Welcome to our Humanity

“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


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  1. I definitely agree with the Conveners especially in regard to the expanded usage of the phrase ” Welcome to our Hillbrow”.
    I believe the novel struggles to apply the situation of South Africa to that of the world in that it tries to tell the story of the world through that of South Africa.
    The fact that this bridge is build through a welcoming is very important, as I believe Mpe is trying to raise awareness over AIDS. To welcome somebody, to me, means that one is introduced to something new. I believe welcoming the reader is an attempted of Mpe to confront people with xenophenia and AIDS, and through that attempt to built some sort of tolerance.

    Also this picture is very strong and made quite an impression on me.
    It’s a picture of school children carrying the body of Hector Pietersen:


  2. I like Caroline’s view of the phrase “Welcome to our Hillbrow” as a welcoming towards people with xenophobia and AIDs (or any ‘other’). This welcome exposes the reader to the reality that these types of people exist in Hillbrow. On another level, it literally welcomes the Makwerekwere or those with AIDS (who the xenophobic fear), as well as the xenophobics themselves, criminials, and other foreigners.

    Caroline’s comment made me think about how the welcoming, at its most basic level, welcomes all the readers and all who enter Hillbrow from the get-go, regardless of their race or illness. This phrase relates a message of tolerance for the same type of confusion and exchange of perspectives that Angels and America addressed.

    In Hillbrow, the same confusion and intermingling of different peoples exists, and the Mpe uses a welcoming phrase to emphasize the positive nature of such exchange. To offer an answer to one of the conveners’ questions, Mpe may have used Refilwe’s travels to increase the dramatic effect of her return. Refilwe was once unquestionably welcome in Hillbrow, but after her travels, she returns transformed into an ‘other’ – like a Makwerekwere (as the conveners pointed out), with AIDS. Nevertheless, she is still welcomed in Hillbrow, and with the tables turned, she can see the ill ways of her previous xenophobic beliefs.

  3. I like your points about the phrase “Welcome to our Hillbrow.” I also found it interesting that the phrase is expanded whenever repeated throughout the novel–to Hillbrow, “new” Hillbrow, Heathrow, England, Humanity, and to Heaven. Not only is this phrase welcoming the readers of different race and region, but it points out that these regions, regardless of the readers’ origins, are “ours.”

    On that note, Refilwe’s travel allows the readers to view how different parts of the world are linked with our human problems–gangsters, AIDS, and misbeliefs that we created with our own imaginations. Unfounded stereotypes and xenophobic beliefs that dominate Hillbrow are based on reconstructed stories and imaginations. The book concludes with a sentence “Welcome to our Heaven,” which could also be Hell, for the concept of Heaven too is the inventions of human.

  4. Greetings from the middle of the night/early in the morning in NY. I’m hoping my plane to Belgium this afternoon isn’t affected by weather.

    I’m very much enjoying the discussion so far and am also taken by Caroline’s comments on the idea of “welcoming.” I wonder, too, if in suggesting that “Refilwe was once unquestionably welcome in Hillbrow, but after her travels, she returns transformed into an ‘other,’” you think, Diana, that something’s possibly going on here along the lines of Appiah’s discussion of cosmopolitanism/contamination (see earlier post)?

  5. I found Mpe’s titular phrase to ring very poignantly against the novel’s backdrop. The phrase is tinged with melancholy–“Welcome to our Hillbrow” is not only a greeting but a mournful dissuasion for all who enter the city and experience its post-apartheid woes.

    It is interesting to note that every socioeconomic group in Hillbrow, London, Jburg etc, always projects society’s blame onto another less fortunate one. The white colonizers ostracized their black inferiors in South Africa, and this prejudice is further channeled to the Makwerekwere. What Mpe’s novel illustrates so powerfully is that fault is equally divided. Crippling epidemics like AIDS were not the construct of a single malevolent people, but rather a “cosmopolitan” contagion, shared across the complex interminglings between cultures.

    I personally loved the 2nd-person narration of Mpe’s novel. It reads like a eulogy, praising Rafentse’s merits and lamenting his downfall. Even from Heaven, Refentse can only watch as a new South Africa rises from the rubble. Before new life can be breathed into the country, much death is inevitable. Lerato drifts into unconsciousness with a bottle of pills, Sammy experiences the bliss of insanity, and Refentse’s mother is consumed by flames and petrol. All together in Heaven (an odd paradise), the group can only watch sad TV shows of the world down below, slowly pushing through disease and hate towards something better.

  6. Like everyone else, I agree with the idea of “Welcome to…” being a form of introduction. As Kee said, it introduces multiple places and may be it puts into question the initial narration where it is Refentse, “child of Tiragalong” (1). The repetition of the phrase with new places could indicate that a person’s identity is not just about their homeland, for example Tiragalong, but also is influenced by the people they meet and the places they go, such as Hillbrow and Oxford. However, the book does recognise that a person’s origin greatly affects hows they may be treated in different societies, like Nigerians being a scapegoat for the moral corruption in Hillbrow.
    As well as “Welcome to…” being an introduction, I think it may be interpreted as a warning. In the same way that it introduces readers to prejudice, it acts as a warning of prejudice being present in modern society. Furthermore, linking to Allen’s point, the narration is conversational, so it even more seems as if the narrator is speaking to the reader, highlighting the xenophobia and views on AIDS. The reflective feel of the narration, as Allen said “like a eulogy”, provides this feeling of it being a slightly sad look back at times in South Africa and warning people of the past, which was filled with immorality, death and disease (which are all linked literally and metaphorically).

  7. Yes, Bryan, I see a parallel between the post on Appiah’s discussion of cosmopolitanism/contamination in Welcome to Our Hillbrow (as well as in Angels in America as discussed in the earlier post). Refilwe returns to Hillbrow as an ‘other’ and afflicted with AIDS. She has returned from her travels contaminated, in the literal sense with AIDS, and figuratively with a more cosmopolitan outlook. Refilwe is exposed to different views of her own culture and others while abroad. Upon return, she can more readily accept the gradual mixing of cultures in her hometown.

  8. I totally agree with the interpretation of the phrase „Welcome to our Hillbrow” towards people with AIDS and xenophobia, and this is really how the reader is introduced to a world, no matter what one’s attitude is. I also loved the second person narrative, somehow it made feel the story was written for me, about me, to me – and so this feeling helped me become even more involved in the novel. I really like how the idea of scapegoat is explained in the post – finding that someone else is responsible for something instead of truly looking into the question is a common habit in Hillbrow, probably this being a consequence of prejudice and close-mindedness.
    It is very interesting how people are “graded” based on where they come from. On page 45 you see “but worse still, the woman is not even a Johannesburger” – it is one of the lines that brought my attention deeply to the issue of identity. Appiah’s discussion of cosmopolitanism really applies to this novel. Refentse, the main character – who is in a way “us” – is the cosmopolitan example in the contemporary and local cultural context. Yet, he is strongly judged by society, which in a sense is comprehensible, but still, opens up many questions. I wish Refentse had not died and had he stayed alive, he would be able to achieve a movement – a certain shift – in the process of change towards becoming a more cosmopolitan society as a whole. (Also, I completely share Diana’s answer to this question.)
    Another thing I found very moving is the pattern of “I told you.” We can read quite often, and it seems to have a moral message. I interpreted this message as an advice to actually listen to people and take other’s ideas into consideration even when we have a different point of view. Refentse did not listen – or not carefully enough – and ended up committing suicide. It is very sad, but… the question comes up again and again: what if he had listened?

  9. Why so ominous. I humbly tend to think that the poor book cover design has in lots of cases predestined the meaning of the title. Gloomy horizonline of the typical urban jungle combined with tasteless Africanesque typefaced title; and the most obvious preindicator in the form of black ribbon almost right away creates the African ghettogulag effect of the notorious ‘Hillbow.’ One shall ask her/himself, what if the publishing house would have used the infamous ‘Welcome to the fabulous Las-Vegas’ sign on the bookcover – would it anyhow affect our judgement?

  10. In reference to contamination and Appiah’s article, I think it demonstrates more than anything that communities are constantly in a state of flux, change. I think if we hold it up to ‘WTOH’, we see promise in not just the ability but the necessity of the community to address its own identification as change descends. Unfortunately, Refilwe will die before any sort of tolerance is ushered in but the idea is that communities are not homogenous but hybrid is important.

    Identity is a messy topic and the fixed ‘worlds’ and identities that are established in the novel, belonging to a particular neighborhood or being a particular ethnicity, these are all treated by the characters, including Refilwe, as if they are fixed. Appiah furthers the case made in the end of the novel that this way of understanding the world is destructive, divisive and frankley, does not represent the make-up of society, especially moving into an increasingly globalised world. He illustrates the idea of belonging to “other worlds” (Appiah) and also being a member of a community. As Refilwe returns to Hillbrow, she is infected by AIDS, has fallen in love with a Makwerekwere and travelled abroad, notions that she might have previously rejected. But there is also a cosmopolitan realisation at the end as the narrator says, “You have come to understand that you too are a Hillbrowan. An Alexandran. A Johannesburger. An Oxfordian. A Lekwerekwere.” (122)

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