Phaswane Mpe, Welcome to our Hillbrow (2001)

Phaswane Mpe, Welcome to Our Hillbrow

Refilwe was to observe, in Oxford, that people there talked about Africans and South Africans. These Oxfordians who talked so distinctly about Africa and South Africa were themselves a hybrid of native Oxfordians and those who had acquired citizenship by other means. All those we called by the term Oxfordian, without distinguishing whether they were, indeed, born Oxfordians, or English, or something else. It was no different to the way we generalised about Hillbrowans without venturing to clarify what we meant. […] She learnt that to come from South Africa and to come from Africa were not the same thing at all in the estimation of numerous Oxfordians. She also learnt that when people talked about South Africa, they meant Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. They had also heard of Soweto, the biggest black township in South Africa, about ten kilometres to the south-west of Johannesburg. For them, the cities were all white, while Soweto was black. Black in human skin colour, but also black in morals.

When Refilwe once said to a fellow student at Morals, the student pub at Morrell Hall Residence, that there was a place in Johannesburg, full of grime and crime, called Hillbrow (she suppressed the beautiful side of it for impact), the student was shocked. He could not believe it. Whites could surely not be guilty of indulging in criminal activities to the extent that Refilwe said they did? Refilwe remained adamant that, yes, there were white prostitutes in our Hillbrow. And white criminals who sold drugs, who were happy to see Makwerekwere serving as the butt of the vicious criticism and hostility from those who insisted that they were the only legitimate children of the country. There were whites who sold liquor and glue to the street children. Who owned those shops in that Hillbrow? Well, no doubt there were many black supervisors… but the ownership was largely white. Refilwe said:

That is Johannesburg for you…!

And Cape Town? her listeners inquire. Refilwe had not been to the Mother City, as some South Africans called it (because that was where the first whites from the sea had landed). She knew it was a beautiful place, if photographs were anything to go by. She also knew that gangsters featured significantly in the news there in the late 1990s. Robbers had attacked a police station, walking out with a large cache of guns. Gangsters and rival gangsters regularly fought it out in public places, trying to prove who the real owners of our Cape Town were. These were just a few examples of the kind of shocking things that went on right there in the Mother City of beautiful landscapes and cool breezes.

Hillbrow in Hillbrow. Hillbrow in Cape Town. Cape Town in Hillbrow. Oxford in both. Both in Oxford. Welcome to our All…

—Phaswane Mpe, Welcome to our Hillbrow. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2001, pp.102-4.

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