The title of Phaswane Mpe’s novel may be Welcome to Our Hillbrow, but the xenophobia, racism and violence featured in the novel have the effect of making the reader want to turn and run the other way. Although this is post apartheid South Africa, the end of apartheid did not mean that all these social issues just magically disappeared, and the novel is, in a way, a criticism of the public’s failure to confront serious issues that hurt individual members of the wider society.
The novel is written in second person, with an unnamed narrator addressing a changing “you”. Indeed, the use of pronouns is extremely important to analyze, for it is through the language used in the novel that the themes of xenophobia and exclusion are delineated. The constantly repeated “our” and “your” serve to establish a distinct yet not very clearly defined group. The most fundamental element in defining a group is not only explicitly stating who is included, but also who is not; if everyone belonged then there is no point in there being a “group” at all. Welcome to our Hillbrow, welcome to our Hillbrow, welcome to our Hillbrow…but whose Hillbrow is it? Many people live in Hillbrow, from those who come from other parts of South Africa, such as Refentse the child of Tiragalong, to those who come from other African countries, the often discriminated against Makwerekwere. The novel takes a stance against this xenophobia through its intentional refusal to properly define “your” and “our.” Is the narrator speaking to Refentse as a “you” who is included with “us” or a “you” that is excluded?
There is a gradual shift in the usage of “our,” for slowly it starts to be applied to more foreign places and more abstract concepts than just the physical place of the Hillbrow: “our Alexandra”, “our Heathrow”, “our Humanity”, etc. This shift is also seen in the shift from the second person “you” that addresses Refentse, to the third person narration of Refilwe’s story, and eventually to the second person “you” addressing Refilwe and the warm “Welcome to Our Heaven.” Do we take this shift to imply a hopeful process of inclusion of the ostracized victims of AIDS? Or is it only a welcome to Heaven, the only haven from South African societies that reject them?
As the story unfolds, we are hit by wave after wave of highly dramatic events, a product of the turbulent times that the people of Hillbrow often xenophobically blame outsiders for:
It used to be fine in Hillbrow, until the Nigerians came. (118)
Xenophobia is a social disease. By repelling people with different identities from other groups, people attempt to protect the purity of their exclusive communities. From this perspective, xenophobia is a fear of fusion, diversity, and change. The exclusiveness or solidarity in this context is quite different from the confusion of identities in Angels in America, in which people from different backgrounds suffer together after being abandoned by God. Racism still exists, but the mixture of identities seem to be so natural that people barely notice it, and don’t need to make an active effort to interact with Others. In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, however, xenophobia is so widespread that people share prejudice towards not only foreigners, but also people from other cultural backgrounds, races, districts, neighborhoods, or even families. The fear of witchcraft is an extreme example. When Refentse’s mother was “necklaced” to die simply because her accidentally slipping into the grave was interpreted as a sign of guilt, it becomes apparent that the paranoia of Tiragalong has reached a horrifying and unreasonable level. They are afraid, extremely afraid of anything remotely different or suspicious even if it is as unbelievable as witchcraft. Both the people of Tiragalong and Hillbrow are guilty of suspecting the other communities of “contaminating” them with social decay, but they forget that
no one in particular can be blamed for the spread of AIDS. That Tiragalong should know well enough that its children are no better than others; the necklacing of witches…cousins stabbing and shooting each other in Alexandra and Hillbrow…Terror raping innocent and defenceless women and girls in our Hillbrow – all these things are enough evidence of that. (123)
The issue with naming presents itself yet again, and the novel is deliberately tainted with euphemisms to show how AIDS was treated in the Hillbrow. Even the author’s expression of his frustration at the way AIDS was discussed was presented through a euphemism:
How does it happen that Hillbrow is so popular, but writers ignore it? you asked.
Oh! I think it’s too notorious for them to handle, an acquaintance had answered one day.
They never saw enough of Hillbrow to be able to try to write about it, another suggested.
You were forced to shrug your shoulders. Nobody appeared to have a convincing answer. 
The Hillbrow possibly acts as a euphemism for AIDS here, showing how discussions about AIDS and sexual intercourse are kept secret. This idea of secrecy allows Mpe to simultaneously provides a critique of post apartheid South Africa’s inability to move past the ineffective and vague language of euphemisms in order to tackle the still prevalent issues of racism, xenophobia and AIDS. When writing a story, Refentse decides to pick English rather than Sepedi, because he “knew the limitations of writing in Sepedi” (59). These limitations refer to the native society’s unwillingness to confront issues of sex and xenophobia. Refilwe realizes that “calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers.”  Euphemisms give characters a chance to make a value judgement on other characters. The difficulty with which issues such as these are accepted in society lead to the dehumanization of AIDS victims, and these euphemisms or inaccurate labels prevent society from accepting universal human values.
References to the syndrome were often hushed even though it was rampant. This has come up in previous texts we have studied, most notably Ibsen’s Ghosts and Kushner’s Angels in America. In Ghosts, the characters are unwilling to confront the social and moral decay that bred Oswald’s disease. Angels in America is highly critical of president Reagan for his refusal to address the AIDS epidemic for several years. Why are people afraid of directly addressing sex and disease? Does speaking about it increase its acceptance, and frequency of occurrence, in society if there are such things as societal standards that need to be adhered to? Conversely, does keeping it hidden prevent society from progressing, by undermining the prevalence of these very real issues in society?
We hope you have enjoyed “our” conveners’ post for this week!
Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.