South Africa’s Trevor Noah: Surviving apartheid with a dose of humour

By Mabrouck Rachedi
Posted on Friday, 11 June 2021 10:15

Trevor Noah arrives at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday, March 14, 2021. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

In 'Born a Crime', Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and television host, delivers a witty and spirited memoir.

After France’s victory in the 2018 football World Cup, Trevor Noah stirred controversy with a joke he made during The Daily Show, his satirical news programme, about how “Africa won the World Cup”. The quip was met with a scathing response by the French ambassador to the United States.

The actor, comedian and television host has a most unconventional background, as he was born to a black mother and a white father in Johannesburg in 1984 during South Africa’s apartheid era. Noah’s memoir, titled Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, offers an in-depth account of his remarkable rise from a child growing up under apartheid to an adult landing Jon Stewart’s job as Daily Show host.

The wrong colour kid in the wrong colour area, and the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage.

As a child, Noah was remarkable in every sense of the word. “Unlike in America, where anyone with one drop of black blood automatically became black, in South Africa mixed people came to be classified as their own separate group, neither black nor white but what we call ‘coloured’,” he writes. “Coloured people, black people, white people, and Indian people were forced to register their race with the government.”

The thing is, he didn’t fit easily into any of these categories. “It was illegal to be mixed (to have a black parent and a white parent), but it was not illegal to be coloured (to have two parents who were both coloured),” he writes. Worse still, he “was the proof of their [his parents’] criminality”.

Before apartheid unravelled, his parents had to find clever ways to hide his forbidden biracial heritage. In the king of irony’s own words, their efforts led to funny-yet-sad situations that highlighted the stark reality of the system they were up against: “The wrong colour kid in the wrong colour area, and the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage.”

Never fitting in

South Africa remained deeply segregated in the post-apartheid period. Raised by a single mother in a variety of places, Noah never felt he fit in anywhere.

He writes: “In Hillbrow, we lived in a white area, and nobody looked like me. In Soweto, we lived in a black area, and nobody looked like me. Eden Park was a coloured area. In Eden Park, everyone looked like me, but we couldn’t have been more different. It was the biggest mindfuck I’ve ever experienced.”

Even though I didn’t belong to one group, I could be a part of any group that was laughing.

In South Africa’s racially segregated society, he sometimes had to pick a side. When he was 11 and began attending a new school, based on the results of an aptitude test, he was put in a class of mostly white students.

After meeting other black students during recess, he told the school counsellor that he wanted to be in the same class as them. “Before that recess I’d never had to choose, but when I was forced to choose, I chose black,” Noah writes.

He would have to make this kind of choice in other circumstances and would sometimes opt to be coloured or white instead of black. Such experiences led him to conclude that “even though I didn’t belong to one group, I could be a part of any group that was laughing”.

‘Tough love’

Born a Crime retains the caustic wit of Noah’s Daily Show persona, offering a dark-comedy take on the events that shaped him and his family life. Dedicated to his mother, the memoir paints her in a charming light; she is the driving force behind the author’s writing, all the way through to the last chapter, which provides a vivid, deeply moving account of her life.

Noah begins the book by recounting an incident in which she pushed him, half-asleep and just nine years old, out of a moving car. Her action initially seems heartless, but his skilful storytelling gradually reveals what led up to that split-second decision.

Two men had picked up Noah, his younger brother and his mother in their minibus, a popular form of public transport at the time. They were the only passengers in the vehicle. At one point, the driver and his accomplice, both armed, became aggressive and started calling his mother a slut. Fearing for her family’s safety, she pushed her son out of the car in an attempt to save their lives.

Noah portrays his mother as a sort of loving monster whose mantra was “tough love”. She once explained to her son, “If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”

Describing how his mother would chase after him when she caught him doing something naughty, Noah writes: “We had a very Tom and Jerry relationship, me and my mom.” He also expresses his admiration for the way she raised him to believe that he could do anything he wanted, regardless of the limitations South African society put on non-whites: “She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do.”

Despite being poor, his mother took him “on drives through fancy white neighbourhoods”, to the ice rink, to the drive-in cinema.

‘Pencil test’

We’ve all learned about the racist, discriminatory, violent and murderous apartheid regime, but Noah’s book brings it to life. Readers discover the system’s utter absurdity when he explains that “Japanese people were labelled as white” while Chinese people were considered black, and how people were arbitrarily put into categories based on “things like the pencil test”: if a pencil stayed in your hair, you were likely to be defined as black.

The system was equal parts grotesque and appalling, as thousands of stories tell us. Once apartheid officially ended, South African society transitioned from a system based on a legally established racial hierarchy to one rife with persistent structural inequalities. A great number of former colonial states have experienced the same phenomenon.

I’ll refrain from spoiling the rest of the incredible events that punctuated Noah’s childhood (other than his brief stint in a South African jail and his mother’s miraculous recovery from a gunshot wound to the face). No one can tell these stories better than the author himself.

Noah may poke fun at society’s obsession with colour, but I am happy to lose myself in the 50 shades of his humour. On top of his wit, which any true fan knows he has plenty of, he reveals himself to be an author in his own right:

“I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family. My mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is black. My father, Robert, is white. Swiss/German, to be precise, which Swiss/Germans invariably are. During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime.”

More than a mere memoir, Born a Crime offers great insight into apartheid- and post-apartheid-era South Africa. This gem of a book puts Noah on the map as a remarkable writer with an equally remarkable life story.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Spiegel & Grau, 304 pages).

A brief South Africa history refresher 

  • 1910: Racial segregation became enshrined in law through the Colour Bar Act, which was instituted in all British colonies where race relations were governed by legislation.
  • 1948: The Afrikaner National Party took power and established apartheid.
  • 1959: Territories called Bantustans, or black homelands, were set up in order to segregate black South Africans from whites.
  • 1962: Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC), was arrested.
  • 1990: Mandela was released after serving 27 years in prison.
  • 1991: The government repealed South Africa’s last remaining segregation laws.
  • 1994: In the country’s first multiracial general election, Mandela was elected president of the Republic of South Africa.

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