Trevor Noah’s just-published episodic biography, Born A Crime (subtitled Stories from a South African Childhood), should be a school set work. It is, in fact, a compulsory read for those South Africans who regularly incant that “people should just move on”. Writing from the inside out – and also the outside in – Noah’s story excavates and lays bare, with extraordinary skill, insight and gentle humour, the corrosive and enduring damage exacted by apartheid, inequality and racism on the majority of this country’s citizens. Noah is lucky to have escaped alive, a feat he could not have accomplished had he not been buoyed by the fierce love of his extraordinary mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. By MARIANNE THAMM.
‘Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.’ – Bruce Lee
You know those urban blooms? Those determined fresh, green filigrees of life, born of a stray seed entombed beneath the concrete and that somehow push their way through the inhospitable slab in spring, reaching for the light in order to brighten up the drab landscape?
That’s Trevor Noah.
Today Noah is regarded as one of South Africa’s proudest exports. The boy from the townships of South Africa who made it big in the USA, hosting The Daily Show, one of the most influential satirical news/talk shows on the Comedy Central network.
The odds always seemed stacked against Noah, as they were and are for so many of South Africa’s citizens trapped still by the legacies of colonialism, apartheid, and post-apartheid profligacy. Poverty, hunger, violence, bullying, loneliness, vile pit latrines, carb-rich cheap food, racism, perpetual danger, absent fathers, the daily hustle to survive, limited horizons – a flatline life.
But there was an extraordinary buffer between this brutal world and little Trevor Noah – his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah.
“For my mother. My first fan. Thank you for making me a man,” Noah has inscribed as a dedication to her in his book.
For indeed Noah would not be, could not be, without a healthy transferring of the authentic, rebellious, brave and daring spirit that has animated Patricia Nombuyiselo and that enabled her to face down a hostile and inhospitable world, mostly on her own terms.
She did what any sane person would do. She rejected this distorted world. Did not take it personally and in so doing spared her son, her special project, from the full and corrosive potential impact of a miserably dysfunctional country painfully inching its way out of a troubled past.
That Noah has emerged from this heady mix miraculously unscathed, filled with determination, grit, wisdom, a searing intelligence (cultivated through the books he read as a loner) and an enduring mischievous glint about it all is inspiring. These are all qualities that the millions who know him as a stand-up comedian in South Africa and as the host of The Daily Show have come to love.
Noah was “born a crime”, of course, because Patricia, his Xhosa mother, met and conceived a child, Trevor, with the white Swiss German Robert. And while Trevor was born in 1984, in the turbulent dying days of apartheid (Noah was only six when Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990), the world into which he was delivered (in the Hillbrow Hospital) was still riven with the deep scars of history. Patricia gave birth to her beloved son alone, “estranged from her family and pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public”.
Patricia’s independence and her refusal to bow down to anyone’s rules, apart from those issued by the Good Lord Himself, saw her leading a hard and often itinerant life with her son. Backyard shacks, garages, flats in Hillbrow. She did what she could to escape the demands of others, lived to the beat of her own soul (guided always by sweet Jesus).
Of his father Noah has this to say,
“The fact that I grew up in a world run by women was no accident. Apartheid kept me away from my father because he was white, but for almost all the kids I knew in my grandmother’s neighbourhood in Soweto, apartheid had taken away their fathers as well, just for different reasons. Their fathers were off working in a mine somewhere, able to come home only during the holidays. Their fathers had been sent to prison. Their fathers were in exile, fighting for the cause. Women held the community together.”
Born A Crime is an engaging, fast-paced and vivid read traversing Noah’s early childhood – contained within the absurdities of apartheid – where he could not walk openly with either of his parents, where he was often closeted inside his grandmother Frances Noah’s two-roomed Orlando home, where he was mistaken for a white child, through to his troubled years at school, his brief incarceration, to his budding success as a hustler selling pirated CDs and DJing at parties.
Noah writes of his profiling as white in a black world with characteristic insight and humour:
“There were so many perks to being ‘white’ in a black family, I can’t lie. I was having a great time,” he says. Only Trevor didn’t think this special treatment was because he was light skinned but “I thought of it having to do with Trevor. It wasn’t ‘Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is white’. It was ‘Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is Trevor’.”
This was, he says, because he had no other points of reference.
“There were no other mixed kids around so I could say ‘Oh, this happens to us’.”
In the end Noah chose to be black, a state of mind, of being, that had so much more to do with his lived experience than someone else’s notion of who he was and is. And it was language that did it.
“I soon learnt that the quickest way to bridge the race gap was through language. Soweto was a melting pot; families from different cultural groups, and thus different homelands. Most kids in the township spoke only their home language, but I learnt several languages because I grew up in a house where there was no option but to learn them.”
And so it was that Trevor slipped his skin, became, as he says, a “chameleon” – ultimately the perfect talisman to begin to occupy a post-apartheid South Africa and reflect it back to itself – with humour and love.
Noah’s story provides an intimate ringside seat, for those who might not have one, to the fractured arena where a divided South Africa – white, black, coloured, Indian, Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tsonga and so on – intersects, be it gently, with hostility, in celebration or in ignorance or violence.
One of the most searing chapters is The Mulberry Tree which plays out in Eden park, a coloured area where Patricia and Trevor relocated and where the gentle Trevor finds himself confronted by a group of children who do not know what or who he is.
Children generally are sociopaths at the best of times and this bunch, after hurling insults at Noah – who is clearly not “culturally coloured” – begin to pelt him with mulberries. The incident is told in the unsentimental tone which permeates the book, a tone, or way of viewing life one suspects (nay, one knows) has been largely nourished by Noah’s mother.
It is this that allows him to survive it all, to rise above it, way above it, the scars and now the stars.
Noah’s descriptions of the stifling of talent and ambition in townships too is heartbreaking.
“We had created this idea of ourselves [as tough hoodlums] as a defence mechanism to survive the world we were living in. Bongani and the other East Bank guys – because of where they were from, what they looked like – they just had very little hope. You got two options in that situation. You take the retail job, flip burgers at McDonalds, if you’re one of the lucky few who even gets that much. The other option is to toughen up, put on this facade. You can’t leave the ‘hood, so you survive by the rules of the ‘hood. I chose to live in that world, but I wasn’t from that world. If anything I was an imposter.”
And in this absurd racialised, polarised world Noah learnt to code-switch.
There is a deeply touching moment in the book when Noah describes how his violent stepfather (who later shoots his mother) kicks his beloved dog, Fufi.
“The strange thing was that when Fufi got kicked she never whelped or cried. When the vet diagnosed her as deaf, he also found out she had some condition where she didn’t have a fully developed sense of touch. She didn’t feel pain.”
Noah too appears not to have felt the pain, appears to have taken it all in his stride, turned the hurt into humour and in so doing found a world he always knew existed, and in so many ways conquered it.
The book, while it reads wonderfully as a whole, is also carved up into 18 bite-sized holistic chapters that can be read on their own.
Noah’s book is essential reading not only because it is a deep and beautiful personal story of survival, leavened with insight and wit, but because it does more to expose apartheid – its legacy, its pettiness, its small-minded stupidity and its damage – than any history book or academic text.
Anyone still confused or baffled by the voices of the young that have risen these past two years will find illumination between the pages of this story.