Thoughts on Hillbrow

A distinctive feature that separates this novel from our previous readings is its narrative voice, as briefly mentioned in the past convener’s post. It is second person, omniscient narrative, in which the narrator addresses the protagonist, Refentse, as “you”. In the first part of the novel, the narrator walks the readers through Refentse’s experience in Hillbrow:

Then you arrived in Hillbrow, Refentse, to witness it all for yourself; and come up with your own story, if you could. You came to be a witness, because your cousin, with whom you were going to stay until you found student accommodation at the University, stayed in Hillbrow, although not exactly in the center of the action. (Mpe 6)

One possible effect of this second person narrative is subtly drawing the readers into the plot, making us feel as if the narrator is addressing us and put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist.

In other places in the novel, the narrator not only gives information on the behavior and thoughts of the characters but also reveals personal opinion from a detached point of view—when the narrator discusses the reason for the difference between Refentse and his cousin, for example (20).

What are the effects of second person, omniscient narrative shown in this novel? What could be Mpe’s purposes in this particular type of narration? Are they achieved throughout the novel?

The novel starts off by presenting Refentse as the protagonist. It doesn’t take long, however, until the readers realize that our protagonist is soon to be (or already) dead, facing “the blank wall of suicide” (25). Then the later part of this novel deals with how people around Refentse behave after his death, rather than continuing to recount the life of Refentse when he was alive. As the chapter “Refilwe” begins, the focus of this story shifts to this past “Bone of Heart” of Refentse—her life after his death is thoroughly narrated in the consecutive chapters. At the end of the novel, the narrator no longer addresses Refilwe with third person pronoun.

Refilwe, you were very grieved by this show. You felt sorry for those who loved you so much and expressed it so openly. You knew it was not  intentional that they should depress you (119).

It seems that Refilwe is now the protagonist of this second person narrative—in fact, she is the only round character in this novel who went through significant transformation. Once a xenophobic Hillbrowan, Refilwe became a cosmopolitan citizen who “no longer hide behind bias against Makwerekwere” and “do not blame them for troubles in life” (122).

Who do you think is the real protagonist of this novel? How can we elucidate this dichotomous narration?

One natural consequence of the narrator not being directly present as a character in the plot is that everything is told as it has been heard and seen, in the form of storytelling and rumors.

It is interesting to note that the people of Tiragalong are referred to as a whole as “Tiragalong”, uniting them as one organism that thinks and responds together:

“Tiragalong’s story was constructed when your mother slipped and fell into your grave on that hot Saturday morning of your burial. As Tiragalong believed, only witches could fall into a corpse’s grave on burial.” (43)

Because the people believe and act as one entity, rumors play a large role in determining their reactions.  Xenophobia and superstitions are the fundamental driving forces of the rumors, causing them to “[drink] in the scandal eagerly” (44). Rumors propagated by fear lead to various interpretations of Refentse’s death and also cause some subsequent deaths, such as the death of Refentse’s mother and Tschepo’s neighbor.

“So in your story, as in real life, Tiragalong danced because its xenophobia — its fear of and hatred for both black non-South Africans and Johannesburgers — was vindicated.” (55)

What does it mean to refer to an entire group of people as a proper noun? Are the traditional beliefs of Tiragalong responsible for the rumors and the consequences that follow? Or are they caused more by fear of the unknown?

The rampant prejudice, euphemism, and social classifications in Welcome to Our Hillbrow reflect the entrenched effects of apartheid and oppressive state control over South Africans. As a result of a governmental system that bestowed benefits and value based on skin color, within the post-apartheid black community of Hillbrow derogatory divisions remain. Black Africans originally from countries outside South Africa are derided as “Makwerekwere”, interracial romance is labeled as mental illness, AIDS is often referred to euphemistically and scornfully — “Is it not known what the fruit of sin is?” (112). Language is even systematically policed, erasing cultural characteristics and therefore denying the value of those cultures.

“She did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse. She had not anticipated that the publishers’ reviewers would brand her novel vulgar. Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for educational publishers, and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems that they served.” (56)

Therein lies evidence of a flawed system that “criminalize[s]… linguistic honesty” and legitimizes certain cultural practices and languages instead of others. The novel’s characters acutely experience this systemic oppression, as the literary aspirations of Refentse and Refilwe are marginalized and devalued.

How does this demonization and isolation of an “other”, especially to create a scapegoat for a complicated epidemic, present itself in other texts we’ve discussed? What role does euphemism play in disseminating both contagious bodily disease and an epidemic of distrust and rumor?

-Mina, JooHee, Annie



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  1. The townspeople are referred to as being a single entity, “Tiragalong”. They act as one, reacting in the same way, clinging to a set of superstitions that allow them to comprehend, on a puerile level, the events that transpire throughout the novel. Because each “individual” is no different from the next in his/her beliefs and reasoning, the author sees it fit to classify the people of Tiragalong as “Tiragalong”. This narrative device can be contrasted with the second-person omniscient point-of-view and how the narrator dresses “you”, the reader. By addressing the reader/Refentse/Refilwe as “you” the narrator is making the distinction between “Tiragalong” and those characters, including the reader, who not only are important to the story but are different in many ways. Refentse, Refilwe and, presumably, the reader are intellectuals who don’t belong in the mass of confused, superstitious townspeople that is “Tiragalong”.

    Superstition is a defining feature of Tiragalong. When Refentse commits suicide Tiragalong explains it by claiming his mother cursed him. The fact that Tiragalong seems to ignore reality altogether has a large effect on the way in which AIDS is regarded. The reality of AIDS as a serious threat to the wellbeing of society is seemingly overlooked when one realises that Tiragalong obsesses over witchcraft and superstition. The contrast drawn between superstition and the harsh reality of AIDS is interesting when looking at the context of the novel.

    Finally, when reading the novel I was reminded of the film District 9 which plays on the theme of apartheid by depicting a South Africa with a group of alien refugees. In the film the society of aliens is, similar to Welcome to Our Hillbrow, classified as a single entity: “Prawn”. While the plot strays somewhat from that of the novel, it is an interesting take on the subject of apartheid.

  2. When reading the novel, I personally felt like I was confronted with hypocrisy time and time again. For instance, the xenophobic attitudes of the non-Makwerekwere towards the immigrant from other African nations is quite self-righteous when considered in the light of the Aparheid and what the black South Africans had to do in order to save their lives and hide from the raging segregation. “Makwerekwere were fleeing their war-torn countries to seek sanctuary here in our country, in the same way that many South Africans were forced into exile in Zambia, Zaire, Nigeria and other African and non-African countries during the Apartheid era.” (p. 18-19) And yet somehow this simple truth is forgotten when it comes to the mysterious “other,” as you mention in your post. Another obvious instance of hypocritical behaviour is Refentse living with his cousin. In a way, his relative stands for everything Refentse seems to condemn: xenophobia, violence, corruption, ignorance and prejudice. Cousin, being a policeman, asked the Makwerekwere for bribes and the women who couldn’t pay compensated the police for their existence by “dispensing under-waist bliss,” another masterfully crafted euphemism. (p. 21) He also seems to have been an agent of the Apartheid government, he knew the “historical details” all too well “since he himself was the part of the interrogating police force” that ‘taught ‘the prisoners ‘how to fly.’ (p. 19) In discussing this the narrator is indeed ‘judgy,’ and here we can start to tackle the issue of the omniscient narrator’s subjectivity. “You were, despite your disapproval of his action, a beneficiary of his activities. Like so many people were beneficiaries.” (p. 21) What do you think the novel has to say about inaction in the face of oppression? What does it mean to implicitly participate in the discrimination and xenophobia simply by keeping you mouth shut? In my personal opinion, it seem that the theme of hypocrisy and its devastating consequences is an integral part of the novel, a topic that perhaps we did not get the chance to develop extensively.

    • I agree with your point about hypocrisy. I would like to draw attention to the following quotation, which also demonstrates the hypocrisy of the xenophobic attitude: “Cousin insisted that people should remain in their own countries and try to sort out the problems of these respective countries, rather than fleeing them; South Africa had too many problems of its own.” (pg 20).

      However, this quote raises another issue that we haven’t discussed much in lectures: if we acknowledge the existence of a modern global society, what’s the responsibility of other nations (or cities, provinces, etc) in helping a region ravaged by disease? This may be a way to incorporate into our discussions the ongoing spread of Ebola in West Africa.

      In addition, this relation between migration and disease can be linked to Kushner’s Angels in America, in which it was suggested that mankind’s movement caused God’s apathy towards the suffering of humanity ie the plagues.

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