Among one of the most recurrent themes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe is othering, or categorizing certain groups of people as “Us vs. Them”. We witnessed this in the circulated story of how “AIDs travelled by foreign germs down from central and western parts of Africa” (p. 3 – 4). It is also seen in the vulgar nickname Makwerekwere , designated for black foreigners from other countries. (p. 20). It is also seen in the way white people are referred to, especially in all the stories circulated on what disorder takes place in the “kitchens” (p, 23).
Because of this very recurrent focus on othering, I couldn’t help but think back to Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Chapter 11 of Behave, “Us Versus Them” theorizes the concept of othering, taking into account both nature and nurture.
One of the most memorable arguments in that chapter is the standardized ways in which human beings view “Thems” as well as the standardized ways in which “Those Thems” evoke responses from us (Sapolsky, p. 398). The following quote encapsulates this well:
“Thus, Thems come in different flavors – threatening and angry, disgusting and repellent, primitive and undifferentiated.” (p. 399)
Thems can evoke feelings of disgust, feelings of menace, or even feelings of threat and fear, depending on the way they are largely viewed (e.g. “I am afraid of Them because Their religion is radical”, or “I am disgusted by Them because They bring diseases”, or “I am angry at Their presence because They are stealing my jobs”) (p. 398 – 400).
This framework, introduced by Sapolsky, could give us better guidance to understand the different forms of othering that are happening in Welcome to Our Hillbrow.
Mpe, Phaswane. Welcome to our Hillbrow. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2001.
Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin, 2017.