Mapping the Novel of the 'New South Africa': 'Welcome to Our Hillbrow' and the Cultural Topography of Johannesburg
Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001) presents numerous challenges to the study of South African literature. Presented in impressionist prose, the novel dramatizes lives of aspiring black professionals in the post-apartheid city, university students moving from villages to the high-rises of Johannesburg’s Hillbrow district. Mpe’s characters, because of their urban savvy, rethink the “Jim Goes to Jo’burg” trope of the apartheid period: the story of the country bumpkin’s arrival in the townships for industrial work. Set at the dawn of the “New South Africa,” amidst Johannesburg’s uneasy downtown vitality, Mpe offers a revised feeling of professional aspirations and urban troubles, a drama mostly set apart from township peripheries. The traditional movement from the country to the city is effectively reshaped.
Inspired by Franco Moretti’s mapping of literary space, my essay considers the literary career of Phaswane Mpe (1970-2004) within the context of this transforming urban-rural divide. I underscore emerging sub-themes in Mpe’s project, including xenophobia against African immigrants and village witchcraft in the making (and unmaking) of the black middle class. More centrally, I argue the novel’s evocation of urban geography--and the black professional’s continuing vulnerability within it--links Mpe’s literary style to the vertigo of the Hillbrow high-rise. The dizzying “architecture” of his fiction mirrors the unsettled state of post-apartheid inner city renewal.
Keywords: South Africa, Apartheid, Urban Literature
Dr Timothy Johns
Lecturer, Department of Expository Writing, New York University