“Welcome to our Hillbrow”
This sentence is uttered over and over again as the narrator realises the novel that his protagonist, Refentse couldn’t write in his own lifetime. The novel is in effect, a dedication to both his friend but also to a new South Africa struggling with questions of identity in the post-apartheid era. Like the novel that Refentse set out to write, Mpe’s novel addresses “Hillbrow, xenophobia and AIDS and the prejudices of rural lives.” (55) The narrative is particular in that it is written in the 2nd person, addressed as a letter or a dedication to Refentse, intricately describing the struggles of the community. It encompasses all of these through its thoughtful narrative, which addresses the very characters it describes.
The harrowing image of violence in the aftermath of Bafana Bafana’s (the South African football team) victories as bottles are hurled from balconies and a young girl was once fatally hit by a car in the madness, paints a bleak picture – even in jubilation, there is tragedy and suffering in Hillbrow. The town is full of crime and discrimination leads to the creation of scapegoats. Many of the locals blame the foreign black Africans for the moral corruption in their town. The Makwerekwere (a derogatory term used by black South Africans for other Africans) are despised and take the blame for the grievances of the town, “we can attribute the source of our dirges to Nigeria and Zaire” (21) and “It used to be fine in Hillbrow, until the Nigerians came” (118).
This xenophobia is similarly evident when Refilwe leaves to study in the UK. Refilwe discovers that she is then part of the marginalised “Africans” (102) population who are socially and culturally isolated, not altogether different from the way that the Makwerekwere were treated. Prejudice breeds in whispers and gossip that is sourced from speculation and ignorance however it also has very real impacts in the community. The conscience and the mind are seemed to be similarly powerful, “If such words (speculations about Refilwe’s condition and morality) did not actually come from people’s mouths, then they simply rang inside your own head” (120). Ultimately, it is a deep sense of guilt and despair that loom too great in their minds that sends Refentse to his death, and in turn, Lerato and that sends Sammy into a spiral of depression.
Just as HIV/AIDS lurks in the background of the lives of some of the central characters, particularly Refilwe as we discover she has been infected for 10 years, it similarly lays unseen in the background for most of the novel. AIDS is perceived as a problem inflicted on the community by foreigners and given that it is most commonly transmitted through drug use and unprotected sex, it is also linked to a morally corrupt, promiscuous society.
Identity and place are thus central to the narrative as they indicate the status of the person in society and imply either a sense of belonging or distance. After it is discovered that Refilwe has AIDS, she becomes “by association, one of the hated Makwerekwere” (118); her original identity had been lost through her association with a Nigerian boy, as well as her suffering from AIDS, and people no longer treat her in the same way.
As the novel progresses, the phrase, “Welcome to our Hillbrow” expands to include other people and places, as if the sentiment of moral corruption behind the original line is spreading around the world. The penultimate chapter ends with, “Welcome to Our Humanity” (113). Perhaps one should views others as if Through the Eyes of a Child… or maybe, like Hillbrow, the whole world is infected.
Questions raised from this text include: How does identity and prejudice influence the relationship between a specific culture (or set of people) and illness? Whether the idea of contagion is always linked with a place and therefore, looking at the selection of texts we have read, do writers try to increase tension by having characters that travel? Do you like the narrative of this text with it addressing the very characters it describes, does this add anything to the novel?
— Tom and Sam