(Un)Welcome To Our Hillbrow

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?


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  1. Thanks for the great post! I wanted to respond to the question you raise of “why do we turn to xenophobia and us versus them narratives in times of crisis?” I think it’s because people want to assign the blame and origin to someone or something they are familiar with so that they can make sense of the plague. Thus, there is a need to find a “common enemy” to whom they can channel their anxiety as anger and hatred. I find the imagery of the plague as a war, something we saw in Pushkin’s “A feast during the Plague”, quite relevant here. In his song, Walsingham personifies the plague as a night queen to make sense of who is the war against. It seems to me that here during the plague, existing xenophobia offers a very easy target for people’s own war against the plague. Thus, the vulnerable and already oppressed groups are used to provide literally a face and a persona to the plague, and they are used as sinks for all the miseries, anxiety, and frustration of the plague.

    • Yeah I agree with your point. I found that another important function of assigning blame and xenophobia is in how it allows people to form a group in which they feel justified doing it due to their assumed moral (or general) superiority. Targeting already marginalized groups makes it difficult for the accused to fight back and the silence makes it easier to continue the blaming. Given this, stories become a very efficient way of transferring blame, and it seemed like some characters in the story knew and abused the fact (for some reason, I found the bone thrower scene to be very telling).

  2. I really like how your post focused on the themes of migration, foreignness, and xenophobia. It was something that also struck me when I read the first part of the novel. I think something I also noticed is the text’s potential intertextuality in regard to said themes of xenophobia and the foreign. For example, the expression “river of blood” in the quote: “The difference between you and Cousin was that he was a policeman. If you had no problems with Makwerekwere , then that was fine. What could you do anyway, even if you despised them with every drop of the river of blood and other juices that flowed in your body?” It reminded me a lot about Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. The writing style as well, is reminiscent to me of James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew”, which likewise deals with themes of racism and ‘othering’. While the novel is informed by oral tradition, it would be interesting to think about the ways the novel builds on/ appropriates the language of other texts in regards to issues of migration and racism.

  3. I really liked the line “Essentially, the “foreignness” is also the core of what makes Hillbrow, Hillbrow”. This idea of communal values and prejudices contained by the neighborhoods people live in reminded me of a quote from Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” about apartheid in South Africa:

    “In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don’t live with them.”

    Hillbrow is isolated from the larger city of Johannesberg, but it also excludes communities within itself. These multi-layered forms separation has been a major factor influencing contagion, as we saw for instance in Ghost Maps and the isolation of poor villages in Ding Village. I think this further perpetuates the ability of communities to polarize each other’s otherness: the actual physical architecture of these cosmopolitan cities then becomes a key part of what type of “judgment is spread” and who it targets.

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