Phaswane Mpe’s novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow depicts life in the downtrodden communities of post-apartheid South Africa. In his book, he presents the stories of lives cut short by the ravages of sex, disease, and crime that appear to echo his own experiences in these neighbourhoods. Despite the prevalence of death, however, Mpe seems to argue that the most destructive contagion of all is the spread of judgement.
The novel revolves around the importance and weight of “inner-city status”, which then ties into topics of gossip, contraction of AIDS, and their relation to contagion theory. Your inner-city status is largely dependent on what the public knows about you: your actions, your doings, and your relation to other people. We see the transition of Refentse’s reputation throughout the novel, from being an educated and respected individual in the city’s eyes, to being seen as a traitor to his family after his suicide. Contracting AIDS also brings about bad news to a person’s reputation in Hillbrow. Since it is difficult to hide from the public eye that a person has contracted AIDS, it amplifies the gossip and attention that goes around about that person, and suddenly you don’t hear the end of the many different stories being spread around, even after death. This is evident through Refilwe’s final moments in Tiragalong after coming back from Oxford, having found out she’s had HIV for a decade then. Public judgments are even worse for those who are seen or heard to be associated with people from other countries, thus including xenophobic discrimination in the public’s repertoire of gossip. The question to ask here is how does the impact of inner-city status, the movement of gossip, and the contraction of AIDS, relate to our knowledge of contagion theory?
Gossip spreads through misinformation, and stories are told with no concern for facts. Often, stories push the plot forward by the characters being told inaccurate gossip or not being told at all. Such as with Refentse’s suicide, the story that gets created around the reasons he had for dying, and the repercussions in everybody’s lives after his death. Narratives and storytelling serve as a central point in the development of the novel. The narrator remains focused on Refentse (addressing him as ‘you’) throughout most of the novel up to the last two chapters: “Refilwe on the Move” and “The Returnee,” where the focus and the ‘you’ changes to Refilwe. What is the importance of this shift in the narrator? What do we make of the fact that Refentse is dead before the novel starts?
An important detail to highlight about Refentse is the fact that he writes a story about a woman who also writes a story, and both their stories focus on the same: a “story of Hillbrow and xenophobia and AIDS and the nightmares of rural lives.” This duplicity invites to see not only the mirroring between Refentse and the protagonist of his story, but also between Refentse’s story and Phaswane Mpe’s own novel. How does one make sense of this mirroring in relation to the novel?
Mpe describes a complex society that is accustomed to extreme everyday trials. While the beauty of sexual expression is seen through blossoming loves between Bones of the Heart, Mpe also warns of the severe consequences and excessive social disapproval of this sexual liberation. The HIV/AIDS epidemic also serves as a backdrop for the book, with this disease and those afflicted by it being framed as ill-understood yet healthily scorned by their communities. Furthermore, the prevalence of senseless violence, alarming drug use, and appalling sexual exploitation threaten peace in prosperity for the people of Hillbrow. How does Mpe use the deaths of his characters to draw attention to these evils affecting his community? What other techniques does he use to comment on the role of xenophobia, hearsay, and status in his society?