Maverick Life


My father’s daughter and the woman his family teachings ultimately shaped

My father’s daughter and the woman his family teachings ultimately shaped
Pictures of Gcina Mhlophe and her father. Images: Gcina Mhlophe

Gcina Mhlophe is a South African storyteller, poet, playwright, director and author. This is the story of the role her father played in shaping her life.

The last-born child of Baba Mhlophe was different from the very beginning. Maybe the mother and father had no idea at first, but as she grew, some signs began to show. Nothing too stark, but they were there.

Being born out of wedlock was nothing new in any society, but it must have been something on the day my father travelled on the train alone with me from Durban to Hammarsdale. I was just over two years of age, and very upset to be separated from my mother who had to travel back to the Eastern Cape where her home was. I do not know what prompted the decision, but it had been agreed that I was to go home with my father — a married man with eight children. My father told me that I cried the whole journey until people started looking at him suspiciously. He must have been relieved when the train arrived at the Hammarsdale Station and we could alight. What went through his mind as he walked home with a fat crying baby girl and suitcase, is anyone’s guess.

“Honey I’m home! With a special surprise — baby number 9!” maybe he said that? Well, I highly doubt it. No one ever mentioned the conversation to me. Our families are very good at keeping such information safely hidden from curious little ears. 

I just know that I soon felt at home, part of the Mhlophe household. MaMadlala was Mama to all of us, and I look a lot like my father so as that little person, I had a sense of belonging. I felt accepted. 

Then came another special person into my life. She was an older sister of my father, my aunt Anna. She had had a few children and they all died one after another at a young age. Then her husband left her. The details were sketchy; I am not sure what exactly happened. But she looked at me and decided I would be hers, to love and to cherish.

Before I knew it, my life had changed forever, in a most wonderful way. I called her Gogo, meaning, grandmother. Nobody corrected me. Our paternal grandmother uMaNgubane was still alive and lived at home with my father and the rest of the family, so I had two grandmothers, just like that. Aunt Anna was also known as Anti Mthwalo, so to me she was Gogo Mthwalo. Her house was just a few houses away from the Mhlophe home and I moved freely between the two. She loved travelling and she proudly called herself — “The one whose bags are always ready”. Mthwalo uboshiwe! And I, the apple of her eye, she often called me her “Little Overcoat”. I was thrilled every time she called me by that name.

My father was an only son with seven sisters. To my mind, he was the tallest most dignified man ever. He was the hero of my world. I remember how easily he moved on his Raleigh bicycle. Always a gentleman; very well dressed; never without his hat on; the shoes highly polished; ties and shirt, with the spring silver arm bands that held his white shirt arms just above the elbows.    

He worked for an oil company in Jacobs, South Durban basin, travelling by train back and forth but he also rented a room near his workplace. I guess that is how he met my mother Nomanina Christina Shezi who was a domestic worker in Brighton Beach. Mama hardly ever spoke about their relationship — a child with too many questions is not a favourite person.

From the times when I lived with my Gogo who told me stories all the time, to the day I went to school for the very first time, I loved to learn. She sharpened my sense of curiosity and that meant that school became one of the most amazing adventures for me.


But turbulent times were coming — I was uprooted and had to go to live with my biological mother’s family in the Eastern Cape, in the village of Mtshazi, Mount Frere. I felt so lost and had frequent nightmares. I hoped with all my heart that my father or my grandmother would come and fetch me, someday. But as the months and years went by, I had to accept that I was there to stay. I had to adapt and learn all I could to try and belong. Those were my formative years, from 10 to 18. So much would happen. Even though I often felt fatherless in the Transkei, I never stopped praying. Praying that one day I would be reunited with my father and my other family in KwaZulu-Natal.

Finally, the day came in 1988, when I made it back home. Sadly my grandmother had passed away but the rest of the family was still there.  Now I had two homes and I never felt the need to choose one over the other.

When I moved to Johannesburg, my father sat me down and said: “We do not have money to help you start a new life in Johannesburg. But we can give you a small provision that will never perish: Respect. You must always respect yourself. Respect those you come into contact with, and you will be all right in the world.” 

What a prophesy those words of my precious father turned out to be! Who would have known that the youngest daughter of the Mhlophe family would travel to all corners of the globe?  

I was very lucky to have known at a young age that my future was in the creative arts. Mama was so disappointed, but not so with Baba Mhlophe … “I’m happy if you are happy” — those were the special words from my father. I will never forget that.

Both my parents believed in hard work. “Nothing comes for free”, they told us, over and over. “Ayikho inkomo yobuthongo — you will never earn a cow through sleeping.” Those were some of the words my father repeated until I had had enough of hearing them. But he knew we needed to hear them, again and again. Such a gentle wise spirit. Our father had a great sense of dignity, loved his family, and knew what was best for us. For me.

I know too that they were arming us for success. It does not matter what profession one ends up choosing, hard work must be part of the recipe. And it is a fact that the more successful you become, the harder you must work. My daughter has heard me say, over and over, “Lady Luck, never visit Lazy Bones”. Clearly, talent alone is never enough. So, you see, I am my mother and my father’s daughter, through and through.

I was greatly affected by growing up in the house of song and prayer, under my father’s guidance and as per family tradition. That gave me the courage to stand up on world stages, and sing. With my very different voice, I sing. Even when I am alone backstage, about to step into the spotlight and connect with international audiences, I sing.  When I am tired, jetlagged, emotionally frazzled, frustrated by the organisation or lack thereof, I sing, and I sing. That always centres me. Music connects me with my Creator and my Ancestors all at the same time, and I am grateful for the part that my father played in this part of my growth into the person I have become. 

Honour your family name. 

Wherever you go, remember who you are, your ancestors and where you came from. Don’t ever pour disgrace upon your family name. These are lessons I learnt from my father, through what he said, and what I saw in him.

One year, my father was visiting us in Kensington, Johannesburg. We had just finished our breakfast and were sitting on the veranda. He did not talk much that day; he kept looking at me and then shook his head. 

“Baba, is something the matter?” I asked.

“No, my child. I am just thinking: why did God not make you a boy? Because then my name would not die; it would be known the world over.”

Hearing those words and seeing the tears in my father’s eyes really hurt me.

“But Baba, I do not need to be a boy; with my work and the privilege I have had to travel to so many places around the world, I tell people about you. I let them know about the values you taught us as we grew up. I sing the songs we sing at home. I carry myself with a sense of dignity and respect — to make sure all who hear about the Mhlophe family name are filled with pride too.

Ngiyabonga — Thank you. My father told us countless times that the most important word in isiZulu language is “ngiyabonga”.  That message lives in me.

Ngiyabonga. I thank the Almighty God for blessing us with such a man to call our father. I remember how much he loved to sing and pray. Even when times were really difficult, in the darkest days of apartheid, our family stuck together. During the most violent times when the government of repression paid certain people to kill their own people, KwaZulu-Natal was the worst-affected province. My hometown – Hammarsdale — went through some of the most traumatic experiences. I would be travelling overseas and yet my heart would be at home. Often I wondered if my family home was still standing. When I would travel back from Johannesburg, I would be overwhelmed by such feelings of trepidation as I walked closer to my home. But when I saw my parents and the rest of the family, I would be so relieved. Then we would share stories, good and bad, before we sang and prayed. That is why I say I grew up in the house of song and prayer. That is the gift they gave me, to have the confidence to stand tall on world stages and sing. Yes, my voice is very different, but my family armed me with all that song and prayer. I am grateful to them; to my father. Ngiyabonga.

I truly believe that no one is really gone unless we choose to forget them. So my father, that son of the Mhlophe people. Zindela. Nkomonhle. Thumbeza ka Myeni. Onsizwana. Abakwa Zihohlo. Omanyonyo abawela uthukela ne nyonyoba. Phuthaza abaphuthaza izulu abanye belesaba. Ontombi ezenda ngonyezi, ezabafokazana zenda ngomnyama.

That is who we are!

That is why I live my life with such a sense of gratitude. 

I call it Vitamin G. 

Vitamin gratitude. DM/ ML

Lessons from My Father is a series of interviews and stories collected and written by Steve Anderson. Anderson has been a high school teacher for 33 years, 26 of them at two schools in East London and the last seven at a school in Cape Town where he heads up the Wellness and Development Department and teaches English and Life Orientation. Throughout his career he has had an interest in the part fathers play in the lives of their children. He says: “This series is not about holding up those who are featured as being ‘The Perfect Father’. It is simply a collection of stories, each told by a son or daughter whose life was, or whose life has been in some way positively impacted by their father… And it doesn’t take away the significant part played by mothering figures in the shaping of their children. Theirs are the stories of another series!


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