Welcome to Our Hillbrow


Phaswane Mpe

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Welcome to Our Hillbrow Summary

Welcome to Our Hillbrow takes place in the Hillbrow neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa during the 1990’s, when the country was transitioning out of the apartheid era. Refentše, born in rural Tiragalong, moves to the city to go to university. He studies literature at the University of Witwatersrand, eventually earning a BA and an MA, and is then offered a teaching post at the university. He falls in love with a fellow student, Lerato, and the pair live together in Hillbrow. Refentše is a writer and publishes a short story that he considers turning into a longer novel. However, he suffers from depression, which is triggered when Lerato has sex with their good friend Sammy. Devastated, Refentše commits suicide by jumping off of his high-rise balcony.

Once he is in heaven, Refentše is able to reflect on his life. There, he realizes that if he’d only spoken to Lerato about what had happened, he would have understood that she did not betray him, and that she loved him very much—the affair was just a moment of weakness precipitated by a concern for Refentše. Lerato, in her grief, commits suicide too, and she and Refentše meet in heaven and rekindle their relationship. From heaven, they can also watch all the people still living on Earth.

Welcome to Our Hillbrow also follows Refilwe, whose life is closely intertwined with Refentše’s. Refilwe, like Refentše, is born in Tiragalong. The two briefly date when they are young (though Refentše ends up leaving Refilwe because she was seeing other people). Refilwe is still in love with Refentše, though, even after they break up. Refilwe, like Refentše, is a smart, young, Black South African who is trying to navigate post-apartheid life. She also gets a BA in literature (Sepedi and English), and then moves to Johannesburg to work as an editor at a publishing house.

Though she is bright, Refilwe—like most of the people from Tiragalong, with the exception of Refentše—is prejudiced against Makwerekwere, or immigrants from other African countries. She is bitter that Refentše won’t leave Lerato, because she thinks Lerato is less worthy than herself. This is partly because she is skeptical of any woman who lives in the city, but also because Lerato’s father might have been Nigerian (this is later proven to be false), making her a Lekwerekwere. When Refentše commits suicide, Refilwe wastes no time spreading hurtful rumors around Tiragalong about Lerato’s family. These rumors fuel the grief that Lerato already felt after losing Refentše and play a part in her suicide.

Two years later, though, Refilwe realizes how wrong and harmful the prejudices of her youth were. She enjoys reading the short story that Refentše published before his death—the story’s main character is a young woman who is badly treated by people in the village because she has AIDS, which most people from the rural townships only associate with Makwerekwere. Refilwe empathizes with this character, which makes her realize the cruelty of her biases. Additionally, she goes abroad to England where she studies Publishing and Media Studies at Oxford Brookes University. Getting outside of South Africa opens her eyes to the ways that people from other continents are prejudiced toward Africans in general, which upsets her and makes her want to be welcoming rather than judgmental.

Refilwe also falls for a man who looks like Refentše and happens to be Nigerian, which further helps eradicate her prejudice. Tragically, Refilwe is diagnosed with HIV shortly after beginning this relationship. Though she realizes people from back home will blame her having the disease on the fact that she had sex with a Nigerian man, Refilwe actually contracted the virus almost a decade earlier, before she ever left Tiragalong. Despite the cruelty and judgement she knows she will face, Refilwe returns home to Tiragalong so that she can die in the place she was born. The story ends with the narrator welcoming Refilwe into heaven.