Welcome to Our Hillbrow

by

Phaswane Mpe

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Welcome to Our Hillbrow Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Phaswane Mpe's Welcome to Our Hillbrow. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Phaswane Mpe

Mpe was born in Limpopo, a rural South African province. At the time of his birth, South Africa was under the Apartheid State. In 1989, at 19, Mpe moved to Johannesburg to study African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). As a student, Mpe lived in the inner-city neighborhood of Hillbrow, which would become the setting of his one published novel, Welcome to Our Hillbrow. After graduating from Wits, Mpe went abroad and received a diploma in publishing from the polytechnic school Oxford Brookes in England, after which he returned to South Africa and the University of Witwatersrand for a master’s degree. Following his MA, Mpe became a professor in African Literature at Wits. Mpe spoke and read both English and Sepedi (both national languages of South Africa), although the majority of his published work is written in English. In 2003, Mpe began a doctorate at the university in sexuality in post-apartheid South African literature. However, he left this degree unfinished to instead train as a ngaka—a traditional healer. Mpe died rather suddenly at 34 from a disease that was never conclusively diagnosed. In his writing, Mpe engaged with the political issues of his time South Africa, such as the aftereffects of apartheid and colonialism, prejudice within Black South African communities, the divide between rural and urban communities, and biases and misunderstandings about AIDS.
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Historical Context of Welcome to Our Hillbrow

The most prominent historical event related to Welcome to Our Hillbrow is the dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990s. This serves as a critical backdrop for the book, even if it does not drive the plot. The apartheid era in South Africa lasted from 1948 until the early 1990s and was categorized by a system of laws that enforced racial segregation, with white people in control of the government. In 1990, longtime anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and in 1994 he was elected president of the constitutionally new South Africa in the country’s first election since discriminatory voting laws were abolished. These events all take place over the course of Refentše and Refilwe’s lives, affecting their opportunities and worldviews.

Other Books Related to Welcome to Our Hillbrow

Like Welcome to Our Hillbrow, Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying (which Refilwe recommends to a bartender in the novel) also takes place in post-apartheid South Africa. It centers Black characters who must cope with the lingering effects of oppression and colonialism. Mda’s novel, like Mpe’s, also emphasizes the importance of storytelling in communal villages in South Africa (as well as the prevalence and pitfalls of village gossip), and it acknowledges prejudices from rural townships towards people in larger cities. Secondly, Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut relates to Welcome to Our Hillbrow. Though set 10 years after Mpe’s novel, Coconut takes place in post-apartheid South Africa and follows a young Black South African try to navigate imperialism, racism, and income inequality. Lastly, W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, though written by an American author, shares themes with Welcome to Our Hillbrow, such as the psychological effects of institutionalized racism and the importance of education, literacy, and storytelling. Mpe uses a quote from Souls as an epigraph, which suggests the South African author saw a direct connection between the struggles of Black Americans and Black South Africans.
Key Facts about Welcome to Our Hillbrow
  • Full Title: Welcome to Our Hillbrow
  • When Written: 2000
  • Where Written: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • When Published: 2001
  • Literary Period: Post-Apartheid South African Literature
  • Genre: Ubuntu Literature, Autofiction
  • Setting: Johannesburg, South Africa; Tiragalong (fictional province), South Africa; Oxford, England
  • Climax: Refentše commits suicide.
  • Antagonist: Prejudice, AIDS
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for Welcome to Our Hillbrow

Alternate Universe. Welcome to Our Hillbrow is often understood as a work of semi-autobiographical fiction, since Mpe and his protagonist, Refentše, share so many historical similarities. Mpe, though, did not commit suicide, and he has suggested that writing this book saved his life.

The Music Keeps On Going. The real-life South African band Stimela, which formed in the 1970s and is very important to both Refentše and Refilwe in the book, is still making music today. They released a new album called Catch the Train in  2018.