Apartheid in South Africa may have been eradicated, but its haunting remnants remained. Transition to a postapartheid society led to a host of problems that the South African government have to grapple with: Anti-apartheid people joining the police, labor disputes, criminal violence, conflicts between factions, the HIV-AIDS epidemics damaging a significant part of the population, corruption allegations being raised against their deputy president Zuma in 2005, poor living conditions of their citizens, the 2015 students protests against the increase in university fees. Mpe’s novel is one heavy with the weight of reality; therefore, it is no surprise for us to see W E B Du Bois’s words applied to “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”: “Readers, be assured that this narrative is no fiction.”
As another post (and the opening paragraph on Hillbrow on Wikipedia) points out, “in the 1970s [Hillbrow] was an Apartheid-designated “whites only” area but soon became a “grey area”, where people of different ethnicities lived together. It acquired a cosmopolitan and politically progressive feel, and was one of the first identifiable gay and lesbian areas in urban South Africa. However, due to the mass growth of the population of poor and unemployed black people after the end of Apartheid, crime soared and the streets became strewn with rubbish.” Hillbrow has a deep history… of separation, and then, as seen in the novel, of “togetherness” born out of necessity. Hillbrow is a city of migrants fleeing violence, yet also a city where migrants are loathed.
The negative connotations associated with foreignness in “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” is prevalent and pervasive. It is evident through the repetitive use of the derogatory term makwerekwere, often used to describe black foreigners from other African countries (especially Nigerians). It is also prevalent in the description of AIDS and how it is caused by “foreign germs” that are “transported” from Western and Central Africa. Even the disagreements and tensions regarding support for sport teams is rooted in supporting foreign teams, especially those from elsewhere in Africa. The moral decay of Hillbrow is even claimed to be the result of foreigners, “Hillbrow had been just fine until those Nigerians came in here with all their drug dealing” (17). The idea of foreignness as an evil does not only manifest in the contagion of AIDs. It manifests in every dimension of life in Hillbrow. Foreignness is perceived an “other” that decays life even though it also makes Hillbrow what it is, “…there are very few Hillbrowans, if you think about it, who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages…many of the makwerekwere you accuse of this and that are no different to us – sojourners…” (18). Essentially, the “foreignness” is also the core of what makes Hillbrow, Hillbrow. This leads us to question, how and when does something that defines what a community is, become othered? What is the criteria for being regarded as “foreign”?
In the novel, the themes of xenophobia and contagion are inextricably linked, serving as a haunting parallel to the current COVID-19 crisis and how it unleashed prejudice against specific racial/ethnic groups around the world. During COVID-19, what began as casual racism about the “China virus” slowly intensified into intense xenophobia against people of Asian origin across the United States, as illustrated by this article. Concerningly, this phenomenon was not isolated to the U.S alone. In fact, xenophobia and scapegoating particular communities for the virus became common in several countries. In China, this manifested as racism towards Black expatriates, who were barred from shops during the crisis, and routinely evicted from their homes as they were blamed for spreading the virus. Similarly, in India, it cropped up as intense islamophobia, where Muslims were targeted as a community and perceived as spreaders. Lubnah’s recent short documentary from this summer encapsulates the blatant prejudice and vitriol that became commonplace on every Indian WhatsApp chat at the outset of the pandemic.
These parallels of xenophobia make it obvious that societies have a tendency to scapegoat certain populations, and more importantly, that these infections are simply used as covers for underlying racism. This also raises some pertinent questions: why do we turn to xenophobia and us versus them narratives in times of crisis? How does contagion, in particular, lend itself to prejudiced sentiments?
As a previous Convener’s post pointed out, the city’s most destructive contagion might be “spread of judgement,” including its xenophobia, or its spread of gossip and superstition. In a city plagued by death, crime, blatant xenophobia, visited by AIDS, vulnerable to superstition and gossip, where does the origin of this contagion lie? Is it a city of multiple contagion? This idea brings up a very crucial point about Hillbrow which is its insistence on stories. The residents are surrounded by stories at all times – the “informal” news about the city, including the news about the origin of AIDS, comes from the “migrant grapevine,” Refentse’s cousin insists on assigning stories of blame to the migrants seeking refuge in Hillbrow, Refentse’s own death is altered by Refilwe shifting his story at his funeral, Refentse’s mother is also murdered because the story of witchcraft being imposed on her.
These are only a few examples from the first two chapters, but it seems like stories have the capability of changing lives in the city of Hillbrow. Which raises the question, where do these stories come from? Moreover, the migrants bring their stories with them to a city which already seems to be inundated with stories, their new stories don’t seem to get space in Hillbrow, on the contrary, does the city force itself together by the violent imposition of its existing stories on everyone who walks through its streets? What role do stories play in ‘uniting’ the city — or in doing just the opposite? Do these stories stem from the already separated, disjointed nature of the city, broken by its history? Can such a city begin to heal from its stories, and therefore its contagion that has tied everyone together? What does healing even look like?