Archive for November, 2014

Law and Disorder

This post is aimed to provide some background on Hillbrow, a poor neighbourhood in Johannesburg, and the stage for Mpe’s novella. In order to further acquaint us with the issues, here are some links to documentaries about the area:

Hillbrow: Between Heaven and Hell from Al Jazeera

Gangster Paradise

Hillbrow Flash Mob


Property Hillbrow 

So, do you feel a connection between the links provided and the film? What progression, if any, can you see since the time Mpe’s novella is based? Did anything challenge your perceptions, or confirm them? Also, from this we can see how Mpe painted a picture of the neighbourhood of Hillbrow: how would you do this for NYUAD, or your home area?


You Shoot, You Score

From today’s class discussion on Welcome to Our Hillbrow, we identified a number of themes that emerge in the text, such as xenophobia in South Africa and the issue of cultural identity. Another important aspect of the novel is euphemism and metaphor, of which soccer (a.k.a. football) is a notable example.

In both the novel and reality, football plays a major role in South African culture, as it brings a common sense of pride to the nation and it represents the best (and worst) aspects of the contemporary South African society. Interestingly, the narrator mentions soccer in the first sentence of the text: “If you were still alive, Refentše, child of Tiragalong, you would be glad that Bafana Bafana lost to France in the 1998 Soccer World Cup fiasco” (1). For the South Africans, soccer is the only event in which they “momentarily [forget] xenophobia” (27), as it serves as a platform for fans to unite in support for Bafana Bafana  – “The Boys”.

However, soccer is not merely a sport. It reflects its society, much like how theatre and fictional writing reflect reality. The passive act of watching soccer is unfortunately similar to the common act of spectatorship in society. For instance, in the following passage, the citizens of Hillbrow witness a 7-year-old girl die from a reckless car driver:

“Most people, after the momentary stunned silence of witnessing the sour fruits of soccer victory, resumed their singing. Shosholoza … sounded its melodies from Wolmarans Street, at the fringe of the Johannesburg downtown, to the head of Clarendon Place, at the boundary of the serene Parktown suburb. Shosholoza … drowned the choking sobs of the deceased child’s mother” (2).

An unfortunate consequence of a soccer victory is the unnecessary celebratory violence that follows, which is evident from the above passage. However, what is even more unfortunate is the reaction of society to this violence. Like spectators watching soccer, society is detached from the action and from the foul play of violence, and respond accordingly.

Soccer also serves as a metaphor for other “social disease”, as the narrator uses soccer terms to describe Terror’s, a rapist’s, malicious thoughts and intentions toward Refentše’s love: “Because he was full of spite towards you, Terror wanted to take Lerato’s thighs for a playing field, in which his penis would be player, referee and spectator simultaneously” (65).

In terms of the issue of xenophobia, though soccer temporarily distracts the Hillbrowans from their hatred of foreigners, it actually makes xenophobia more noticeable since its absence highlights the fact that it is usually present. In reality, South African football also highlights the issue of xenophobia, which can be seen in this article and this account of soccer’s history in Africa. 

It is often said that soccer is truly an international sport. Why is soccer such a popular sport, in both the novel and in reality? Why is soccer such an effective means of analyzing society? What are the implications of this metaphor, and how else does soccer reflect society?

P.S. On a side note, this article discusses the recent murder of South Africa’s national soccer captain and its implications. (Take note of the article’s mention of Ebola.) Again, what is the role of soccer in highlighting current societal issues? How does the victim’s identity as a soccer player in this case add to the severity of the murder? 


He died, poor chap; of what precisely, no one knew

The young South African writer’s, Phaswane Mpe’s, sudden death was similar to a line that appears in his novel, Welcome To Our Hillbrow: “He died, poor chap; of what precisely, no one knew. But strange illnesses courted in Hillbrow, as Tiragalong knew only too well, could only translate into AIDS” (p.3.). Or at least an article that I bumped into, while searching for information about Mpe, suggests. The comparison might be twisted at first, but it seems that just like Refentse’s fictional work turned out to be Refilwe’s real fate in the novel, some of Mpe’s words have also translated into reality, that is, into his own life. The article bases this assumption on the fact that the causes of Mpe’s unexpected death have never been identified, and that only his struggle with creating more fictional works before his death is known.

It is suggested that the inability of his creative mind to flourish after his first novel was so severe, that a few months before his death, Mpe contacted a traditional healer who concluded that his ‘illness’ is a message from his ancestors that his new ‘career path’ should be one of a healers. Mpe, upon hearing this, aspired to learn more about herbal medicine, and listen to the stories of his patients, which, he hoped, would set his creative mind free. Tragically, he died before he was able to practice the ‘art’ of being healer.

One has the impression that, just like his novel, Mpe’s life was a fusion of magical realism and the hard facts of real life. And whether the story told above is true or not, I couldn’t say, but still, linking patterns in an author’s life and his or her stories is always a good and intellectually satisfying game to play. Naturally, while having fun one must remember not to take things too far, since after all novels are works of fiction and shouldn’t be considered as autobiographies. Or, what do you think?

Thoughts on Hillbrow

A distinctive feature that separates this novel from our previous readings is its narrative voice, as briefly mentioned in the past convener’s post. It is second person, omniscient narrative, in which the narrator addresses the protagonist, Refentse, as “you”. In the first part of the novel, the narrator walks the readers through Refentse’s experience in Hillbrow:

Then you arrived in Hillbrow, Refentse, to witness it all for yourself; and come up with your own story, if you could. You came to be a witness, because your cousin, with whom you were going to stay until you found student accommodation at the University, stayed in Hillbrow, although not exactly in the center of the action. (Mpe 6)

One possible effect of this second person narrative is subtly drawing the readers into the plot, making us feel as if the narrator is addressing us and put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist.

In other places in the novel, the narrator not only gives information on the behavior and thoughts of the characters but also reveals personal opinion from a detached point of view—when the narrator discusses the reason for the difference between Refentse and his cousin, for example (20).

What are the effects of second person, omniscient narrative shown in this novel? What could be Mpe’s purposes in this particular type of narration? Are they achieved throughout the novel?

The novel starts off by presenting Refentse as the protagonist. It doesn’t take long, however, until the readers realize that our protagonist is soon to be (or already) dead, facing “the blank wall of suicide” (25). Then the later part of this novel deals with how people around Refentse behave after his death, rather than continuing to recount the life of Refentse when he was alive. As the chapter “Refilwe” begins, the focus of this story shifts to this past “Bone of Heart” of Refentse—her life after his death is thoroughly narrated in the consecutive chapters. At the end of the novel, the narrator no longer addresses Refilwe with third person pronoun.

Refilwe, you were very grieved by this show. You felt sorry for those who loved you so much and expressed it so openly. You knew it was not  intentional that they should depress you (119).

It seems that Refilwe is now the protagonist of this second person narrative—in fact, she is the only round character in this novel who went through significant transformation. Once a xenophobic Hillbrowan, Refilwe became a cosmopolitan citizen who “no longer hide behind bias against Makwerekwere” and “do not blame them for troubles in life” (122).

Who do you think is the real protagonist of this novel? How can we elucidate this dichotomous narration?

One natural consequence of the narrator not being directly present as a character in the plot is that everything is told as it has been heard and seen, in the form of storytelling and rumors.

It is interesting to note that the people of Tiragalong are referred to as a whole as “Tiragalong”, uniting them as one organism that thinks and responds together:

“Tiragalong’s story was constructed when your mother slipped and fell into your grave on that hot Saturday morning of your burial. As Tiragalong believed, only witches could fall into a corpse’s grave on burial.” (43)

Because the people believe and act as one entity, rumors play a large role in determining their reactions.  Xenophobia and superstitions are the fundamental driving forces of the rumors, causing them to “[drink] in the scandal eagerly” (44). Rumors propagated by fear lead to various interpretations of Refentse’s death and also cause some subsequent deaths, such as the death of Refentse’s mother and Tschepo’s neighbor.

“So in your story, as in real life, Tiragalong danced because its xenophobia — its fear of and hatred for both black non-South Africans and Johannesburgers — was vindicated.” (55)

What does it mean to refer to an entire group of people as a proper noun? Are the traditional beliefs of Tiragalong responsible for the rumors and the consequences that follow? Or are they caused more by fear of the unknown?

The rampant prejudice, euphemism, and social classifications in Welcome to Our Hillbrow reflect the entrenched effects of apartheid and oppressive state control over South Africans. As a result of a governmental system that bestowed benefits and value based on skin color, within the post-apartheid black community of Hillbrow derogatory divisions remain. Black Africans originally from countries outside South Africa are derided as “Makwerekwere”, interracial romance is labeled as mental illness, AIDS is often referred to euphemistically and scornfully — “Is it not known what the fruit of sin is?” (112). Language is even systematically policed, erasing cultural characteristics and therefore denying the value of those cultures.

“She did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse. She had not anticipated that the publishers’ reviewers would brand her novel vulgar. Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for educational publishers, and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems that they served.” (56)

Therein lies evidence of a flawed system that “criminalize[s]… linguistic honesty” and legitimizes certain cultural practices and languages instead of others. The novel’s characters acutely experience this systemic oppression, as the literary aspirations of Refentse and Refilwe are marginalized and devalued.

How does this demonization and isolation of an “other”, especially to create a scapegoat for a complicated epidemic, present itself in other texts we’ve discussed? What role does euphemism play in disseminating both contagious bodily disease and an epidemic of distrust and rumor?

-Mina, JooHee, Annie