position within the sphere of indigenous African, rather than western experience, and is far from producing a ‘colourless’ feminism.

Mhlophe's purposes are wide-ranging and critical, as she explores questions of politics, gender and race in the light of experience, and expressed through the ‘participatory literature of liberation’ based on the African communal experience. Her identities as writer, black woman, Third World woman, global woman are intricately interwoven in a particular temporal and spatial context. She has developed her own storytelling project (called Zanendaba—‘Bring me a Story’) in the context of local culture, and has also extended this art to draw from the rich heritage of folklore among the traditional literatures of the world. Mhlophe expresses a particular wish to ‘reclaim Africa’. This is one of the challenges of reading and writing in the new South Africa. As Tony Voss notes ‘The civil imaginary, the cultural space, the kgotla: much of our humanity, much of what we are able to contribute to the world will depend on our rootedness in Africa’.46

Gcina Mhlophe points out that when she travels she uses a translator, since her play, Have You Seen Zandile? is in three languages—English, Xhosa and Zulu. She wrote it naturally switching from one language to another, and the overall effect is that of a ‘bridge’ since it is more inclusive than if it were only in one language. In the mixing of languages she is drawing from her own language experiences, having learnt Zulu in KwaZulu-Natal from her father's family, and Xhosa in the Transkei, when she moved to be with her mother. She is able to incorporate the multi-dimensional character of the languages, and thus shows up the artificial boundaries that were set up to justify the creation of Bantustans in pursuance of ‘grand apartheid’. Mhlophe's point that ‘Language is who you are, it is important to say "this is my language"’—shows the multi-faceted sense of selfhood that she is forging. She embodies the merging of different local languages and cultures, with a strong individuality in the context of her life's experiences, bridging traditional black culture and western forms, in all their heterogeneity.

In an interesting way Mhlophe is locating her work in the local and particular, and in this way reaching to the universal, across cultures and traditions. The transglobal culture that she is creating is not that of the commodity-ridden culture of Coca-Cola and Zambuk, but that of the fabric of community life, and of cultural memory, straddling rural and urban experience. Writing in another time and place, but describing Gcina Mhlophe's experiences well, Silko records: ‘I grew up with storytelling. My earliest memories are of my grandmother telling me stories while she watered the morning-glories in her yard’.47 In this way Gcina Mhlophe is contributing significantly to developing a critical feminism, an alternative new internationalism and a vibrant heterogeneous post-colonial literary culture.


1. Leslie Marmon Silko, quoted in Trinh T. Minh'ha, Woman, Native, Other—Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana, 1989): 135.

2. Dorothy Driver, in M. J. Daymond, Introduction to Feminists Reading South Africa, 1990-1994, p. 14 (forthcoming).

3. Mhlophe, Gcina, T. Mtshali and M. van Renen, Have You Seen Zandile? (Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1988).

4. Gcina Mhlophe, My Dear Madam, in Mothobi Mutloase, Reconstruction (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1981): 180-98.

5. Gcina Mhlophe, in Interview with Dennis Walder, ‘The Number of Girls is Growing’, in Contemporary Theatre Review [Special Issue on South African Drama], November, 1995 p. 3.

6. Walder: 5.

7. Walder: 5.

8. Walder: 5.

9.Somdaka was written and directed by Mhlophe, at the Market Theatre, in Johannesburg, in 1989.

10. Walder: 6.

11. Njabulo Ndebele, Rediscovery of the Ordinary—Essays on South African Literature and Culture (Johannesburg: Congress of South African Writers [COSAW], 1991): 63.

12. Ndebele: 23.

13. Ndebele.

14. M. J. Daymond, ‘Some Thoughts on South Africa, 1992: Interview with Lauretta Ngcobo’, in Current Writing 4.1 (1992): 85-97.

15.Current Writing.

16. Gcina Mhlophe, Nokulunga's Wedding, in Susan Brown et al (eds), LIP: from Southern African Women (Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1987): 82-6.

17. Dorothy Driver, ‘M'a-Ngoana, O Tsoare Thipa ka Bohaleng—The Child's Mother Grabs the Sharp End of the Knife: Women as Mothers, Women as Writers’, in Rendering Things Visible—Essays on South African Literary Culture, ed. Martin Trump (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1990): 250.

18. Elaine Showalter, ‘Towards a Feminist Poetics’, in The New Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter (London: Virago, 1993): 125-143.

19.Breaking the Silence—A Century of South African Women's Poetry, ed. Cecily Locket (Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1990): 36.

20. Susan Brown, Isabel Hofmeyr, Susan Rosenberg (eds), LIP from Southern African Women (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983): 164-5.

21. Gcina Mhlophe, ‘The Toilet’, in Sometimes When it Rains: Writings by South African Women, ed. Ann Oosthuizen (London: Pandora, 1987): 1-7.

22. Publisher's note in Women in South Africa: From the Heart—An Anthology (Johannesburg: Seriti sa Sechaba Publishers, 1988): 6.

23. Driver: 251.

24.Sometimes When it Rains: Writings by South African Women, ed. Ann Oosthuizen (London: Pandora, 1987).

25. See Joan Meterlerkamp, Ruth Miller: ‘Father's Law or Mother's Lore?’, Current Writing 4 (1992): 57-71.

26. Zoe Wicomb, You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town (London: Virago, 1987).

27. Rob Gaylard, 'Exile and Homecoming: An Approach to Zoe Wicomb's You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, paper presented at the Association of University English Teachers of South Africa [AUETSA] Conference, Transkei, 1994.

28. Gcina Mhlope, ‘It's Quiet Now’, in Oosthuizen: 8-9.

29. Demographic figures on ‘male absenteeism’ in South Africa have pointed to its particular incidence in KwaZulu-Natal and the former Transkei.

30. An Introduction to Women in South Africa: From the Heart—An Anthology (Johannesburg: Seriti sa Sechaba Publishers, 1988): 6.

31. Minh-ha: 121.

32. See Mildred Hill-Lubin, ‘The Grandmother in African and African-American Literature’, in Ngambika—Studies in Women in African Literature, eds Carol Boyce Davies & Anne Adams (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1986): 241-56.

33. Eva Hunter, ‘A Mother is Nothing but a Backbone—Tradition and Change’, in Miriam Tlali's Footprints in the Quag, Current Writing 5.1: 60-75.

34. ed. Lockett: 352-3.

35. Brown: 159-60.

36. Quoted in Mineke Schipper, ‘Mother Africa on a Pedestal: the Male Heritage in African Literature and Criticism’, in African Literature Today, 7 (1987): 35-54.

37. Minh-ha: 119.

38. Janet Varner Gunn, ‘"Border-Crossing" and the Cross-Cultural Study of Autobiography’, paper presented at the Association of University English Teachers Association of Southern Africa [AUETSA] Conference, 1994.

39. M. J. Daymond, Feminists Reading South Africa, 1990-1994: Writing, Theory and Criticism, p. 9 (forthcoming).

40. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990): 70.

41. Walder: 8.

42. Hunter: 72.

43. Edward Said draws attention to this trend among those who have been ‘othered’: 'Representing the Colonised: Anthropology's Interlocutors, Critical Inquiry 15 (Winter 1989): 213.

44.When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics (London: Routledge, 1991): 73.

45. Brown: 159-60.

46. Tony Voss, ‘Reading and Writing in the New South Africa’, Current Writing 4.1 (1992): 8.

47. Leslie Marmon Silko in Minh'ha: 135.

Marcia Blumberg (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Blumberg, Marcia. "Revaluing Women's Storytelling in South African Theatre." In South African Theatre as/and Intervention, edited by Marcia Blumberg and Dennis Walder, pp. 137-46. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Rodopi, 1999.

[In the essay below, Blumberg surveys Mhlophe's efforts to perpetuate the art of storytelling among South Africans and evaluates the role storytelling plays in Have You Seen Zandile? in preserving the rituals, personal relationships, and personal histories of its female characters.]

There was a time in African culture when the setting of the sun announced that it was time for story-telling […] The television and the radio and the disco are taking over […] That kills something of the child's imagination […] Our stories are fresh because they've been suppressed for so long.1

When women "spin a story" they illustrate the political significance of personal narratives for performance theory […] In their story-telling process, women come to see that their personal experiences have social origins.2

To tell a story is to activate a dream.3

Three women in South African theatre shared an engagement with their work during the London conference, treating us to diverse modes of storytelling in their performances. I would like here to make yet another voice audible, that of Gcina Mhlophe, who received an honorary doctorate from the Open University in 1994. At that time, Dennis Walder's presentation attested to her participation in many facets of South African theatre, emphasizing her use of storytelling in different forms and venues as a vehicle of intervention:

It is for her contribution as a writer and artist to that larger struggle […] to be heard […] that we honour Gcina Mhlophe […] She performs in schools and fringe theatre venues around the world, and now lives by storytelling […] for Gcina and her group of self-taught traditional story-tellers, Zanendaba ["Bring me a story"], it means tellling the truths which have been lost, which have not yet been heard […] They help others to tell their stories, the stories of their lives but also the stories of their people.4

The involvement of Mhlophe and women from Zanendaba5 in storytelling is a recuperative practice directed at oral history and South African culture. The individual and sometimes collective empowerment of the women makes this performative form a vital aspect for the en-gendering of voice in South Africa.

Mhlophe's activities have brought a greater awareness of the art of storytelling and have widened its appeal and value, especially for black South Africans, who, Ellen Kuzwayo reminds us, "have owned [their] stories while owning so little else."6 Mhlophe is keenly aware of the valorization of written stories and particular narratives exemplifying the might of colonial structures that simultaneously devalue, and sometimes erase, the practices of the oral tradition. Prizing the repository of stories, values, history, mythology, and a world view of a particular culture, she knows it requires ongoing performance to facilitate its transmission:

TV and going to the moon are great, but storytelling is number one. There is that person-to-person contact, which is crucial, and it has spirituality. I have yet to meet a storyteller who wants to compete. There's no competition: I tell you that story of my people, you tell the story of your people.7

In foregrounding the communication between storyteller and listener, Mhlophe not only points to the dynamic of sharing amongst equals, she also appreciates the opportunity stories provide both to learn and to improve understanding, since stories, amongst their many attributes, carry personal and community histories.

Analyzing the material conditions for production of these performances, Mhlophe pragmatically asserts their benefits: "people of different political persuasions could share in storytelling. And children of different financial standing could be reached very cheaply […] It's very cost effective."8 The practical effect of minimal costs translates into accessibility for audiences of all ages and political stripe; levelling the economic considerations brings inclusivity. Mhlophe utilizes traditional folk-tales but also creates new stories to maintain freshness and engage her listeners. She also realizes how much the context for storytelling has altered over the decades and emphasizes the need to be always aware of the particular audience: "I often tell stories in a theatre or classroom. My grandmother told me stories around the fire at home."9 Nokwanda Sithole considers that

the stories have changed territorially because of changing audiences and environments. Mhlophe has also done a lot of adapting in her different projects: You can tell the same story to university, high school, primary and little children, but have to do it differently for each group.10

These varying occasions for the performance of stories nevertheless provide rich opportunities for reconnecting with traditions and narratives of the past and for revaluing them within the context of a country in flux.

As an interventionary practice in another mode, "Mhlophe believes that storytelling can play a role in redressing distortions to African history and pride—particularly for young children who cannot read."11 Storytelling offers one method to combat the poor educational practices, and the perhaps even poorer relationships between students and their teacher, which are the legacy of apartheid; it also provides a more creative, participatory, less authoritarian approach. Yet the question of intervention raises other problems when we consider the contrast between the engagement of storytellers as performers and that of academics whose research involves collecting stories. One journalist cautions: "In scholarly hands, […] the record is dry, flat and often incorrect."12 Sithole also warns that recently

there has been a conscious drive by black people to record black history, but this has happened to a limited extent. There has also been a tendency towards an academic approach—not accessible to the majority of people for whom the exercise is meant.13

These issues of who speaks for and to whom, and of the quality of listening, as well as such related problems as the dynamics of sisterhood, require sensitive analysis.

How do stories work in order for them to be recaptured and transformed? Women's "spinstorying" has been regarded as "a rich and intricate verbal art [that] combines different story types and different ways of telling stories,"14 and conceptualized as the often private performance of personal narratives. Mhlophe's storytelling workshops transform the private into a more public form, yet still provide a supportive environment. As women participate in the narratives of other women's lives, they perceive commonalties and assess differences; most importantly, they feel part of a community rather than dealing with various oppressive conditions in isolation.

Spin suggests the curvilinear structure of kernel stories that spiral from conversation to story to conversation to story. Personal narratives spin connections and interweave women's lives […] Women focus on personal narratives because they cannot draw upon a shared history at a social level when their history is particularized, depreciated, regulated, and silenced.15

"Spinstorying" exemplifies the dynamics of communication between women and the performance of stories imbricated in their lives and histories. Across many cultures, patriarchal systems have silenced and regulated women in oppressive ways. Mhlophe's storytelling therefore energizes women's voices in South Africa, making them audible and valuable; it also helps to restore them to the community at large, where they have been mostly silenced yet have always belonged.

How does Mhlophe employ the practice of storytelling in her own theatrical stagings? Central to Mhlophe's play Have You Seen Zandile? 16 is the performance of words rendered concrete in the practices of storytelling, the ritual of praise poetry, the recuperation and narrativization of personal history. From the vantage-point of young adulthood, Zandile remembers and revalues her personal history, which forms a significant part of the extended silence, the unspoken, forgotten, or neglected stories, of her community. The recall and shaping of memory translates into its narrativization in the plays. Zandile's quest for the memories of childhood directly relates to her absence from and desire for a reunion with her grandmother; Gogo, in turn, searches for Zandile over many years and retains her grandchild's artefacts and gifts, which constitute a personal memory-bank and a cultural treasure-trove.

Zandile's enactment of scenes from her youth comprises fourteen discrete fragments set in the context of apartheid South Africa over two decades from the mid-Sixties. While the larger political picture informs her situation, the play stresses the personal as political. Zandile's world is turned upside-down when she is abducted by her Xhosa mother and removed from the city and her Zulu granny's loving care. Zandile is unacquainted with the Xhosa language and culture and unused to rural traditional ways, but her alienation is somewhat ameliorated by her desperate attempts to communicate with Gogo and her determination to learn all about her people and their history. In fact, the play renders concrete the contention that "the personal is not only political, as feminists have said, but sociological and historical as well."17 All of these facets obtain in what has sometimes been dismissively regarded as a "woman's story." The deliberate mix of languages, Zulu, English, and Xhosa, emphasizes the rich cultural heritage that signifies Zandile's history and that of her creator, but also reminds spectators that these are three of eleven official languages in South Africa, all of which represent the stories of many diverse peoples.

The title, Have You Seen Zandile?, precedes a phrase, "a play originated by Gcina Mhlophe, based on her childhood," then names three women, Mhlophe, Maralin Vanrenen, and Thembi Mtshali. These markers, as well as the dedication "to the memory of my grandmother, Gogo, who deserves praise for the storyteller in me," point to the collaboration of the three women and to a different kind of collaborative inspirational work through memory, the spiritual presence, and the love for the techniques of storytelling instilled by Mhlophe's grandmother. The acknowledgement that the play is "based on" her childhood takes spectators into the liminal space of autobiography, suggesting that her life-story is a starting-point for the stories in the play, much as her storytelling employs, reworks, and renews folktales. It is instructive to assess the play in the light of Jane Watts's rationale for what she sees as a common writing practice among black South African writers:

whatever genre they take up is likely to be used as a vehicle for this autobiographical search […] Writing becomes a request for reassurance that they in fact have an identity, that they have rescued the fragments and shards of a personality from the systematic official attempt to eradicate it.18

Watts's perspective offers a very narrow view of black writers and devalues the autobiographical genre, denying the creativity of the writers and the range of material produced in South Africa. Mhlophe's play deliberately employs aspects of the genre that provide the writer with tools of self-discovery and at the same time extends the process to concerns wider than cultural and gender implications.

The play also realizes the argument that "self-definition in relation to significant others […] is the most pervasive characteristic of the female autobiography […] for women it is relational."19 Zandile's relationships with Gogo, her mother, her invented and actual friends, and other women constitute the dramatic and emotional structuring of the play. Even scenes that feature one actor on stage include other female interlocutors, so that relationality "is the most pervasive characteristic." Zandile's abrupt, unwanted relocation and separation from Gogo provide opportunities for this internal dialogue, which is at once personal and representative of issues and cultural practices within the communities.

Miki Flockemann's admiration for the dynamic of Have You Seen Zandile? as a "sort of ‘counter discourse’ to what has been called protest theatre, because of the way it goes into area of personal life and experience" elicits Mhlophe's printed response: "If I could write about the masses I can also write about myself, I'm one of the masses!"20 Challenges that her play lacked relevance since it seemed to eschew the liberation struggle provoked a rejoinder from Mhlophe:

I've done plays that deal with the political conflicts and with the police and the shooting and the dying and detentions […] [T]his is the first different play […] I was getting quite angry, "Do you think we spend our lives marching in the streets?" […] "We do washing sometimes, sometimes we fall in love, sometimes children get born."21

This response came at the same time as Albie Sachs's controversial paper "Preparing ourselves for freedom" reacted to a rather narrow focus on the politics of liberation as the sine qua non of artistic work.22 Furthermore, Flockemann's contextualization of the play's setting stressed the relevance of its trajectory in the present:

First workshopped then performed […] in 1986, the play is set in the period between 1966 and 1976—though the "horizon" of the play seems more in keeping with developments in the 1990's, transcending the post-Sharpeville, pre-Soweto period of the actual time of the play.23

This speaks directly to the opposite dynamic in Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca (1985) and Playland (1992), which, while written in the past decade (the latter even set in 1990), depict attitudes and mind-sets reminiscent of the Sixties.

The play begins with an empty stage but is soon occupied with Zandile's performance as an eight-year-old child in dialogue with a newly invented friend. There is an obvious depth of affection between herself and Gogo, and the importance of storytelling is brought out as Gogo performs the story of the woman on the moon. The latter staging realizes storytelling not only as a formative influence on the young Zandile but also as an integral component of their tradition. Spectators witness the interaction of the teller's performance and the listeners' participation, see the educative potential, and realize how the story acts as a caveat about moral choices: a mother's desire to care for her baby supervenes over a prohibition about Sunday work, for which she and her baby are cruelly punished with banishment to the moon and permanent separation from the rest of the family. This story provides an ironic parallel with Zandile's situation later in the play: her mother kidnaps her, removing her permanently from contact with her beloved Gogo. Yet the mythic mother does everything she can for her baby, who remains with her although they are both banished.

Another scene combines the comic and the serious in a significant demonstration of the effects of storytelling as Zandile performs for the putative pupils, flowers in Gogo's garden. She enacts multiple roles: the teacher, Miss Zandile; herself and her imagined friend, Bongi, as schoolgirls; and, in addition, the pupils' response. Reiterating Gogo's cautionary tale about the danger of the white car that arrives and takes naughty children "to a far away place and nobody's going to see you ever again,"24 she emulates the authoritarian structures of her school. Comedy arises from self-reflexive strategizing for her class when they receive a visit from the school inspector. Exhibiting an understanding of role-playing and appeasement, Zandile informs the students about the inspector's linguistic handicap—he can only understand English. As she assigns "white names" to the flowers, she observes in amazement: "Do you know what name the inspector gave me today? Elsie. And I don't even look like an Elsie!" (20). Mhlophe explains how her father's stories taught her the significance of names: "Our names have meanings; and when you're told the meaning of your name, when you meet other people, that's the beginning of the conversation."25 In other words, their African names provide a genealogy and place the interlocutors in specific contexts, which the assumed English names erase. The final tableau represents Zandile's frustration at the students' mistakes in the rendering of a Zulu song and her violent reaction as she breaks the flowers (students). In contrast to the harsh education system, which spawns violence, Gogo lovingly remonstrates with her: "Everything that grows has feelings" (23).

The arrival of the white car at the end of the school term violently disrupts the anticipated vacation, as the vehicle facilitates her abduction. Scenes from the Transkei evoke linguistic and cultural alienation; Zandile alleviates her unhappiness by telling stories to the children in the fields, but, most importantly, she tells her story to Gogo in the form of letters that are destroyed by her mother. Between Zandile's attempts to reach her, Gogo shows the photographs and asks spectators, "Have you seen Zandile?" (34). This question, which reverberates with the significance of its function as title, places audience members in a disturbing scenario of complicity, since they have witnessed the abduction and do know the answer but are bound by theatrical convention to remain silent in response to Gogo's desperate plea. Perhaps, at this moment, the dilemma of the spectator, who finds herself in a morally untenable situation, partly replicates but also exposes the difference in the situations of many South Africans, who knew to a greater or lesser degree about the intolerable conditions and injustice of apartheid, yet were complicitous in their silence and inaction.

Zandile's proudest moment also involves storytelling, as she invokes her grandmother and recites a praise poem in Xhosa for her teacher on his retirement. That this scene derives from personal experience is confirmed by Mhlophe's joy at the memory of her discovery of the ritual of praise poetry, "That's the poetry that I grew up on. That's the poetry that inspired me to become a writer."26 Zandile's pride in her performance of the praise poem is evident, but is contrasted with the appearance of Gogo on the other side of the stage in an isolating spotlit area. Gogo's gifts mark her continued affection for Zandile, as does her anticipation of their meeting sometime; as she places these presents in a suitcase, this bag and its contents become an overdetermined signifier for their once-loving relationship and its loss, as well as a repository for her childhood dreams.

The final scene represents Zandile's return to Durban to search for Gogo, but her dreams of an anticipated reunion are shattered when she hears about her granmother's recent death. As Gogo had taken solace in storytelling about her granddaughter, so Zandile sustained herself on stories in the absence of her grandmother through the presence of her transmitted tradition. This final tableau is the most poignant moment of the play: Zandile, isolated in a pool of light, opens Gogo's suitcase and takes out the wrapped gifts, which she places on one side while she unpacks in turn the three dresses from her childhood. "She then holds all three dresses closely to her, hugging them and sobbing. The lights slowly fade to black" (77). The gestures and images, the dramatic structure of bonding, forced separation, and a discovery that creates a certain finality but no emotional resolution—these are, indeed, aspects that are immediately understood despite cultural difference. So, too, is the pain of multiple losses: that of her cherished grandmother, her childhood, the missed years of non-communication, and the never-to-be-restored bond with her mentor and muse. Peggy Phelan's interrogation of the conjunction of objects, memory, and loss is especially pertinent to this situation:

The speech act of memory and description [can] become a performative expression […] The description itself does not reproduce the object, it rather helps us to restage and restate the effort to remember what is lost. The descriptions remind us how loss acquires meaning and generates recovery—not only of and for the object, but for the one who remembers.27

The dresses signify Zandile's lost innocence, the abruptly terminated joy of childhood, and the painful separation and now final loss of her Gogo. Spectators are assured that this "loss acquires meaning and generates recovery" by Mhlophe's construction of her story as that of Zandile, and her avowed intention to devote time and energy to storytelling.

The specificities of the South African situation create a complex problematic and demand closer attention. As Susan Bennett remarks in another context, "cultural baggage is not an optional extra; it must be carried everywhere." 28 Gogo's suitcase is a repository of artefacts for Zandile, but the dresses are the most significant items, since they are metonymic of her life and are also among the few possessions that she calls her own. Her positioning at the conjunction of issues of race, class, gender and economics marks her transformation from a child to a young black woman restricted by structures of apartheid, customary law, and patriarchy. These dresses thus signify her dreams and their enforced curtailment. Zandile's allusion to Gogo's gift of a new dress as she performs the role of Miss Zandile signifies her aspirations for a career as a teacher—one possible option for a well-educated young black woman in South Africa in 1966, in contrast to the millions of black women employed as domestic workers. In addition, Zandile's separation from the dresses, which represent one component of her urban life and its potential, fore- grounds some of the material effects of her abduction and the coercion to adopt the practices and fulfil the expectations of a traditional rural life. That Zandile is prohibited from wearing shoes to supposedly facilitate her work in the fields is of a piece with Lulama's explanation that her daughter's dreams of teaching are inappropriate: "Are you going to teach the goats?" (38). Quite apart from their more universal implications, the dresses, as a marker of Zandile's disrupted childhood, serve as a vehicle for manifold factors which stage interventions specific to South Africa.

In South Africa and on international stages, Mhlophe's performance of storytelling is invested with the force of the personal as political and the extended force of the personal as a metonym of the community and its politics. As the oppressive structures and their attendant silences break down, so the voices engendered in storytelling can articulate and activate new dreams. Will spectators be listening attentively and feel empowered?


1. Gcina Mhlophe, quoted in Tyrone August, "Interview with Gcina Mhlophe," Journal of Southern African Studies 16.2 (June 1990): 330-31.

2. Kristen M. Langellier & Eric E. Peterson, "Spinstorying: An Analysis of Women Storytelling," in Performance, Culture, and Identity, ed. Elizabeth C. Fine & Jean Haskell Speer (Westport CT: Frederick J. Praeger, 1992): 157-60.

3. Breyten Breytenbach, "Why are Writers Always the Last to Know?" New York Times Book Review (28 March 1993): 16.

4. Dennis Walder, "Presentation of Gcina Mhlope for an honorary degree of Doctor of the Open University" (April 1994); unpublished MS.

5. Gcina Mhlophe prioritizes the following for Zanendaba: training a core of professional storytellers; conducting in-house workshops, sending storytellers to organizations and schools upon request; building the resources of the Institute in order to conduct research into African folklore; hosting exchanges between storytellers from around the world and especially with Africa; holding regular storytelling performances and creating an annual festival (South African Outlook, 54).

6. Ellen Kuzwayo, Sit Down and Listen (Claremont, S.A.: David Philip, 1990): ix.

7. Gcina Mhlophe, quoted in Yvonne Fontyn, "The world is listening to Gcina's tales," Weekly Mail & Guardian 10.20 (20-26 May 1994): 36.

8. Mhlophe, quoted in Tyrone August, "Interview with Gcina Mhlophe (1993)," Politics and Performance: Theatre, Poetry and Song in Southern Africa, ed. Liz Gunner (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand UP, 1994): 280.

9. Mhlophe, quoted in Bobby Rodwell, "Gcina Mhlophe," Speak 37 (1991): 6.

10. Nokwanda Sithole, "Once Upon a Time," Tribute (November 1989): 20.

11. Sithole, "Once Upon a Time," 18.

12.South African Outlook 121.4 (May 1991): 53.

13. Sithole, "Once Upon a Time," 18. Desiree Lewis's reminder, "the right to interpret black experience in South Africa has been a white right. Blacks may have emotions and display their experience, but cannot be credited with self-knowledge or interpretation" ("The Politics of FEMINISM in South Africa," Staffrider 10.3 [1992]: 20), challenges critics and academics to reflect more carefully on their practices. My approach utilizes the playwrights' statements to bring their voices to the fore in a dialogue with their playtexts and the writing of other critics; yet I am ever mindful of my situation as a mediator as I listen to the various voices, interpret the different texts, and shape my own writings.

14. Langellier & Peterson, "Spinstorying: An Analysis of Women Storytelling," 157. Sincere thanks to Dennis Walder for drawing my attention to this article and for sharing his then unpublished manuscripts and other material on the work of Gcina Mhlophe.

15. Langellier & Peterson, "Spinstorying," 173-74.

16.Have You Seen Zandile? premiered at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg in February 1986 and returned in July 1987. It won a Fringe Festival Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1987 and toured to Basel, Zurich, and London. Its American premiere in Chicago in 1988 was followed by a season in 1989 in Baltimore and Knoxville, Tennessee, with the Carpetbag Company. My thanks to Gcina Mhlophe for talking with me about her work in London in 1993 and on subsequent occasions in Toronto. Most of all I thank her for challenging me to think long and hard about my positioning and role in this work.

17. Wini Breines, Young, White and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties (Boston MA: Beacon, 1992): x.

18. Jane Watts, Black Writers from South Africa: Towards a Discourse of Liberation (London: Macmillan, 1989): 115 (my emphasis).

19. Bella Brodski & Celeste Schenck, ed. "The Other Voice," Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography (Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1988): 8, 9.

20. These citations are taken from an unedited version of "Gcina Mhlophe in conversation with Miki Flockemann and Thuli Mazibuko, Cape Town, 2 August 1994" (forthcoming in Contemporary Theatre, 1999). My thanks to the editor, Lizbeth Goodman, for providing this material.

21. Quoted in Patrick Kagan-Moore, "The Zandile Project: A Collaboration Between UT, Carpetbag Theatre, and South African Playwright Gcina Mhlophe; An Interview," Drama Review 34.1 (Spring 1990): 119-20.

22. Albie Sachs,"Preparing ourselves for freedom," in Spring is Rebellious: Arguments About Cultural Freedom by Albie Sachs and Respondents, ed. Ingrid de Kok & Karen Press (Cape Town: Buchu, 1990): 19-29.

23. Miki Flockemann, "Have You Seen Zandile? English or english—An Approach to Teaching Literature in Postapartheid South Africa," AUETSA [Association of University English Teachers of Southern Africa] (Fort Hare & Potchefstroom, S.A., 1991): 510-11.

24. Gcina Mhlophe, Maralin Vanrenen & Thembi Mtshali, Have You Seen Zandile? (London: Heinemann/Methuen, 1988): 19. Further page references are in the text.

25. Quoted in Patrick Kagan-Moore, "The Zandile Project," 122.

26. Quoted in Peter Gzowski, "Gcina Mhlophe interviewed on CBC," Morningside (18 May 1995): 1, 2. Thanks to the CBC for supplying the transcript of the radio interview.

27. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Peformance (London: Routledge, 1993): 147.

28. Susan Bennett, "Mother Tongue: Colonized Bodies and Performing Cultures," Contemporary Theatre Review 2:3 (1995): 108.

Works Cited

August, Tyrone. "Interview with Gcina Mhlophe," Journal of Southern African Studies 16.2 (June 1990): 329-35.

Bennett, Susan. "Mother Tongue: Colonized Bodies and Performing Cultures," Contemporary Theatre Review 2:3 (1995): 101-109.

Breines, Wini. Young, White and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties. Boston MA: Beacon, 1992.

Breytenbach, Breyten. "Why are Writers Always the Last to Know?," New York Times Review of Books (March 28, 1993): 1; 15-17.

Brodski, Bella, & Celeste Schenck, ed. "The Other Voice," Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1988.

Flockemann, Miki. "Have You Seen Zandile? English or english: An Approach to Teaching Literature in Postapartheid South Africa," AUETSA [Association of University English Teachers of Southern Africa] (Fort Hare/Potchefstroom, 1991): 509-23.

Fontyn, Yvonne. "The world is listening to Gcina's tales," Weekly Mail & Guardian 10.20 (May 20-26, 1994): 36.

Gzowski, Peter. "Gcina Mhlophe interviewed on CBC," Morningside (May 8, 1995): 1-6.

Kagan-Moore, Patrick. "The Zandile Project: A Collaboration Between UT, Carpetbag Theatre, and South African Playwright Gcina Mhlophe; An Interview," Drama Review 34.1 (Spring 1990): 115-30.

Kuzwayo, Ellen. Sit Down and Listen. Claremont, S.A.: David Philip, 1990.

Langellier, Kristen M., & Eric E. Peterson. "Spinstorying: An Analysis of Women Storytelling." Performance, Culture, and Identity, ed. Elizabeth C. Fine & Jean Haskell Speer (Westport CT: Praeger, 1992): 157-79.

Lewis, Desiree. "The Politics of FEMINISM in South Africa," Staffrider 10.3 (1992): 15-21.

Mhlophe, Gcina, Maralin Vanrenen & Thembi Mtshali. Have You Seen Zandile? London: Heinemann/Methuen, 1988.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Peformance. London: Routledge, 1993.

Rodwell, Bobby. "Gcina Mhlophe," Speak 37 (1991): 6-8.

Sachs, Albie."Preparing ourselves for freedom," in Spring is Rebellious: Arguments About Cultural Freedom by Albie Sachs and Respondents, ed. Ingrid de Kok & Karen Press (Cape Town: Buchu, 1990): 19-29.

Sithole, Nokwanda. "Once Upon a Time," Tribute (November 1989): 18-21.

Walder, Dennis. "Presentation of Gcina Mhlophe for an honorary degree of Doctor of the Open University" (April 1994); unpublished MS.

Watts, Jane. Black Writers from South Africa: Towards a Discourse of Liberation. London: Macmillan, 1989.



Driver, Dorothy. "M'a-Ngoana O Tŝoare Thipa ka Bohaleng—The Child's Mother Grabs the Sharp End of the Knife: Women as Mothers, Women as Writers." In Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture, edited by Martin Trump, pp. 225-55. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.

Includes a brief discussion of Mhlophe's short stories "The Toilet," "Nokulunga's Wedding," and "It's Quiet Now."

Mhlope, Gcina, and Tyrone August. "Interview with Gcina Mhlope." Journal of Southern African Studies 16, no. 2 (June 1990): 329-35.

An interview in which Mhlophe offers insight into such issues as her use of African languages along with English, the educational and moral value of traditional folktales, her role as a woman writer, the mixing of politics and art, and the importance of bringing the theatre into rural areas.