A storyteller’s story

Kaffirs? (said Oom Schalk Lourens). Yes, I know them. And they’re all the same. I fear the Almighty, and respect his works, but I could never understand why he made the Kaffir and the rinderpest. The Hottentot is a little bit better. The Hottentot will only steal the biltong hanging out on the line to dry. He won’t steal the line as well. That is where the Kaffir is different. Still, sometimes you come across a good Kaffir, who is faithful and upright and a true Christian and who doesn’t let the wild dogs catch the sheep. I always think it isn’t right to kill that kind of Kaffir.”

Thus Phaswane Mpe, author of Welcome to Our Hillbrow, quoting from memory the beginning of Makapan’s Caves, the first Herman Charles Bosman story he read as a teenager and one that remained a favourite.

I was a little shocked. I could hardly bring myself to say the K-word out loud, let alone repeat it over and over, and I was never at the receiving end of apartheid’s brutality. ‘I don’t think words in themselves are bad,” Mpe told me. ‘I’m more interested in how those words get used. We need to distinguish between insults and ironies.”

I had a feeling Mpe would like Sixties American comedian Lenny Bruce, who said: ‘Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirise it.”

For the majority of South Africans, though, there has not been enough time. Just a few years ago a schoolteacher was dismissed when parents accused him of setting a ‘racist” exam paper based on Bosman’s Unto Dust.

But Mpe was able to laugh. He laughed a lot. ‘I think it may have something to do with my experience of apartheid,” he said. ‘I didn’t experience it in the same way, for example, that people in Soweto experienced it. I was living in a rural village, Ga-Molepo, about 50km to the south-east of Pietersburg [Polokwane], in the Northern Province [Limpopo]. And most of the terrible things I heard on the radio, rather than actually coming into direct contact with them. Apart from Bantu education, I experienced it indirectly. Part of what that did for me, I think, is that I never developed bitterness. I just thought about it as something that we needed to do away with, and move on.”

A teacher who introduced Mpe to Bosman was one of the most positive influences in his life. She was a Catholic nun, Sister Mary Anne Tobin, to whom Welcome to Our Hillbrow is dedicated.

‘Our school library wasn’t very well-stocked, so my introduction to literature was really through Enid Blyton, particularly the Famous Five series. I read almost everything in that series. I liked George, and Timmy the dog. I also had a dog that I was very close to. I could relate to the characters on an emotional level.

‘Then I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and I found it a great book. I keep on going back to it. I loved the magical nature of the characters, which spoke to my enjoyment of folk tales and, on another level, its subversive humour. Mary Anne moved me away from Enid Blyton when she introduced me to Herman Charles Bosman. And from there I moved on to Charles Dickens.”

It was the opening passage of Great Expectations that had captured his imagination: ‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

‘I don’t know exactly what it was,” said Mpe. ‘I suppose part of it is just the confidence of the child. Knowing what he cannot do, but being able to improvise and feeling that he’s doing it well. Achieving great success at something that seems so small.”

In 1988, at the age of 17, Mpe visited Johannesburg for the first time. ‘I never got to Hillbrow that year. There were bomb scares in town, and my brother and cousin wouldn’t hear of me going there. So it was a very dull three weeks I spent in Highlands North where I was staying with my brother. I was very bored. There wasn’t much that was exciting in the street. People were very quiet, and I’m not a great fan of shopping centres. I didn’t know at the time that I could use the library.”

The next year Mpe moved to Johannesburg to attend Wits and though Welcome to Our Hillbrow is not autobiographical, the walk the novel’s hero, Refentse, makes — from Vickers Place to Braamfontein — is the walk Mpe made daily as an undergraduate.

Later he lived in Braamfontein, and didn’t have far to go to campus to do his doctorate, but he remained an enthusiastic walker. ‘It’s how I find my stories,” he said.

‘When I began writing the book I initially thought I was just doing a portrait of Hillbrow. And I realised as I started working on the map, that actually I can’t have a map with no one to move around in it. That’s how I ended up putting Refentse into the map.”

Refentse was a character from Mpe’s earlier short stories. In one of them, Occasion for Brooding, Refentse had committed suicide, so Mpe ‘resurrected” him by having the book’s narrator in dialogue with the deceased. His use of the word ‘resurrect”, and his friendship with Tobin, made me wonder if he was religious.

‘There are things about Christianity I don’t agree with,” he said. ‘One of my biggest problems is the idea of original sin. I just can’t accept that I’m born a sinner, so I’m not Christian … And then at some point I decided there’s no God, but I’ve sort of changed my mind. Now I’m not sure. Either way it doesn’t actually bother me. I believe in the power of the ancestors. I subscribe to elements of Christianity, and elements of traditional belief; I think they both have their own limitations. Maybe I’m just an opportunist,” he laughed.

‘In one of his essays, on why black South Africans shouldn’t really care about being called ‘Kaffir’, Bosman points out that the word actually means unbeliever; it was only at a later stage that it began to accumulate these political meanings, so we should be thankful for not being associated with conservative Christianity.

‘I think what I particularly like about Bosman is the way he captures the complexity of the rural mentality. The prejudices and gems of wisdom.”

This mentality, that feeds so much on second- and third-hand stories, often mythology, is something Mpe explored at length in Welcome to Our Hillbrow.

When I ask him how he dealt with safety while walking in the inner city, he reminded me that, like Refentse, he had been warned often about the dangers before he had left home, and while Hillbrow was not quite the ‘menacing monster” he’d been told to expect, he too had had his share of violent experiences. ‘I’ve had several,” he said, as though this was completely normal. And then proceeded to list a number of incidents, all cellphone-related.

‘When they took my first cellphone, they had guns. That was in the daylight. The second time they had knives. But my third cellphone was quite an interesting case. I actually felt I wasn’t safe, so I decided to catch a cab. The driver called someone over and I thought he was just saying goodbye to his friend. I had the door open, and was about to get in when this guy, the taxi driver’s friend, took out a knife and robbed me and the driver just kept quiet. In the end I didn’t get into the car, I went back to drink, where I’d left my friends at my drinking hole.

‘If I’m carrying a lot of money, I’ll carry it in a book. For some reason criminals don’t like books,” he laughed. ‘There was one day, I had just come back from Germany, where I received a stipend, so I ended up not having to use my own money. I had about €1 000. I carried it inside The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, which I was reading at the time, and walked quite safely to deposit it in the bank.”

If not conventionally religious, he was fatalistic. ‘I walk through Hillbrow at any time of the day or night,” he said. ‘If it’s your turn, it’s your turn.”

In 1997 he spent nine months in Oxford doing a diploma in publishing studies. A friend, knowing his love of Dickens, invited him to visit London. ‘I went to see the Old Curiosity Shop … I did have some sort of emotional response, which worked wonders for me, because I didn’t actually like London. It’s too congested and too busy for my liking. Hillbrow is congested,” he added, ‘but there’s a lot of social life in Hillbrow. I didn’t feel that in London. There’s a lot of busyness, but — ” he trailed off, hinting at a loneliness in London’s crowds that is very different from Africa.

Bosman once related a story of meeting a South African on a bench in Hyde Park, who ‘told me the funniest Afrikaans story I have ever heard. It was about a predikant and the district drunkard. Afterwards, I thought much about the man. I wondered how long he had been there, sitting on that park bench, in childlike faith that some day a stranger would come past who would know about the veld and who would listen to his story … It’s queer how London always seems to lead the world in art and literature. Here I have to come all the way to London, to Hyde Park, to hear the world’s best Afrikaans story.”

Bosman’s years abroad, it is said, ‘seemed to offer less of the stimulus of a fresh environment than a reaffirmation of love for his old one”. Though Mpe had travelled a fair amount, I got the impression the same may have been true for him.

Commenting on his doctoral thesis, at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, on representations of sexuality in post-apartheid literature, Mpe said: ‘I particularly like K Sello Duiker’s novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, because it deals with issues of black identity and masculinities … In a context in which many people argue that homosexuality is a white man’s disease, I like the honesty with which he treats the issues.”

Throughout our conversation, his two-year-old daughter, Reneilwe, lay sleeping in Mpe’s lap. She stirred, and our attention was brought back to the room; to the sun fading outside his office window. It was time to get the little girl home. He gathered her things together, picked up his cellphone, and prepared for their walk, ready for any stories they might have encountered on the way.

Phaswane Mpe died on December 12 2004

Welcome to post-apartheid

Born in 1970 in what is now Limpopo, Phaswane Mpe studied literature at Wits University and publishing at Oxford. He came back to Wits as a teacher, and published his debut novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow (KwaZulu-Natal University Press) in 2001.

The book was hailed as a step in a new direction for South African literature: the book put an entirely new spin on the ‘Jim comes to Jo’burg” theme. The genesis of the work was in a set of stories Mpe wrote, which he later gathered together into the novel, making it a fractured, kaleidoscopic view of life in the inner city. With Welcome to Our Hillbrow, a fully fledged postmodern sensibility entered black South African post-colonial literature.

It was, said Mpe’s colleague Liz MacGregor in the Mail & Guardian, ‘the first post-apartheid novel to chronicle the changes transforming the inner city. Xenophobia, HIV/Aids and witchcraft are the themes weaving in and out of the life story of the protagonist, Refentse, a young man who leaves his rural home to come to Johannesburg to study.”

Laurice Taitz wrote in The Sunday Times that the novel ‘shows the complexity of blackness in a context in which race is no longer a defining factor and even ethnicity has been overtaken by the large movement of non-South Africans into Hillbrow … ‘

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