What Happens When We Die?

“What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?”
“I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”

Welcome to Our Hillbrow bring us to the dichotomous world of post-apartheid South Africa, into the neighbourhood of Hillbrow where problems abound and inequality is made even more apparent.

In our previous reading in this course, one of the conflicts that Yan Lianke paints a strong image of in his The Dream of Ding Village novel is a struggling community, that however, possesses a very strong sense of belonging. As demonstrated in the example of Genbao (an unmarried man who contracted the fever) who tricked a girl from another village into marrying him, the community of Ding Village felt no responsibility to protect the “outsider girl” from unknowingly marrying a sick person. They were willing to establish the school quarantine to protect their community, but not a person from outside. 

Such an ‘US versus THEM’ mentality was even more prevalent in the novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow, in which the postapartheid South African society is fractured in polarized groups: the whites, the villagers, the immigrants, the ones who contracted the illness from monkeys, the ones who spread it with active sexual lives, the Johanessburgers, the Hillbrowans…  All of whom have very strict and rigid ideas about each other: “Your mother knew that all Hillbrow women were prostitutes [… but she] had never been to Hillbrow.”(39).

As Bryan quoted Emily Davis in his old conveners’ post: “We are all potentially or already sick without exposure to foreigners; one can become infected without ever leaving home”. Why is it so that we keep coming back to drawing rigid lines of belongs and who does not? Who decides where is this line? Why do we keep looking for external causes of our internal problems? 

“Welcome to our Hillbrow,” intones the omniscient unnamed narrator. But who’s the “our”? What people own Hillbrow, this mass of “drug use and misuse, the grime and crime” (25)? Hillbrow, as a big-city neighborhood, is often put in juxtaposition with the village of Tiragalong. The village is home for the book’s central characters, Refentše and Refilwe, and at the beginning it’s clear Refilwe clearly demarcates between Tirangalong villagers and Hillbrowans, yet she gradually comes to share Refentše’s opinion that “the people of Tirangalong were, in fact, no better or worse than Johannesburgers…Hillbrowans were not merely the tiny section of the population who were born and grew up in our Hillbrow, but people from all over the country, and other countries — people like herself, in fact — who entered our Hillbrow with all sorts of good and evil intentions” (96).

When people from all over come to Hillbrow, what does it mean to be Hillbrowan, to identify as part of this community? Are these people banded together by their Hillbrow identity? What does it mean when “Welcome to our Hillbrow” becomes “Welcome to our Alexandra…Welcome to our Tiragalong in Johannesburg” (79)? What does “Hillbrow in Hillbrow. Hillbrow in Cape Town. Cape Town in Hillbrow. Oxford in both. Both in Oxford. Welcome to our All…” (104) signify? What are the differences between these communities? Is there a difference? 

On the other hand, another thing we can consider, too, is how heaven plays a significant role within the narrative of Welcome to Our Hillbrow. The omniscient narrator addresses Refentše in heaven and over the course of the novel, many more characters join him in this abode beyond earth. In the novel, heaven is described as a place that ‘afford you the benefit of retrospect and omniscience’ and a ‘world of our continuing existence located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us.’ Thus, this is different from the typical notion of heaven and hell as a final resting place for the righteous and wicked respectively. Rather, heaven exists in the minds of the living through the stories that are told about us. Refentše loses his agency to impact what’s happening on earth from his vantage point in heaven, showing us the lack of control we have over the stories that are told about us. Once it spreads it is not under the control of any one individual but the story itself becomes a living, growing, changing entity unto itself which lives on long after we’re gone. 


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  1. Valid points. It is significant to note the “us versus them” dichotomy in the storyline and the usage of ‘our’ in the repetitive welcoming phrase which indicates the tension between insiders and outsiders. So, does that mean that there is a constructed identity which identifies an insider from an outsider of Hillbrow? If yes, then there is some sort of marginalization going on between two groups of communities living in the same city. This idea certainly ties back to the story in Dream of Ding Village of community, people, and togetherness which are themes in fighting disease. Calamities tend to bring people closer who work together and cooperate to achieve safety and security – it is in human nature. It is appealing to me the idea of being infected even if you are within your safe zone. It drives me to think how do these diseases or ideas travel to reach you even if you are protected. What are the ‘hidden’ networks there if they exist?

  2. I like this post because it covers a lot of bases. I am really interested in the narrative style, and in this post it is touched on several times. The use of a seemingly limited narrator who actually does know the whole story, but only reveals little by little to the reader the full story. Then the sudden jump into heaven, even though it is described as the place we exist in the minds and hearts of those who live on, this is almost contradictory to what actually happens in the novel, which is that after Refentše and Refilwe pass, they are actually mis-remembered, as in, they are remembered as being these terrible people who were corrupted and abandoned their homes, people who got what they deserved in other words. This is a gross misremembering, and in fact the mythology which Refilwe for example becomes is quite contradictory to how she actually thinks of herself in the novel, as a woman who loved and made a choice and was not to blame for the outcome, etc. Heaven, however, offers retrospect, which is something discussed throughout the novel, the “if” comes up often to suggest that things could have been different the entire time, but this ‘if’ alongside the many story-within-a-story representations of the cycles of death and mis-remembrance within the society makes it seem like actually these stories are not unique, that they can and did happen to many people, and even though there may be an ‘if’, that ultimately that ‘if’ is always going to be and remain an ‘if’ because this continues to happen over and over to many different people, and that there is really no one to blame for it.

  3. Three moments in the text stick out to me as key to understanding the post-apartheid reality inhabited by the characters. The first, referenced in this post, comes near the end, on page 124:

    “Heaven is the world of our continuing existence, located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us. It is the archive that those we left behind keep visiting and revisiting; digging this out, suppressing or burying that. Continually reconfiguring the stories of our lives, as if they alone hold the real and true version. Just as you, Refilwe, tried to reconfigure the story of Refentše; just as Tiragalong now is going to do the same with you. Heaven can also be Hell, depending on the nature of our continuing existence in the memories and consciousness of the living.”

    Here, Mpe speak of memory and consciousness, as well as the interconnectedness of the present and the past, which is constantly being revisited and reconfigured to better organize life as it is being lived. History is integral to the way contemporary reality is understood, and attempts to come to terms with how it shapes the present is a complex process. What people in South Africa want, it seems, is to have a neatly wrapped up version of a past in the past tense – closed off; an action that has been carried through to completion. Apartheid “was”, not “is”. But the “stories of [their] lives” are multivalent and truth becomes murky, contested, unsettling, and above all “live”, in the sense of the history being less “past”, than present in a continuous process of becoming for the characters in the Welcome To Our Hillbrow.

    Everyone seems to grapple with contexts that preceded them, and these contexts spill over into each other, until navigating the present means the simultaneous, uncomfortable navigation of an unpalatable past that is ultimately only a series of presents separated temporally, but not spatially in the context of the place of Apartheid – our Hillbrow, our South Africa. Most want to move on from this, and yet, they cannot leave, for “memory and consciousness” continues to infect them as they exist in the present, coloring their experience of living itself.

    An example of this past appears on page 19:

    “And of course you could not forget all those black agents of the Apartheid State, playing their various roles with a mastery that confounded the minds of even the State itself. Black police officers contorting bribes from fellow blacks accused of political and other dissents. Black police and security forces hitting fellow blacks mercilessly for crimes that were often not committed . . . Teaching the kaffir a lesson or two, as they said.”


    “…spare Cousin these historical details, since he knew them just as well as you did; or rather, much better than you did, since he himself was part of the interrogating police force that knew only one reliable way of accessing truth from suspects: torture.”

    Firstly, a cousin, one of Refentše’s own is implicated in the traumatic history of violence against one’s own (other black South Africans), which has come to destabilize the present. We see the unavoidability of trauma, irrepressible trauma that is unleashed on a population reorganizing reality post-Apartheid. Contagious racism and its brutal consequences – of complicity with the white regime – becomes a key fact of history left unaddressed and infectious. It is the “memory and consciousness” that helps construct an idea of heaven at the end of the book, but here, so easily slips into the alternative “hell” the ending warns of too.

    Truth and Reconciliation came as a commission, but to think it could neatly wrap up a violent history and confine it to the past tense was the fantasy of post-Apartheid South Africa. In the text, it comes back to haunt the living, and the obligations and connections they have to their dead – be it ideological or biological. The truth is fraught and contested, reconciliation an unending process of trying – the only given is the “continuing existence” of memory, that which locates reality as a series of events over time, an accumulation of experiences that create identity, individual and collective, which must look back, unflinchingly at the traumas that birthed them and the present inadequacies of our attempts to engage with these histories.

    Finally, after an argument, on page 53,

    “The two of you ended up quarrelling. And you spent the rest of the night trying to read yourself back to sleep with John Maxwell Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians; seeing Confessions and Apologies filling every page that you turned.”

    After an argument about whether or not to come clean about an affair, where Refentše dislikes this proposition, we see him read a book about colonization and the traumatic experience of it amongst native populations – a book by one of South Africa’s greatest living writer, white J.M. Coetzee exploring violence, guilt, indignity, and shame. Leaving aside many of the possible metaphorical and analogical interpretations, the potential of writing in an attempting to capture a complicated situation is visible here. He cannot go back to sleep because no easy answers are available through Coetzee’s novel, but given the general avoidance of facing once history and memory, it is in literature that a kind of resistance and re-connection with the past can actually occur. This, it seems, is one of the ideas of Mpe’s text wants to show, how spaces for facing the societal “sins of the father” exist (to draw on the language Ghosts) – both for the many writers in the story, but also in a meta sense, where Mpe is writing to grapple with “memory and consciousness” of history too. Art, it seems, is that rare site where we can try, at least, to process trauma productively. This is why – to answer one of the questions that were raised in class about The Plague and the point of literature post the destructive Second World War – we must keep writing.

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