“Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction.”

Hillbrow is an inner-city residential neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, that used to be a whites-only zone during Apartheid in the 1970s. Post-Apartheid, it became a melting pot for people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and became home to one of the first prominent LBGT communities in South Africa. The neighborhood, however, slowly decayed into an urban slum due to a massive influx of poor migrants and the exodus of middle class communities. Mpe dedicates the first chapter of his novel to explore Hillbrow in the second person perspective through the life of Refentse, a writer who committed suicide.  He explores the social issues of xenophobia, AIDS, racism, crime and poverty through what would have been Refentse’s typical routine through the city. He describes the people, street corners, and city rhythms of the “menacing monster” that is Hillbrow as if you were walking through its streets like a local. This brings up the question: What language does Mpe use to construct Hillbrow and why does he use it? The neighborhood takes on a life of its own for Mpe: “You discovered on arriving in Hillbrow, that to be drawn away from Tiragalong also went hand-in-hand with a loss of interest in Hillbrow. Because Tiragalong was in Hillbrow. You always took Tiragalong with you in your consciousness whenever you came to Hillbrow or any other place. In the same way, you carried Hillbrow with you always” (49).  This makes one ask: What is a place? How does one’s environment shape their identity? What is the relationship between place and identity? What does it mean to have ownership of place?  At first, there seems to be a clear distinction between the Hillbrowan and foreigner aka Mackwerekwere identity, but this gets confused as we learn that most of the so called locals were actually migrants. Refentse points out “There are very few Hillbrowans, if you think about it, who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages, who have come here, as we have in search of education and work. Many of the Makwerewere you accuse of this and that are no different to us sojourners, here in search of green pastures.” How does place fit into our identities? How does it fit into the identity by descent or the identity by consent categories we discussed in Angels in America? Mpe repeats the title of the novel “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”. Notice the use of “Our”. Our Hillbrow suggests a sense of ownership of the place. Hillbrow isn’t just a geographical location, it is the sum of experiences, relationships and connections that its citizens create together.

He repeats this phrase multiple times:

“All these things that you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words… Welcome to our Hillbrow….” (27)

And again at the end of the second chapter:

“If you were still alive, now Refentse child of Hillbrow and Tiragalong, if you were still alive, all of this that you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would still find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words… Welcome to our Hillbrow…” (62)

What does this repetition signify? The phrase seems to take on a new tone, becoming more ironic as Mpe repeats it.

The repetition of the phrase “Welcome to our Hillbrow” tells the readers that the narrator is from Hillbrow due to his/her reference to it as “ours” — something that belongs to him/her, too. In its irony, we can also tell that the narrator is unhappy with the way things are in Hillbrow — with the explicitly aforementioned issues of xenophobia, AIDS, and racism.

This novel addresses contagion, not only in regards to AIDS but also the spread of ideas, rumors, and generalizations. The dissemination of information, and the problem of separating truth from rumor, has been discussed in nearly every book we have read thus far. From the start of the novel, in discussing the presence of the “strange illness” that “could only translate into AIDS” the narrator suggests that the disease “according to popular understanding [and] certain newspaper articles, was caused by foreign germs” (3-4). The people of South Africa were constructing their preliminary understanding of the source of AIDS from “such media reports”. The narrator continues on to explain different “scandalous stories” about the bizarre sexual behavior of men who slept with other men. These stories “did the rounds on the informal migrant grapevine” (4). It is through word of mouth that ideas about AIDS, intertwined with xenophobia, generalizations, and preconceived notions, are spread and in a sense, infect the minds of those who listen.

Not only do rumors of disease plague the people of South Africa, rumors about the characters’ own tragedies circulate as well. The devastating consequences of gossip are most strongly witnessed in the stories that “moved with ease to and from Tiragalong and Hillbrow” by car, landline, and cellphone service providers about Refentse’s suicide. The story of his death was embellished and changed by many, but most significantly by Refilwe, Refentse’s past lover. Refilwe blemished his name and sent him “hurtling towards [his] second death” by the stories and rumors she told. Refentse’s mother was set on fire and killed by the people of Tiragalong based on rumors that she had bewitched her son, causing him to commit suicide. Refilwe rewrote the story of Refentse’s suicide and convinced others that is was instead “a loose-thighed Hillbrowan called Lerato” who bewitched him, not his mother (43-44). The spread of misinformation continued on and on, reputations were destroyed, and very little regard was paid to hard facts. The constructed story of his suicide only helped to perpetuate the generalization that the women of Hillbrow were dangerous. These rumors also created a ripple effect, starting with Refentse’s suicide, leading to other characters loss of sanity or violent deaths. Was it Refentse’s suicide that set off the chain of tragedies that affected the other characters of the novel, or were the rumors and constructed stories to blame?

The novel is from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who seems unrelated to any of the  characters, yet is still included in their life stories. The first part of the novel is told from the second person point of view, addressing the life of Refentse, the protagonist, and the lives of those connected to him. The narrator is aware of every last detail within the events occurring throughout the characters’ lives, despite the fact that the narration is not at all chronological.

Judging by the way the story is told, the narrator seems to know and expect all these terrible events to happen — and is merely watching them unfold without interfering. It’s almost as if the narrator is familiar with the characters on a personal level — based on the amount of details known about them — but never once makes remarks that insinuate any sort of personal feelings towards them, instead simply telling the events as they occur.

The language that the narrator uses also changes throughout the novel. For example, at some point in the first part, it seems as if we are inside of Refentse’s head; when he is shocked, the narrator’s language changes to accommodate that sense of shock. In other instances, however, the narrator takes the role of a storyteller and is simply there to inform the reader of the events taking place in these characters’ lives.

So, what is the narrator’s relationship to Refentse? Since he/she dedicates such a large portion of the story with Refentse being the protagonist, the reader can assume that the two must be connected in some way. Also, what is the significance of the second person point of view? Does the author succeed in using this technique, or would it have worked better if the narration took on a more distant perspective?

One additional resource: Al Jazeera Documentary about Hillbrow
Sara, Mira, Shaikha

1 Comment

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  1. Greetings friends,

    I’m aware that I’m not supposed to comment this week so my sincerest apologies. However, there are a number of questions/ concerns that I have with the text and I will really appreciate some clarification or at least some discourse about the text before we move on to our other reads this semester.
    First of all, unlike the rest of the texts that we’ve read, this one has a very unconventional depiction of plague and contagion. Other novels we’ve read thus far point to the Black Plague, Syphilis, etc as the cause of both plague and death. Though this text seems to refer to AIDS, majority of the book talks about the foreign Africans as the ‘plague’. So, there’s a metaphorical sense of plague at play here. BUT, the foreigners and Makwerekwere are not the major cause of death here. In fact, it seems like suicide is the largest cause of death coupled with ‘necklacing’ and other forms of murder. Consequently, the relationship between ‘plague’ and ‘death’ is very non-linear. So, what’s the relationship between the foreigners (the plague) and suicide?

    While we’re on the topic of suicide? What’s up with the depiction of suicide in this novel? When someone commits suicide, rational people are supposed to mourn and feel bad and all. BUT, the characters here bask in the intricate staging of the suicide. Why is suicide depicted as somewhat of an Oscar-winning performance? One of the lines I noted towards the end of the text read:- “She thought of him doing his spectacular jump from the twentieth floor in Van der Merwe street…” (116). Spectacular jump? You’d think he’s jumping off a trapeze of some sort. Similarly, what’s this “seductive suicide” that Mpe keeps referring to? I sincerely do not know what that means? Is this the Euphemism he keeps talking about?

    Third question: How are we to read the book? i.e. how are we to read the context of the book? The narrator uses Refentse’s death as a reference point to map out the actions of the book. At some points the narrator refers to Refentse’s while he was still alive (i.e. the past) and at some points he refers to post-death actions (future) and at other times it seems like events are unfolding in the present. So, I’m very unsure of how to situate the context of the novel.

    Just quickly going back to the issue of plague, contagion and AIDS, I’m reading AIDS as the hero of the text for some reason. Prior to Refilwe coming to Oxford and contracting AIDS, there’d been very clear cut lines between the locals and the foreigners (the other black Africans). The foreigners were seen as being the cause of evil to Hillbrowans (even though that in itself is ironic). But, AIDS being this sort of shared experience- especially between Refilwe and her Nigerian lover- becomes a force to break these socially constructed barriers. Mpe even notes “Tiragalong and Nigeria, blended without distinction” (122).

    Lastly, who’s the narrator and where is he or she from? Initially, I believed the person was Hillbrowan because of the constant repetition of the phrase “welcome to our Hillbrow”. But, the same narrator also says, “welcome to our England” “welcome to our heaven” “welcome to our humanity”. Obviously, the narrator doesn’t have multiple citizenships. So, how do I situate the narrator respective to belonging and identity? And what’s the significance of these multiple forms of community?

    I think this is the last “lastly” but I have one more question. There’s a really short paragraph that’d I need some help understanding as I don’t know what it means. “Hillbrow in Hillbrow. Hillbrow in Capetown. Cape Town in Hillbrow. Oxford in both. Both in Oxford. Welcome to our All…” (104). What does this mean?

    Sorry for the really long post once again but I’d really appreciate some clarification on some of these concerns.

    Chiamaka Odera Ebeze.

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