Trevor Noah is regarded as one of South Africa’s biggest exports: the boy from the townships who made it big in the US and ended up hosting The Daily Show, one of the most influential satirical news programmes on American television.
But the odds always seemed stacked against Noah, as they are for South Africa’s black citizens. Many are trapped by the legacies of colonialism, apartheid and post-apartheid profligacy and face poverty, hunger, violence, bullying, racism and limited opportunities.
But there was an extraordinary buffer between this brutal world and Noah, as his autobiography, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, makes clear.
“For my mother. My first fan. Thank you for making me a man,” Noah writes in the book’s dedication. For indeed without his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, and the rebellious spirit that enabled her to face down a hostile and inhospitable world, Noah would not have ended up where he is.
Born a Crime is an engaging, fast-paced and vivid read, traversing Noah’s early childhood, confined by the absurdities of apartheid, where he could not walk openly with either of his parents, where he was often closeted inside his grandmother’s two-roomed home, where he was mistaken for white, through to his troubled years at school, his brief incarceration and to his budding success as a hustler selling pirated CDs and DJing at parties.
Noah was “born a crime” because his Xhosa mother had conceived a child with a white Swiss-German, which was illegal at the time. And while Noah was born in 1984, in the turbulent dying days of apartheid (he was only six when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990), the world into which he was delivered was riven with the deep scars of history.
“The fact that I grew up in a world run by women was no accident,” Noah writes. “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.”
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 writes. Only the young Noah did not think this special treatment was because he was light-skinned, but because he was special. “It wasn’t ‘Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is white’. It was ‘Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is Trevor’,” he writes.
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 that had so much more to do with his lived experience than someone else’s notion of who he was, and is.
“I soon learned 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 learned several languages because I grew up in a house where there was no option but to learn them.”
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.
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 or, at least, to have turned it into humour.
The book is essential reading not only because it is a 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 other recent history book or academic text.
That Noah has emerged miraculously unscathed, filled with determination, grit, wisdom, a searing intelligence (cultivated through the books he read as a loner) and an enduring mischievous glint, is inspiring. These are all qualities that the millions who know him as a standup comedian in South Africa have come to love.