In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, the aftereffects of colonization and apartheid (a long-running system of racial segregation and discrimination) are still observable in South Africa, even though the novel takes place after the end of apartheid. The city of Johannesburg, for instance, is divided into wealthy and poor areas, and white citizens hold the majority of the country’s wealth. Indeed, the remnants of colonialism and apartheid are all around Refentše and Refilwe (who are Black South Africans), whether in the way the city is still largely separated by race (with the wealthier areas being “lily-white”) or in the British names of so many of the streets, bars, or buildings. Although South Africa has 11 national languages, Refentše, who is a writer, bemoans the fact that a story must be written in English if it is to be commercially viable there. This reality underscores the fact that colonialism will last long after the end of apartheid, since the dominance of the English language in South Africa is directly linked to how forcefully British culture asserted itself during colonization.
Additionally, colonialism leaves a lasting impact on how South African people perceive and interact with one another. For instance, many Black South Africans are prejudiced toward Black people from other African countries, and this prejudice eerily mirrors how the white colonizers—the British—are racist toward Black South Africans. There is, in other words, a certain cycle of racism and discrimination at play, and though Refentše tries to push back against this kind of prejudice when he encounters it in South Africa, it’s quite difficult to challenge because these sentiments are so deeply sown. To that end, when Refilwe goes to England to study, she sees xenophobia (prejudice toward outsiders) and racism at Heathrow Airport, as customs officials discriminate against people from places like Nigeria and Algeria. This scenario reminds her of how people from South Africa judge other Black Africans, which itself is evidence of how colonizers’ prejudices have infiltrated South African culture. Colonialism has led to cultural imperialism, or the overwriting of one culture with the colonizer’s culture. Thus, Welcome to Our Hillbrow focuses on the long-term repercussions of colonization, illustrating that such problematic biases didn’t simply go away after apartheid.
Apartheid and Colonialism ThemeTracker
Apartheid and Colonialism Quotes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow
Like most Hillbrowans, Cousin took his soccer seriously. You and he had had many disagreements on the subject of support for foreign teams—especially those from elsewhere in Africa. You often accused him of being a hypocrite, because his vocal support for black non-South African teams, whenever they played against European clubs, contrasted so glaringly with his prejudice towards black foreigners the rest of the time. Cousin would always take the opportunity during these arguments to complain about the crime and grime in Hillbrow, for which he held such foreigners responsible; not just for the physical decay of the place but the moral decay.
If you were still alive now, Refentše, child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow, you might finally have written the books you had hoped to write; completed your collection of poems called Love Songs, Blues and Interludes, that you wished to dedicate to our Hillbrow. Your one published short story about life in Hillbrow might have paved a smooth way to more such stories. You often used to think about the scarcity of written Hillbrow fictions in English and Sepedi. You asked around, and those who could read the other nine of the eleven official South African languages answered you by saying that even in those languages, written fictions were very scarce.
Refilwe rewrote large chunks of the story that Tiragalong had constructed about you, which was that you committed suicide because your mother had bewitched you. In an attempt to drive your heart from the Johannesburg woman, Tiragalong had said, your mother had used medicines that were too strong. They destroyed your brain.
Refilwe […] rewrote the version of your suicide. In this version of things, you had been bewitched indeed—but not by your mother; by a loose-thighed Hillbrowan called Lerato.
She did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse. She had not anticipated that the publishers’ reviewers would brand her novel vulgar. Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for educational publishers, and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems they served. These systems were very inconsistent with their attitudes to education. They considered it fine, for instance, to call genitalia by their correct names in English and Afrikaans biology books—[…] yet in all other languages, they criminalized such linguistic honesty.
She was excited by the challenge of the new position and looked forward to earning a better salary. But she soon discovered the frustrations that went with her new and prestigious position. Although she knew what good books looked like, the company kept on reminding her that good books were only those that could get a school prescription. What frustrated her so much was the extent to which publishing was in many ways out of touch with the language and events of everyday life.
Jackie thought that it would be a good idea to go straight to the administration block and get all the formalities of enrolment over and done with. Papers were produced and signed. No, Refilwe did not have to register with the Oxford police, as many Africans, including South Africans during the Apartheid days, had to do. South Africans, black and white, were very fine people these days, thanks to the release of Rolihlahla Mandela from Robben Island in 1990 and his push for the 1994 democratic elections.
Refentše knew only too well that Refilwe as going to bear the brunt of their wrath when she went back to Tiragalong. These gods and devils of our Tiragalong would say:
So, you thought the ones in Johannesburg were not bad enough! You had to import a worse example for yourself!
They would say this, because the stranger-with-Refentše’s-face that Refilwe met in our Jude the Obscure was a Nigerian in search of green pastures in our Oxford. He and Refilwe did find some green pastures in each other’s embraces that following Wednesday evening. They had Refentše’s blessing. His only wish was that he owned life, so that he could force those on Earth to give the lovers their blessings too.