Welcome to our Hillbrow
by Phaswane Mpe
University of Natal Press, 2001, 124 pp.
The headlines were shocking, and the images more so: “Mozambican burned alive in South Africa: police.” “Pregnant refugee ‘kicked repeatedly.’” “‘Mob ignored screams not to kill my husband.’” “Zimbabwean shacks burnt.” “Slaughter of the innocents.”1 The year 2008 would prove to be a year marked by hatred and violence—May and June would be particularly unforgettable. The rest of the world watched in increasing horror as report after report from South Africa revealed the shameful ways that South Africans were treating their fellow Africans, be they legal or illegal residents. Yet, as many woke up to the fact that, yes, xenophobia is an issue in South Africa, the more shocking aspect of these events was that this was nothing new. These specific attacks were abominable not because of their novelty, but rather because of what Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad referred to as their “unprecedented savage[ry].”2 As the novel Welcome to our Hillbrow shows, xenophobia, the foreigner, and related issues have long been issues of concern for the average South African.
Welcome to Our Hillbrow follows the story of Refentše, “child of Tiragalong,” and several of his close friends and family members. Having moved to Johannesburg to begin his tertiary education, Refentše ends up staying with Cousin in the inner city residential area called Hillbrow. Although new to the area, Refentše is no stranger to stories about Hillbrow; by the time he moved there in 1991, he “already knew that Hillbrow was a menacing monster, so threatening to its neighbors […] that big, forward-looking companies were beginning to desert the inner city.” As Refentše explores this “menacing monster” for himself, the socio-economic geography of Hillbrow is charted as a slum marked by violence, death, moral decay, and broken dreams. This place seems to have brought an end to Refentše’s dreams as well, for as the narrator admits, if he’d still been alive during 1998, he would have been glad about South Africa's loss in the soccer World Cup. Sometime, somehow, in less than seven years after his arrival, Refentše has perished.
Yet, his death is less important than the lessons that can be learned from this event. The narrator leads the reader through Refentše’s life in Hillbrow in order to provoke thought about issues facing the microcosm of the neighborhood. One prominent concern is that of xenophobia: As Refentše quickly settles in, he comes to learn that many Hillbrowans hold the transplanted foreigners responsible for the area’s decay. His white superintendent tells him that “Hillbrow had been just fine, until those Nigerians came in here with all their drug dealing.” Cousin is more explicit, holding “such foreigners responsible [for crime and grime in Hillbrow]; not just for the physical decay of the place, but also the moral decay.” In fact, the development of the local word used for foreigners echoes the etymology of the now pejorative term “barbarians”—in the same way that the root “barbar” is said to have mimicked the “unintelligible speech of foreigners,” the word Makwerekwere is as “a word derived from Kwere kwere, a sound that their unintelligible foreign languages were supposed to make, according to the locals.”
This hostile attitude to Makwerekwere is not limited to mere words, as we are soon to learn. The narrator remarks matter-of-factly:
“Makwerekwere knew they had no recourse to legal defence if they were ever caught. The police could detain them or deport them without allowing them any trial at all. Even the Department of Home Affairs was not sympathetic to their cause. No one seemed to care that the treatment of Makwerekwere by the police, and the lack of sympathy from the influential Department of Home Affairs, ran contrary to the human rights clauses detailed in the new constitution of the country. Ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies... the stuff of our South African and Makwerekwere lives...
Refentše is one of the few people who argue against this brutal conduct, and as the novel continues in its various twists and turns the author, Phaswane Mpe warns us that the treatment of these ‘foreigners’ should be critically examined. Not only because of the inhumanness, but also because this behavior is based on “ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies” that also affects “our South African and Makwerekwere lives” (my emphasis).
Consider, as a starter, Refentše pointing out the parallels between the migrants that wander from Tiragalong, and the immigrants that have come in from other countries: “There are very few Hillbrowans, if you think about it, who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages, who have come here, as we have in search of education and work. Many of the Makwerewere you accuse of this and that are no different to us sojourners, here in search of green pastures.” Similarities are thus drawn between themselves and the hated immigrant foreigner. Furthermore, the prevalent xenophobic attitude is undercut by drawing a fuzzy line between those considered “foreign” and “local.” When Refilwe, Refentše’s ex-lover, tells him to leave his Johannesburg woman for her, Refentše answers: “Yes, some Jo’burg women are certainly terrible. But the same can be said of some Tiragalong women.”
Foreigners, ironically, come from elsewhere in South Africa. There will always be a scapegoat, always someone “foreign” to blame. More pertinently, Refentše remarks to Cousin: “Hadn’t we better also admit that quite a large percentage of our home relatives who get killed in Hillbrow, are in fact killed by other relatives and friends—people who bring their home grudges with them to Jo’burg. That’s what makes Hillbrow so corrupt...” This is shown in true force in the novel, as an alarming amount of characters die, but none of them at the hands of Makwerekwere.
Why, then, do the narratives that present foreigners as dirty, immoral, and corrupt exist? Mpe offers no explicit answers, but provides room and provocation for thought by demonstrating narrative construction and its effect on life. Two epigraphs alert us to Mpe’s intention: “A human being is a beast that when cornered throws away weapons and fights with the tongue…” (O.K. Matsepe) and “Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction.” (W.E.B. Du Bois). Matsepe asserts that what is said with the tongue can wrought results as tangible as what weapons can do physically, whereas Du Bois’s words warn us against merely taking this text as a story that is untrue.
But in merely existing as a story, Welcome to our Hillbrow bears some weight of reality. Examples of the way words shape and construct life are included in the substance of the story. Take for instance this description of the gossip that Refilwe spreads about Refentše after his death: “[Refilwe] sent you hurtling towards your second death. She blemished your name more than anyone else could have hoped to do.” In doing so, “Refilwe re-wrote large chunks of the story that Tiragalong had constructed about you.”
Mpe himself constantly highlights this concern through the use of second-person narrative throughout most of the text, a device that emphasizes the omniscience of the narrator, and the controlling and manipulative nature by which snippets of information are tantalizingly divulged. With the narrator addressing and telling the dead Refentše what he did, the reader is alerted to Refentše’s obvious manipulation as a character and the reader’s own manipulation by the writer. To complicate the structure further, Refentše himself is also a writer who constructs a short story about a woman who contracts AIDS and is later shunned by her village community. This fictional “scarecrow” woman foreshadows the fate of Refilwe.
Yet, while this tool is clever and laudable and results in a magnificently multi-layered provocation, Hillbrow is more than a turn of narrative tricks. Again and again, Mpe uses these narrative devices to force the reader to reconsider our own attitudes toward foreigners.
The last half of the book is devoted Refilwe who, just like Refentše, comes to see beyond her prejudiced stereotypes: “Hillbrowans were not merely the tiny section of the population who were brown 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.” Refilwe’s change in perception is catalyzed by a trip to England to read for her Master’s at Oxford. There she is exposed to the conceptions and attitudes of others toward Africans and South Africans, and gains a more compassionate and open-minded understanding of those she had once despised as foreign. On returning home, the narrator tells her, “You can no longer hide behind your bias against Makwerekwere. You do not blame them for the troubles in your life, as you once did. You have come to understand that you too are a Hillbrowan. An Alexandran. A Johannesburger. An Oxfordian. […] The semen and blood of [M]akwerekwere flows in your Tiragalong and Hillbrow veins.”
This too is the lesson for us, for South Africa is not the only country dealing with issues of foreigners and xenophobia. As the phrase, “Welcome to our Hillbrow...” winds its way rhythmically through the end of the book, it becomes a meter of understanding that Refilwe and the reader gain in how Hillbrow is more than just a geographical space within Johannesburg—it is a constructed space echoing its elsewhere, perhaps everywhere, in the world. Tellingly, the phrase also changes to include other place names; as we follow the characters through their lives, we too are welcomed to our Hillbrow, our Tiragalong, our England, our world. Within this journey Mpe shares insightful reflections on some of the biggest issues facing the world: AIDS, xenophobia, disillusionment (locally and internationally), life and death. Highlighting the tension that South Africans hold against foreigners, but placed in an extremely localized zone—be it Tiragalong or Oxford—Welcome to our Hillbrow draws attention to Mpe’s ideas that we are all foreigners, that home is not home for any one of us, that we are all Makwerekwere.
- 1. Headlines taken from AFP (June 14, 2008); IOL (June 11; July 22; August 2, and August 16; 2008).
- 2. Yolande Hendler. "What are the causes of xenophobic violence and antagonism in South Africa after 1994 and how can it be addressed?" (Stellenbosch, September 2008); unpublished.