Convener’s Post – Welcome to Our Hillbrow

Hillbrow- Johannesburg
‘Hillbrow – Johannesburg’ – watercolour by Grand Maghandlela

Phaswane Mpe’s novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow depicts life in the downtrodden communities of post-apartheid South Africa.  In his book, he presents the stories of lives cut short by the ravages of sex, disease, and crime that appear to echo his own experiences in these neighbourhoods.  Despite the prevalence of death, however, Mpe seems to argue that the most destructive contagion of all is the spread of judgement.

The novel revolves around the importance and weight of “inner-city status”, which then ties into topics of gossip, contraction of AIDS, and their relation to contagion theory. Your inner-city status is largely dependent on what the public knows about you: your actions, your doings, and your relation to other people. We see the transition of Refentse’s reputation throughout the novel, from being an educated and respected individual in the city’s eyes, to being seen as a traitor to his family after his suicide. Contracting AIDS also brings about bad news to a person’s reputation in Hillbrow. Since it is difficult to hide from the public eye that a person has contracted AIDS, it amplifies the gossip and attention that goes around about that person, and suddenly you don’t hear the end of the many different stories being spread around, even after death. This is evident through Refilwe’s final moments in Tiragalong after coming back from Oxford, having found out she’s had HIV for a decade then. Public judgments are even worse for those who are seen or heard to be associated with people from other countries, thus including xenophobic discrimination in the public’s repertoire of gossip. The question to ask here is how does the impact of inner-city status, the movement of gossip, and the contraction of AIDS, relate to our knowledge of contagion theory?

Gossip spreads through misinformation, and stories are told with no concern for facts. Often, stories push the plot forward by the characters being told inaccurate gossip or not being told at all. Such as with Refentse’s suicide, the story that gets created around the reasons he had for dying, and the repercussions in everybody’s lives after his death. Narratives and storytelling serve as a central point in the development of the novel. The narrator remains focused on Refentse (addressing him as ‘you’) throughout most of the novel up to the last two chapters: “Refilwe on the Move” and “The Returnee,” where the focus and the ‘you’ changes to Refilwe. What is the importance of this shift in the narrator? What do we make of the fact that Refentse is dead before the novel starts?

An important detail to highlight about Refentse is the fact that he writes a story about a woman who also writes a story, and both their stories focus on the same: a “story of Hillbrow and xenophobia and AIDS and the nightmares of rural lives.” This duplicity invites to see not only the mirroring between Refentse and the protagonist of his story, but also between Refentse’s story and Phaswane Mpe’s own novel. How does one make sense of this mirroring in relation to the novel?

Mpe describes a complex society that is accustomed to extreme everyday trials.  While the beauty of sexual expression is seen through blossoming loves between Bones of the Heart, Mpe also warns of the severe consequences and excessive social disapproval of this sexual liberation.  The HIV/AIDS epidemic also serves as a backdrop for the book, with this disease and those afflicted by it being framed as ill-understood yet healthily scorned by their communities. Furthermore, the prevalence of senseless violence, alarming drug use, and appalling sexual exploitation threaten peace in prosperity for the people of Hillbrow.  How does Mpe use the deaths of his characters to draw attention to these evils affecting his community? What other techniques does he use to comment on the role of xenophobia, hearsay, and status in his society?


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  1. I definitely agree that the spread of judgment in correlation to disease often come hand in hand. The presence of migrants in this situation heightens the possibility of even more judgment. What is interesting is that throughout history migrants are consistently blamed for changes that happen in a society or even negative events that occur simultaneously in their appearance. This repetitive negative connotation to people of another culture creates the idea that all migrants are “bad” or “dangerous”. This happens because countries want to preserve their traditions and keep their line of descendants “pure”. This need to protect one’s identity in the case of migration results in the destruction of another culture in the process. After a group of migrants settle down in a country, their cultural identity is almost always diluted by the environment around them. In my opinion, this is the case of the current UAE population today. While many of us have ancestry from Iran, India, parts or eastern Asia and parts of Africa and so much more, we are often told to bury these facts and take on the identity of an Emirati. While it is a wonderful thing that so many people have managed to unite and create a new union, it’s sad that this comes at the price of rejecting our true ethnic descent. This brings up the questions how should we handle this judgment towards those who are different than us and how can we learn to accept our true identities?

    • I think you are pointing to a very important discussion of what the novel does when it comes to immigrants. You are right to bring up the xenophobia that migrants encounter as outsiders in a place that is not “their own.” It is an experience of Othering, but also the possibility of new perspectives.

      In the novel, there are various parts when Tiragalong and Alexandra are said to either be as Hillbrow or part of it, in one part the narrator says “Welcome to our Tiragalong in Johannesburg.” There is a sense that places are not that different from each other, and behaviours in one place replicate themselves in another, so that migrants bring something and experience something different: the “purity” of both the migrant and the new place are influenced by one another.

      Your example of the UAE is great, considering the cultural changes the UAE goes through due to its population: as you point out, many Emiratis are not “pure” Emirati, usually having roots from elsewhere, but you abandon those roots to take up the identity of “Emirati.” I think, for the non-Emirati population of the UAE, the identity that you are forced to take changes depending on where you’re from, and judgment will change accordingly: there are expats and there are immigrants, and both those roles have to perform something different and are perceived differently.

      When migrating, migrants take their culture and have to adapt it to their new residences. As for how to handle judgment, the problem seems to be notions of “purity.” As regards identities, the problem you pose raises another question for me: how do we define identity, particularly with regards to “true” identities? How does one account for change?

  2. This post brings up a lot of interesting issues about Welcome to Our Hillbrow. In particular, I was intrigued by the ‘story within a story’ narrative that you mentioned as I think that it makes the reader reflect on their own thoughts and behavior regarding xenophobia and AIDS. This story brings forth yet another way in which social hierarchies are built and some people are ostracized. The black populations in South Africa have been stripped of their local languages as writing in Sepedi and other local languages came with certain “limitations” (59). This is particularly relevant in today’s global context, where English dominates many local languages in the world. Even in the case of the UAE, English is becoming increasingly used in the workplace and among the youth. While the English language offers a lot of opportunities, local languages such as Arabic in the UEA, are a unique source of cultural heritage. What are the implications of speaking English in the context of South Africa and beyond?

    Speaking of languages, a lot of the works we have been discussing in this class are actually translations from other languages, including the Decameron, The Plague, and Ghosts. This brings up the question of how is meaning lost and created in translations?

    • You bring up an interesting perspective of what determines opening of opportunities in the world today, even specifically in Hillbrow and South Africa. It is quite striking how English is so detrimental to our finding career opportunities that would grant us a more successful life for ourselves and our own families to support. Sometimes the question is why English in particular, when really it is considered a significantly difficult language to learn aside from our own mother tongue. The topic of language as well really brings us back to the perspective of how this novel is written in the context of writing stories and their impact of such, especially since it has been written in English than in the author’s native tongue. It is also interesting how you bring that back to the context we are physically in, being in the UAE where even though the native tongue is Arabic, English is predominantly spoken. It makes us speculate how similar each country is in terms of the path people have to take in order to predict being more successful in later life.

  3. Great questions/comments, both! They’ll be relevant to our “what are we doing here” discussion if we ever have it!

  4. The point about xenophobia and status is a very valid one. Xenophobia in the novel is a stronger contagion and is spread through saying bad things about immigrants. Having been a victim of xenophobia, this novel hits close to home. The novel shows how hatred for immigrants led to ignoring facts such as South Africans being hosted by other countries during apartheid and their indigenes, instead of immigrants, committing or enabling crime blamed on immigrants (23). There is something Mpe doesn’t say about xenophobia–efforts to stop the killings and hatred. It is a message that there isn’t much being done to end the killings. Refentse’s death before the story begins highlights the point that nothing has changed or no difference has been made since the time he left.
    Mpe’s book was first published in 2001 and xenophobia is still going strong in South Africa, till date. Just as Mpe shows that nothing is being done to change it. Here is a video ( of a recent attack in 2019 (viewer’s caution is advised). There is a strong political side to the xenophobic contagion, as it involves South African government and other governments. The Nigerian government responded ( in 2015 by withdrawing diplomatic missions from South Africa but this action was followed by retaliation from South Africa and a back and forth retaliation from both governments.

    • Thanks for those resources, Jessica. I didn’t know about ongoing diplomatic disputes between the two governments. I’m interested here, too, by the argument made (in the post I published the other day) about contagion as a figure for connection. Is there an implication that xenophobia, as contagion, also connects us? Is this, perhaps, an ironic sense of connection? Does Mpe’s novel do anything to reconfigure our perspective on it?

  5. What is interesting to me is the narrative’s resistance to time. As the introduction to the novel suggests, Mpe does so intentionally, recalling an oral tradition. Meanwhile, there is an extremely apparent emphasis on space instead — roads, intersections, different sections of the city. Meanwhile, we aren’t guided temporally in a linear tautological manner as we are spatially.

    For me, space has more potential to communicate a message. Space reveals information about social class, habits, inclinations, relationships, and more; time, on the other hand, seems more limited to me — at least in the context of this novel. It is enough to situate the narrative is some sort of historical moment, which contextualizes and roots the novel and the issues it discusses, but the role of time ends about there. So, I wonder whether focusing on space rather than time is simply a citation of oral tradition, or is it also used to indirectly characterize the characters and situate them in their world?

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