A recurring theme of Contagion literature is death – and boy did the authors come up with creative ways to kill off our beloved characters amid pandemics. Some deaths were as memorable as the singer in Orpheus collapsing in the spotlight (Camus), others were private as Tarrou’s final exhale (Camus), and few were revealed abruptly like the child narrator in Ding Village (Yan). This time around, the author Mpe wasted no time in dropping the death bomb on his readers by opening the novel with an almost eulogy-reciting sentiment:
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.p.1
“NARRATION FROM THE DEAD, OF THE DEAD, ADDRESSED TO A READER IN THE POSITION OF THE DEAD”
Narration is a weird thing to think about in this work. The direction is singular – someone appeared to be writing to the dead Refentše in some monologue capacity. We first followed the omnipresent narrator on a walking tour across the district of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, in a swift fashion akin to that of tourism drone videos showcasing the highlight of this town while flashing the slogan “Welcome to our Hillbrow.” At times, we forgot that the “you” was addressed to Refentše and invited ourselves to be the audience of this narration (as other works have invited us to do this semester). We marvel at the liminality and disposability of migrant lives, we marvel at the gore of news reports (five men’s ribs being ripped off by a butcher’s knife?), but then we are gently reminded that this is a story of Refentše, for Refentše, as the narration zoomed in to follow Refentše on his first day arriving at Hillbrow en route to his cousin’s house. We have so many questions – so we thought we would share a list of them here (#6 might haunt you!):
- Who is this narrator, and why do they know about such intimate details of our protagonist (like his affair with Sammy’s girlfriend Bohlale)?
- Why is the narrator recounting the life of Refentše TO Refentše himself?
- Oh no is this The Book Thief all over again?
- How long did this narrator know Refentše so that they could write about his first trip to Hillbrow and then suddenly fast forward to his post-college job as a lecturer?
- Why was the narrator able to know what was on Refentše’s mind when he leaped out of that twelfth story window to a “luring suicide?”
- Am I actually Refentše and the narrator is writing to me?
Narration and the narratives it creates are also a prominent topic among people around Refentše. We see Refentše’s mother detesting Lerato, a “Hillbrow woman” as labeled by Tiragalong village people, despite never meeting her. The predominant narrative that city people are corrupt and cunning overpowers Refentše’s attempts to humanize his partner to his mother. We also see Refentše’s old lover Refilwe leveraging her position in the village to rewrite the narratives on events leading to Refentše’s death, and that narrative persisted even after proven false by Lerato’s family visiting the village. Refentše is dead, but who decides the narrative of dead people and what is their intention? In a post-apartheid Hillbrow, historically-oppressed people of color submitted a rewritten narrative that it was migrants who ruined this town, in a story eerily similar to how they were oppressed during the apartheid. People recount historic events with slight alterations that shine them in a better light – perhaps because they remembered it differently, perhaps because they were reckless with the power of storytelling after being robbed of their agency prior. Small alterations added up, and the past was longer how people individually remembered it – a new collective memory is laid forth, but to whom does it serve? Who is Refentše to us anyway, but a collection of memories seemingly mourning him?
Welcome to Hillbrow…
“…there was another word for foreigners that was not very different in connotation from Makwerekwere or … Except that it was a much more widely used term: Africans…“
A theme that is closely connected to the concept of narrative in this reading is language. Because, as Ghirmai Negash’s introduction says (don’t read introduction if you don’t want spoilers), “in Mpe’s text the what (narrative representation) and the how (language) are blurred entities.” So, it is interesting to see how in this text, language (consciously or unconsciously) affects the narrative that is presented to the reader. One of the obvious examples would be the censorship that the main characters of our novel face. For instance, the main character of the book by Refentše wrote a novel in Sepedi – her native African language. The narrator describes that choice of language for writing as a curse and a big mistake. A character, seeking a better future by working day and night in a kitchen and trying to finish her Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Africa, knew English but chose to write in Sepedi. And as a result, her novel was then called vulgar and offensive due to the naming of ‘shit’ and ‘genitalia’ by their correct names in her native tongue. Here, we can see how the power to represent your cultural heritage, as well as simply the freedom to express yourself in your native tongue, is deprived of the Afrikaan indigenous communities. Essentially, their natural right to represent their rich culture can only be practiced among that culture and nowhere else, as it is viewed as something barbaric, vulgar, and inferior. Unfortunately, there is nothing that these people can do, as the readers and overall audience of their works follow the will of reviewers, as those represent their preferences and needs. In our case, preference and favorism of the English language, where naming genitalia by their correct names in biology books – even including graphic illustrations on the side – was considered completely fine.
This shows us how systems of oppression persist within the society and several institutions despite the end of apartheid (shoutout to the previous convener’s post that goes into details of the context of apartheid and its role in the novel). They continue to slow down the development of communities – such as indigenous South African communities – after the damage done by the segregation systems implemented based on race. What is even more horrifying is probably how these systems actually cause members of indigenous communities to reject their cultural heritage and adopt ‘English culture’ as their new identity. In a way, acculturation of a new cultural identity becomes the only way to succeed or even survive for individuals from indigenous communities. An obvious example is the main character Refentše who wrote his novel in English; being aware of the limitation of his native language, he knew that writing a novel in Sepedi was a dead end. So, with that understanding, he rejects his native languages and pursues opportunities created by the language that dominates his culture. Another example would be the cousin of Refentše. Whenever his actions are described, the author includes “Like most Hillbrowans, Cousin took his soccer seriously” or his words of complaints about foreigners being responsible for the physical and moral decay of Hillbrow that are “echoed by many others.” We can see how another part of the indigenous community becomes accultured to their new identity, by literally rejecting their native ways of living and copying the “native” Hillbrowans or more specifically, by appropriating the white characteristic and culture. Starting from his violence towards unfortunate Nigerians, ending with the refusal to return the greeting of his fellow indigenous brother who is homeless on the streets. This all seems to speak of great difficulties South African indigenous communities face in reclaiming their heritage or more specifically in promoting their culture, saving it from being overpowered by politically and economically powerful entities. So, the question is, “How do the struggles of the main characters of the novel represent difficulties in building a new future for South African indigenous communities after the apartheid?”
Welcome to Hillbrow…
“Makwerekwere, convenient scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in people’s lives”
In addition, to the issues of reclaiming one’s cultural heritage, Mpe also focuses on the topic of the corrupt system that is used to oppress minorities. Evident from the passage,
“Makwerekwere knew they had no recourse to legal defense if they were caught. The police could detain or deport them without allowing them any trial at all. Even the Department of Home Affairs was not sympathetic to their cause. No one seemed to care that the treatment of Makwerekwere by the police, and the lack of sympathy from the influential Department of Home Affairs, ran contrary to the human rights clauses detailed in the new constitution of the country.”p.23
On top of the xenophobia and passing pandemic, the citizens of Hillbrow felt that the justice system served as a barrier rather than a bridge to help them. A previous post focused on a YouTube video that showed police beating the citizens. Here, we see how the cousin prefers to use torture against Makwerekwere which is even worse than beating. So, as a policeman, instead of fighting for justice, he is promoting violence and colluding with the enemy to bully the victim, the minorities. In a way, that promotes his sense of belonging to that community.
Welcome to Hillbrow…
This moves us to another central element to this novel is a place and belonging. The importance of spatial identification is made clear to us from the very first chapter, which is literally called “Hillbrow: The Map.” It is rather strange that the narrator is explaining to Refentše his own neighborhood. In fact, the narrator spends a good portion of the first chapter recalling the streets and shops that Refentše passed through on his first day in Hillbrow to register for university. What is the purpose of this hyper-focus on recreating Hillbrow for a character that supposedly lived in Hillbrow for several years?
These passages have the important effect of mapping the urban violence and segregation of post-apartheid Johannesburg onto the page. All around Refentše are markers of crime and prostitution and a seedy underworld; his first night in the neighborhood is punctuated by the echoes of gunshots, and his cousin’s introduction to the streets of Hillbrow includes a wry nod to a local brothel. Likewise, the text is littered with references to racial tensions. Hillbrow’s existence and the daily challenges that its inhabitants must navigate belie the fact that segregation laws in South Africa were supposedly repealed in 1991.
This emphasis on how Refentše orients himself in his new home emphasizes the importance of belonging. The narrator constantly refers to his friend as Refentše of Tiragalong and this repetition establishes a dichotomy between the frenzied and (especially in the eyes of his mother) dangerous life in Hillbrow and the more rural village where he is from. Refentše is a stranger in Hillbrow trying to find his way, just like the many migrants from neighboring countries who are despised by all. Despite Hillbrow’s violence, it is a “monster…full of career opportunities” for all who come, whether from Tiragalong or beyond. Yet this attempt to belong comes at a cost to all, whether it is the foreigners who attempt to form relationships with policemen or those employed by white families to protect themselves from deportation or Refentše himself who commits suicide feeling that he is without relief in this city.
Welcome to …
In conclusion, there are several themes that the author raises within the novel. Some of them we discussed in our post, the rest can be added in the comments. So far, the central issues seem to be related to concepts of Narrative and Language, Belonging and Acculturation, as well as Systems of Oppression. Now, the question for the audience would be, how is the AIDS epidemic connected to all of these issues? How does it tie with all the issues?
Made by lovely Sofia, Ludien, Taman and Mohammed <3
I want to draw a parallel between “the discrimination against migrants” and “the portrayal of soccer sentiments” in this work. For the former, the sentiment goes: oppressed groups endogenous to Hillbrow discriminates against migrants because migrants are the cause of all bad things. For the soccer sentiment it goes: even if Bafana Bafana (SA national team) didn’t make it to the final round, they still cheer for the black non-SA teams from Africa because “at least they are African.” (p.27) Is acceptance of outsider conditioned on the presence of a greater “they”? When the Europeans were first in SA, they excluded POCs from participation in civil society; when the POCs gained agency post-apartheid, they excluded people with less honorable occupations like prostitutes and gamblers; when South Africans saw migrants moving into their cities, they excluded migrants (e.g., Nigerians); when they saw Europeans competing against African teams they found solidarity amongst themselves (side note: has this come full circle?).
The intersection of both sentiments can be seen here on the character of the Cousin, who is the policeman responsible for enforcement of order (and curiously, not necessarily law):
“You often accused him of being a hypocrite, because his vocal support for black non-South African teams, whenever they played against European clubs, contrasted so glaringly with his prejudice towards black foreigners the rest of the time. Cousin would always take the opportunity during these arguments to complain about the crime and grime in Hillbrow, for which he held such foreigners responsible; not just for the physical decay of the place, but the moral decay. His words were echoed by many others – among them, the white superintendent at your place in Van der Merwe Street, who told you when you moved in that Hillbrow had been just fine until those Nigerians came in here with all their drug dealing.” (p.17)
Your comments about football and Sophia’s comment about the constant need of finding a scapegoat make me think about the question of identity. Identity is such an abstract yet complex concept for us to think about in this book. What unites us together and what separates us apart. In the search of a scapegoat, we as humans are creating the ‘us’ and ‘them’, which is what identity forces us to do as well. When we cheer for a team during a football game, we automatically create the separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Thank you for this insightful post! I really liked how you draw our attention to the theme of systemic oppression in this book from different angles — the languages, the justice system, the rejection of cultural heritage, and so on. I especially liked this line from your post: “Makwerekwere, convenient scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in people’s lives.” I think the topic of scapegoating is particularly interesting in this book because it shows how when we don’t understand or refuse to understand a group of people, then they seem to become the villains and suspects of all crimes. We see this between the Tiragalong people and the Hillbrowans. For example, Refentse’s mother despises all Hillbrowan women without ever setting foot in Hillbrow. In a bigger picture, the topic of scapegoating in this book seems to reveal how people feel almost obligated to find someone to blame when something bad happens. We’ve seen this in almost all of the past books we read in this class. People cannot accept tragedies without locating the villains. And in this book, the villains are conveniently the outsiders.
Yay! I really like this comment about scapegoat, because it brings us back to Grandpa (Yan), the sacrificial lamb or in a way scapegoat for everyone. The scapegoat/sacrificial lamb with Oedipus where he is blamed for all the issues. Its as if this is a running theme that goes intertwined with all the epidemics. I wonder why? Why do people feel like they need to blame someone? Marginalize them and point fingers? Why this happens? For what? WHat does it tell us about pandemic in general?
Because it reminds me how Vivi during our first lessons talked about the hate crimes against asian people and chinese in particular due to all the stuff with COVID. I even remember my relatives saying “Ah, all this Chinese people always bringing trouble!” etc etc. Like Sophia is saying “convenient outsiders” that you can blame for all the wrongs in your life. Whats up with that, huh?
A reminder that there’s a previous post on this topic. I can’t remember if I shared it this semester already!
A late comment regarding what Taman brought up in class about language—my background on this is similar to Mohamed’s, although maybe a bit more extreme. I am much better in English that my native language (Malayalam—fun fact, the language’s name is a palindrome!), to a point where it is at times hard for me to communicate effectively with my parents. But I still do very much like the English language (no need to apologize, Taman). I enjoy writing in it and reading works in English. We discussed how English provides access in class (like the example of writing in English vs Sepedi in the book). I see it as a way of reclaiming power—the colonized claiming the language of the colonizers for themselves to take their rightful portion of power back from the colonizers.
Thanks for bringing this point up in class, Taman!
Yep, I think during class I got a bit carried away with English “hate”. I guess I was influenced by the years of watching my native language get lost through generations. I had a bit of a late awakening of my cultural belonging I guess (teenage period [begining] hit me hard), so a lot of mixed feelings.
Overall, i think perspective of looking on reclaiming the power is great! I especially like it in the perspective of post-colonial theory, because when we looked it up in high school, I remember the situation. Description: a black woman is asked where she is from by a white Belgium man. She said she is from here, Belgium. He asks “No, where are you really from? “From Belgium”, she responds. Then, he asks where are her parents from, she says from Africa. He exclaims, “Finally, so thats where you are from!”. She disagrees, “My parents are from Africa, but I was born and raised in Belgium”.
* – I forgot the names of places, so forgive me for inaccuracies.
Whenever I think about this situation, I am tempted to think more on how to reclaim power over one’s language and all stuff like this. I think my country is doing that right now by changing the alphabet writing from cyrillic (russian version) to a latin (a more kazakh version, i guess). And i wonder what is the case for you Saideep? Btw, palindrome language, damn, thats dope!
That’s a good story, and one we see too often unfortunately. In my case, I’ve grown up here in Abu Dhabi and consider this to be home, but it’s always been made very clear that I don’t exactly belong in Abu Dhabi, and I will eventually have to leave. Maybe growing up here is a part of the reason I don’t feel a strong connection to my native language, or don’t have any regrets about not putting in a proper effort to learn it. Not having a real home has made me have no real strong connection to any country.
Identity is complicated, and writing helps me figure things out (that’s probably part of the reason why I like English—because as poorly as I write, it is the language I can write best in).
Btw, Professor Bryan, I am taking over comment section on this website *cue evil laughter*