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  • Mapping the city space in current Zimbabwean and South African fiction
  • Irikidzayi Manase (bio)


Refentse, child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow, Welcome to our Hillbrow of milk and honey and bile, all brewing in the depths of our collective consciousness.

(Mpe 2001:41)

The above description of Hillbrow is given in the early part of Mpe's Welcome to our Hillbrow (2001). It immediately places the centrality of the city's alluring qualities and its importance in the lives of most, if not all, people in southern Africa and indeed in the rest of the continent. The description, however, represents the ambivalent nature of the current South African city. It is inhabited by a number of African dwellers, whose identity is split between the rural area, in which colonialism and apartheid placed them permanently, and the city - where life mirrors the paradox of being able to achieve success and failure at the same time. This is emblematised in the above quotation, by reference to the existence of milk and honey as well as bile. Kurtz, in his discussion on the writing of the Kenyan city, postulates that this urban paradox depicts the African city as a 'venue for fundamental conflicts and contradictions on all levels of the social formation' (2000:103). The ambivalent urban condition, which I will argue is represented in current Zimbabwean and South African fiction, is noted in the dialectical links between poverty, wealth, life, death, home and homelessness which result in the constitution of restless and dislocated identities for a majority of the urban dwellers. The existing life conditions and the constituted identities are a result of structural influences such as the impact of European and American social and economic domination, and the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, as well as individual responses to personal circumstances and to the city. [End Page 88]

The urban lower working class, the poor and the invisible, such as prostitutes and vagrants, as well as the professionals, such as university professors and corporate employees, are portrayed in the fiction under consideration as vulnerable and alienated. The idea of a fragmented society will be considered in the first part of the paper where I focus on the representation of a fragmented city in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Furthermore, the urban dwellers are portrayed as victims of a displaced psyche and schizophrenia while harbouring suicidal tendencies. On the whole, personal relationships are fractured. A lack of mutuality and communication characterises most of the male-female, husband-wife and family relations in general. The portrayal of the individual's social dislocation within these cities as well as how this comes about through broader structural forces of apartheid, colonialism and globalisation will be examined in the second part of this paper.

I will study Phaswane Mpe's Welcome to our Hillbrow (2001) and Ashraf Jamal's 'The Black Bag' (2002) set in Johannesburg and a nameless South African city respectively. I will also focus on Shimmer Chinodya's 'Strays' and 'Can We Talk' (1998), Nhamo Mhiripiri's 'The Lodgers', 'No More Plastic Balls' and 'Elista' (2000) and Charles Mungoshi's 'The Hare' (1997), which are set in Harare, Zimbabwe. This fiction portrays an urban bleakness that is signified by the use of various tropes. These tropes include the migrant, violence, poverty, disease and death. However, this fictional representation of the southern African urban space also shows that the cities are not entirely rigid but still offer the potential for the inhabitants to reconstitute their identities and lives and redefine their alienating city spaces in accordance with their needs. This possibility resonates with the concept of the soft city as articulated by Raban (1974). He argues that while the urban dweller is to a large extent alienated in the city, he or she is still able to 'remake' the city and 'consolidate it into a shape you can live in' (1974: 9-10). This idea of the possibility of the agency of the characters and their ability to rewrite the urban spaces and their lives will be considered in the last part of the paper. I will also follow up on this possibility of agency with De Certeau's ideas on how the invisible urban...


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pp. 88-105
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