With Welcome To Our Hillbrow, the South African writer and poet Phaswane Mpe demonstrates that the post-Apartheid generation of South African writers has something to say, and say beautifully. The novel is the result and expansion of a series of thematically linked short stories and the author's first full-length fictional work. As Mpe has explained in interviews, he drew on personal experiences of depression and suicidal thoughts for the story. While Mpe's familiarity with both the academic and publishing worlds in South Africa also clearly comes through in the text, the novel simultaneously addresses, sometimes indirectly, the nation's post-Apartheid cultural and political context in terms of class and work divisions; scenarios of illegal drugs and drug users, dealers, and their origins; images of African migrant workers as both responsible for illegal drugs and the spreading of HIV/AIDS (of which women are seen as especially guilty); and the ways in which the South African and other media publicize images of violence in black contexts. Throughout this complex scheme, Mpe manages to capture the pulse of Hillbrow, a neighborhood of Johannesburg, giving us some sense of degrees of urban violence.
This theme in itself is not new. From earlier works such as Cyprien Ekwansi's Jagua Nana (1961) and Meja Mwangi's Kill Me Quick (1975) to recent novels like Isabelle Boni-Claverie's La Grande Dévoreuse (1999), Ken Bugul's La Folie et la mort (2000), and Amma Darko's Faceless (2003), many African novels have explored how young people are crushed and devoured by the city. Since the mid-nineties, a number of South African novels have focused on the city, such as K. Sallo Duiker's Thirteen Cents (2000) and Zakes Mda's best-seller, The Heart of Redness (2000).
What is new in this novel, though, is the way in which Hillbrow is mapped in a very detailed manner, providing a clear, physical sense of the city. The principal protagonist, Referentse, witnesses crime, violence, and misery upon his arrival in Hillbrow. Soon enough, the reader realizes that this witnessing initiates further exploration of crucial aspects of post-Apartheid life in the city—how and why, for example, Johannesburg, Johannesburgers, and certain neighborhoods, Hillbrow in particular, are poorly considered.
If Hillbrow is often identified today as the gay neighborhood of Johannesburg, the focus in this novel turns elsewhere. Mpe discusses the issues of AIDS, xenophobia directed toward West Africans and black migrant workers in general, witchcraft, and the sometimes devastating consequences of gossip. A range of textual strategies mimetically reproduce the diverse Hillbrow canvas: Mpe uses a web of characters affected by a chain of tragedies, a self-inclusive narrative voice, and a symmetry of closure through which each section, save one, concludes with "Welcome to our Hillbrow" or a variation of it.
Just like the streets of a city, the lives of the different characters intersect, cross over, meet, or come to a dead end. By the narrative's end, each of the principal characters, and even those more peripheral, have either lost their sanity, died a violent death, or—grappling with HIV/AIDS—committed suicide. (Interestingly, although the acronym AIDS appears on the novel's third page, it mostly remains in the very background until the book's final two sections.) Through this canvassing of tragedies, life journeys, and the rippling effects of suicides, accidents, ill-speaking, and illness, the author develops a trope of infection. In this regard, each of the novel's different elements is tightly interconnected: for instance, [End Page 672] after Referentse's death, his mother, accused of bewitching her son, is "necklaced" with tires and set aflame. Lerato, Referentse's lover, commits suicide, partly because of a feeling of guilt over his death and partly because of false rumors spread by Refilwe, Referentse's first love. These rumors feed on the bad reputation of Hillbrowan women and xenophobic feelings about migrant foreigners. In turn, Refilwe's own journey, from Tiragalong to Johannesburg to Oxford in England and back to Tiragalong, ultimately exhibits...