Although Welcome to Our Hillbrow explores the lingering effects of apartheid, the racial divide in South Africa is not the narrative’s main focus. Instead, the novel primarily looks at other forms of prejudice, mainly examining the arbitrary biases that people often form about those whom they see as different from themselves. For example, people who live in a rural village called Tiragalong (where Refentše and Refilwe are from) are very judgmental about anyone who lives in Johannesburg. They see the city as a place filled with corruption and crime. They are also very xenophobic toward Black immigrants who come to South Africa from other African countries—there’s even a South African slur for these people: Makwerekwere. The origins of this slur are rooted in the mocking sounds South Africans make when imitating the languages spoken in other African countries. What’s more, people in both Tiragalong and Johannesburg blame migrants for the AIDS crisis that sweeps through the country, making it quite clear that the South African population during this time period was quick to villainize outsiders.
Welcome to Our Hillbrow investigates these prejudices by showing how thoughtless they are. For example, the people of Tiragalong think that immigrants bring disease into South Africa. However, at the end of the story, Refilwe is diagnosed with HIV and discovers that she might have already had it for almost a decade—long before she ever left Tiragalong. Additionally, Refentše points out to his cousin (who hypocritically cheers for Black African soccer teams but is racist and xenophobic toward Black immigrants) that many people who live in Johannesburg originally migrated from rural villages—like Tiragalong—in the same way that people are immigrating to South Africa. By showing the inherently illogical nature of the prejudices at play in post-apartheid South Africa, then, Welcome to Our Hillbrow suggests that xenophobia and marginalization are often tied to a population’s unwillingness to examine its various prejudices. Failing to challenge such ideas, the novel implies, causes societies to reinforce their own ignorance instead of working through their biases in open-minded, productive ways.
Prejudice and Ignorance ThemeTracker
Prejudice and Ignorance Quotes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow
More specifically, certain newspaper articles attributed the source of the virus that caused AIDS to a species called the Green Monkey, which people in some parts of West Africa were said to eat as meat, thereby contracting the disease. Migrants (who were Tiragalong’s authoritative grapevine on all important issues) deduced from such media reports that AIDS’s travel route into Johannesburg was through Makwerekwere; and Hillbrow was the sanctuary in which Makwerekwere were based.
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.
As you look back now at your life on Earth, you find it grimly amusing that suicide could be so seductive. You are fascinated by the stories of your home boys and girls, talking about your suicide as if no thought had gone into it.
Your mother had never been to Hillbrow, nor any part of Johannesburg. But your mother was not interested in such details. She hated the Hillbrow women with unmatchable venom—a human venom so fatal it would have put the black mamba’s to shame.
The diseased woman of your story did not resolve to tumble down from the twentieth floor of her building, to escape her misery. She chose a different route to dealing with her life. Her first resolution was to stop going home, to Tiragalong, where the wagging tongues did their best to hasten her death. But then she discovered, like you did, Refentše, that a conscious decision to desert home is a difficult one to sustain. Because home always travels with you, with your consciousness as its vehicle. So her second resolution was to pour all her grief and alienation into the world of storytelling. You had her write a novel about Hillbrow, xenophobia and AIDS and the prejudices of rural lives.
It did not occur to Molori and his uncle to doubt the bone thrower’s insights. His accurate knowledge of their family affairs was too impressive; where else could such knowledge have come from, they reasoned, other than from his reading of the bones? The uncle reminded Molori about the Tiragalong saying: witches have no distinct kin colour through which other people can recognize and identify them. Piet and his mother might put on the act of being good people. But who was to say that that was not the art of witches?
She had not given up on the idea that one day you would be tired of these Johannesburg women, that your thoughts would then turn back to your home girl. She knew, like all Tiragalong, that there was always a return to the ruins; only to the womb was there no return.
[…] his story that looked at AIDS and Makwerekwere and the many-sidedness of life and love in our Hillbrow and Tiragalong and everywhere. His scarecrow heroine was a big influence on Refilwe’s thinking. She had read the story many times, and each time it made her weep anew. Partly because of the memories it brought up of Refentše. And partly because it made her see herself and her own prejudices in a different light.
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.
She wanted to be laid to rest in our Tiragalong, even if it meant exiting this world amidst the ignorant talk of people who turned diseases into crimes. She knew, as Lerato had known, that it was difficult for a woman to face her friends, colleagues and the whole community, and say her name, when they all judged her to be just a loose pair of thighs with voracious appetite […]. Now it was her turn to be accused.
But she also knew in her heart that she was finished already. When she and her Nigerian were told that they had AIDS, they were also given to know that they had both been HIV-positive for a long time. Refilwe, in particular, must have been infected for a decade or so. Except that she had not known that. So when the disease struck, it seemed that it came suddenly, with no warning.