Welcome to Our Hillbrow bring us to the dichotomous world of post-apartheid South Africa, into the neighbourhood of Hillbrow where problems abound and inequality is made even more apparent.
In our previous reading in this course, one of the conflicts that Yan Lianke paints a strong image of in his The Dream of Ding Village novel is a struggling community, that however, possesses a very strong sense of belonging. As demonstrated in the example of Genbao (an unmarried man who contracted the fever) who tricked a girl from another village into marrying him, the community of Ding Village felt no responsibility to protect the “outsider girl” from unknowingly marrying a sick person. They were willing to establish the school quarantine to protect their community, but not a person from outside.
Such an ‘US versus THEM’ mentality was even more prevalent in the novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow, in which the postapartheid South African society is fractured in polarized groups: the whites, the villagers, the immigrants, the ones who contracted the illness from monkeys, the ones who spread it with active sexual lives, the Johanessburgers, the Hillbrowans… All of whom have very strict and rigid ideas about each other: “Your mother knew that all Hillbrow women were prostitutes [… but she] had never been to Hillbrow.”(39).
As Bryan quoted Emily Davis in his old conveners’ post: “We are all potentially or already sick without exposure to foreigners; one can become infected without ever leaving home”. Why is it so that we keep coming back to drawing rigid lines of belongs and who does not? Who decides where is this line? Why do we keep looking for external causes of our internal problems?
“Welcome to our Hillbrow,” intones the omniscient unnamed narrator. But who’s the “our”? What people own Hillbrow, this mass of “drug use and misuse, the grime and crime” (25)? Hillbrow, as a big-city neighborhood, is often put in juxtaposition with the village of Tiragalong. The village is home for the book’s central characters, Refentše and Refilwe, and at the beginning it’s clear Refilwe clearly demarcates between Tirangalong villagers and Hillbrowans, yet she gradually comes to share Refentše’s opinion that “the people of Tirangalong were, in fact, no better or worse than Johannesburgers…Hillbrowans were not merely the tiny section of the population who were born and grew up in our Hillbrow, but people from all over the country, and other countries — people like herself, in fact — who entered our Hillbrow with all sorts of good and evil intentions” (96).
When people from all over come to Hillbrow, what does it mean to be Hillbrowan, to identify as part of this community? Are these people banded together by their Hillbrow identity? What does it mean when “Welcome to our Hillbrow” becomes “Welcome to our Alexandra…Welcome to our Tiragalong in Johannesburg” (79)? What does “Hillbrow in Hillbrow. Hillbrow in Cape Town. Cape Town in Hillbrow. Oxford in both. Both in Oxford. Welcome to our All…” (104) signify? What are the differences between these communities? Is there a difference?
On the other hand, another thing we can consider, too, is how heaven plays a significant role within the narrative of Welcome to Our Hillbrow. The omniscient narrator addresses Refentše in heaven and over the course of the novel, many more characters join him in this abode beyond earth. In the novel, heaven is described as a place that ‘afford you the benefit of retrospect and omniscience’ and a ‘world of our continuing existence located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us.’ Thus, this is different from the typical notion of heaven and hell as a final resting place for the righteous and wicked respectively. Rather, heaven exists in the minds of the living through the stories that are told about us. Refentše loses his agency to impact what’s happening on earth from his vantage point in heaven, showing us the lack of control we have over the stories that are told about us. Once it spreads it is not under the control of any one individual but the story itself becomes a living, growing, changing entity unto itself which lives on long after we’re gone.