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.
The novel takes a stance against this xenophobia through its intentional refusal to properly define “your” and “our.”
I love the way you put that. Lots of good stuff to talk about here today!
Dear Abhi, Rosy, and Yan,
Great post! I agree with the fact that “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” is an ironic title in the sense that it is welcoming us and / or Refentse to not only the actual place, its institutions, and its people, but also to what is to come. The future that it holds for Refentse is not a pleasant one as he commits suicide which had me thinking about why the narrator continues to narrate the words: “Welcome to our Hillbrow” even after he or she acknowledged that Refentse had died. It is as though the narrator is telling Refentse that “you should have known better” and “you knew this would happen coming to a place like this.” It is true that he obtained a degree but he was then shunned by the community for committing suicide. With that being said, it is as if there is a chilling and sarcastic tone to the title especially with the word “our.” The author could have said “Welcome to Hillbrow” instead. Why do you think the author puts the word “our” in the title and throughout the story? What significance does it give? Does the meaning change if we just say: “Welcome to Hillbrow?” Is it because of the xenophobia, racism, and violence, which you mention, that gives Hillbrow some subjectivity and thus, calling it “our Hillbrow” makes more sense?
You also mention the words “you” and “our” and how it plays a role in creating a distinct group (insiders) and excluding a group (outsiders), which, I believe, is important. The values and ideologies in Hillbrow are different from Tiragalong and this is especially because the people living in Hillbrow come from different places. I think this plays a role in calling it “our Hillbrow” because it is a shared space (which could be why xenophobia exists), and therefore, it is not anyone’s Hillbrow (to answer your question on who’s Hillbrow is it). Moreover, many share the same ideologies, which also explains the use of the word “our.” Moreover, because Refentse was incapable of handling “our Hillbrow” (i.e. committing suicide), the “you” that is referred to him is considered as a “you” which implies exclusion. Though, the gradual shift of the word “our,” in my opinion, gives hope to include victims of AIDS and everyone else so the Hillbrow can be a safe haven for them (although eventually).
The reason I say eventually at the end of the last paragraph is because it is evident how euphemisms are still apparent which shows how AIDS was thought of in Hillbrow. Do you think euphemisms give off the same meaning as the actual word itself (denotation and connotation)? The negative implications are apparent (such as the dehumanization of the victims of AIDS, like you mentioned) but what are the positive implications of using euphemisms? Does it help an individual get their message across safely, just like Mpe who chose to write in English and who you say tackles sensitive topics like racism, xenophobia, and AIDS? To answer your last questions, I believe that people are afraid to address subjects such as xenophobia, AIDS, and racism because they do not want to be associate with something that is frowned upon and causes others harm. Another reason is that one could mistakenly be seen as supporting something when he or she is merely indifferent to it. As a result, to avoid being put in such situations and be rejected by the community, people choose not to speak about it. Furthermore, these topics could also be deliberately avoided because some people personally do not accept it. In my opinion, keeping topics and opinions hidden does prevent society from progressing because one cannot progress when he or she does not know of it (i.e. that which hinders progression).
Thanks & Regards
Mahra Al Suwaidi
I do agree with you about the “chilling and sarcastic tone to the title especially with the word ‘our.'” It felt like the more we find out about Hillbrow, with all its crime and violence, the less welcoming it is. Another thing you inspired me to consider is the lonely aspect of Refentse’s suffering, and how it could have been emphasized with the repeated “our.” While I don’t think the narrator intends to tell Refentse “you should have known better” I do agree that the repetition of “our” and “your” serves to further isolate Refentse from his mother, home community, etc.
To answer the part about euphemisms, I personally don’t feel that euphemisms are a suitable replacement for the explicit original meaning for two reasons. The first is that speaking (and writing) in euphemisms about a certain problem prevents one from truly getting at the root of the problem, and therefore fixing it. If societies and governments are going to shy away from openly discussing sex and AIDS then it is impossible for any constructive dialogue to take place. In Ghosts for example, the characters often let their words trail off when discussing sensitive topics, and they therefore never openly address urgent issues. Second, although I don’t know much about the publication history of Welcome to Our Hillbrow, I feel that writing in English was not particularly helpful in tackling the sensitive topics where they needed to be brought up. By writing in English, Mpe might have alienated the Sepedi speakers of South Africa who would have most benefited from a discussion on the AIDS epidemic, rather than students like us who ultimately cannot do much to change the situation. However, I will end on a disclaimer and say that I don’t know enough about the novel’s publication and translation to provide a definitive opinion.
Thank you very much for your thought provoking comment Mahra! I look forward to seeing you tomorrow and continuing this discussion.
I have really enjoyed reading your post, you have raised some very good points about the language used and the narrator voice. However a significant deal of novel talks about suicide and betrayl. Why do u guys think the event thay the person being addressed by the narration is watching over this epidermis from heaven. Does this signify anything in regards to xenophobia and Aids? Also the theme of betrayl is an underlying theme in this novel. Why does the writer keeps referring to these series of betrayls, what does that mean?
Hey Abhi, Rosy, and Yan,
Good job on the post! I agree with Mahra, the title and the repetition of “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” is definitely ironic. It’s strange how the narrator keeps reminding us (and Refentse) that we are “welcome”, which usually has a pleasing connotation. However, we are said to be “welcome” to this violent, dangerous and really unwelcoming place. As you guys pointed out, the people of Hillbrow are xenophobic, which means they dislike foreign people and thus do not really “welcome” them to their county. This adds to the irony and the paradox of the phrase “Welcome to Our Hillbrow.” Another way of seeing why the narrator continuously says “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” is that this repetition could suggest that the narrator is frustrated by the reality of this town. It’s like saying: “unfortunately, that’s how people live here and this is the sad truth.” The narrator seems to be annoyed and condemns everything about Hilbrow and when he/she reiterates, “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” the narrator really means, “Welcome to Reality.”
This reality could be the real nature of life in Hillbrow or maybe the real nature of human nature in general. The narrator could have meant to say, “oh this is how people behave here, this is how humans treat other humans, this is an example of how brutal and cruel human beings can be.” In addition, the issues of xenophobia, racism and violence that the novel addresses as being part of Hillbrow seem like they can be universal. Hillbrow is not the only place where racism and violence is a problem and the fact that the novel is written in second person with words like “you” and “your” means that it includes us as well. So what happens in this novel could be mapped to the whole world in a sense that it discusses universal issues that everyone has to deal with. Therefore, “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”, in a way, could be seen as “Welcome to the real world.” The novel includes various criticisms of such social issues in Hillbrow, as you mention at the very beginning of the post. Maybe Phaswane Mpe was also criticizing the rest of the world for not solving the problems of the past or at least those that were thought to have disappeared by today. I like how you say: “The novel takes a stance against this xenophobia through its intentional refusal to properly define “your” and “our”” because it fits into the idea that the novel denounces these values of Hillbrow, especially xenophobia. It destroys the “us vs. them” notion that the people of Hillbrow lived upon.
On the topic of euphemisms, I agree with Rosy because euphemisms stray people away from the truth and from facing reality. We saw how suppressing what is really happening and ignoring some sensitive issues can be very problematic in Ibsen’s Ghosts. As Rosy points out, the characters in Ghosts avoided speaking about sensitive issues and that has left the Alving family in particular with a huge pile of lies and secrets that eventually ruined their lives. I guess euphemisms could be considered “okay” when someone is addressing an issue that they are indifferent about as Mahra said. People who are unwilling to put themselves in unpleasant places, like in a position where others will attack them for what they said, would prefer to use a sort of euphemism to express their opinions on topics.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful post! It is a really interesting comment on the interpretation of “welcome to the reality” and I definitely agree with you that Mpe may also address the readers by using the second person. Moreover, I’ve been asked the question “who is you” while I was reading this book. Simply Refentse? Simply the character of this fiction? Is it possible for him to try to directly talk to his readers, the potential or real-life Refentse? That is, many people may share similar characteristics as Refentse, who steps out of his exclusive community but fails to bravely face the reality to some extent. Suicide is an extreme act, but people in real life may make similar (though more moderate) decisions while facing their dilemmas. From this perspective, Hillbrow can reflect many communities or neighborhoods in current world. These real-life examples are unnecessary to be as violent or messy as Hillbrow, but definitely share some essential characteristics and core values.
Talking about euphemism, I also agree with your comment. Though sometimes people all know what actually happens, they share an interesting mutual agreement to prevent from talking about the event. In the context you mentioned, people refuse to speak the exact words out to protect themselves from unpleasant situations. They are not brave enough to face the reality yet. Therefore, they wishes to close their eyes to pretend that they can see nothing and know nothing. They are all ostriches who are willing to deceit themselves in this unacceptable world.