Trevor Noah literally stole the show from John Stewart. No one would have imagined that a non-American, and really not an African, would have replaced the exceptional John Stewart as the host of The Daily Show on American television channel Comedy Central.
For John Stewart was probably the standard against which liberal or left-leaning satire was measured in America when he hosted The Daily Show from 1999 to 2015. He was the master of humour, lampooning politicians and celebrities, quizzing artist, writers and intellectuals and giving his audiences a chance to laugh at themselves as well, like all good comedians. But, Trevor Noah, the boy from the black neighbourhoods of Apartheid South Africa arrived and wowed the main Stewart’s audience and succeeded the master.
Trevor Noah describes himself as an oddity. He was born of a black South African mother and a white Swiss/German father. But he was born at a time when intimacy or marriage between black and white was illegal. This is why he calls his memoirs, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (John Murray Publishers, 2016).
This book is as racy as Trevor’s jokes. Not that life was a joke in Apartheid South Africa when he was growing up. There were no light moments when one broke laws, such as those that banned sexual relationships between white and black people.
Walking on the wrong side of the road or sitting on the wrong bench could easily have landed one in prison. Blacks were easily shot for straying onto farms owned by whites.
These are the conditions in which Trevor Noah was born, schooled, grew up but still managed to find some freedom and livelihood in entertaining other blacks.
Born a Crime is Trevor’s ode to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. Like many black South Africans living in Johannesburg during Apartheid, Ms Noah lived in Soweto. But like many human beings living under constraining circumstances, she wanted freedom — Johannesburg was definitely very alluring for a young woman like her.
So, when she was employed as a secretary in a pharmaceutical company in Braamfontein, in downtown Johannesburg, in early 1980s, she sought ways to beat the system and enjoy some of the privileges preserved for whites only. Of course there were black women of the city with tricks aplenty to help her. All that a black woman needed was to dress up like a maid. It allowed one some freedom during the day. But Ms. Noah used this trick to survive in the city, would be arrested, fined and rearrested for being found in a white neighborhood but kept at it.
Eventually she got into a relationship with a white man and nine months later, as Trevor writes, she had a C-section “on February 20, 1984” and had “a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations.”
This is how Trevor was “born a crime.” But really what Trevor is talking about here is the immense spirit of adventure and defiance and intelligence, which mark his mother’s and his own life later.
He describes it this way: “If you ask my mother whether she ever considered the ramifications of having a mixed child under Apartheid, she will say no. She wanted to do something, figured out the way to do it, and then she did it. She had a level of fearlessness that you have to possess to take on something like she did. If you stop to consider the ramifications, you’ll never do anything. Still, it was a crazy, reckless thing to do. A million things had to go right for us to slip through the cracks the way we did for as long as we did.”
It would take the same audacity for the coloured, Soweto-raised boy to cross the Atlantic Ocean and become the host of a globally watched show that today is one of the few globally accessible avenues for laughing at Donald Trump’s tantrums.
To watch Trevor raise Donald Trump on his little finger and bring him down with a thunder to the applause of the studio and global audiences is to appreciate the value of his words above. This is truly the neighbourhood kid who learned some of the toughest survival lessons in the ghetto.
The languages — isn’t comedy about stirring a language till it cracks a joke on its own — of which he speaks about nine, were key to survival on the streets of Soweto and Johannesburg. The fact that here was a white-looking kid who could speak Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana or Tsonga as well as Afrikaans and English, when circumstances demanded, was a kind of security in some situations but also a ticket to places and people that made life manageable for a non-white in South Africa.
Using such skills, Trevor went on to become a popular kid, copying CDs and deejaying after school. In this way he claimed and built his African identity, setting the stage for a South African following that would in future make him a star TV actor, deejay and stand-up comedian.
The memoir, in many ways, isn’t really a rail against Apartheid. There are just too many texts already on that subject. Instead, it is a book about how black South Africans in general fared under Apartheid and how some — like his mother — confronted and contested the impositions of the system to win some concessions or prepare for an Apartheid-free South Africa.
At the same time, it is also about others — like his step father Abel Ngisaveni — a brilliant mechanic who could only resort to violence when unable to manage his affairs. Once, angry after Trevor’s mother had left him and started a relationship with someone else, he shot her and threatened to shoot Trevor, too. In many parts, though, it is a story of a loving but strict mother, intent on raising a responsible child in trying circumstances.
But in the end Born a Crime gives us a glimpse into the past of the young man from Johannesburg, the outsider who broke all expected rules to take over a show that in many ways a foreigner wouldn’t have been expected to cohost, and what propels that daring spirit.
Tough love from a caring mother; social security from maternal relatives; lessons in hustling from neighbourhood kids; wittiness and willingness to make friends and blend in; and intelligence are some of the skills and tools that made Trevor endure the vagaries of Apartheid South Africa.
But they remain the building blocks for his comedy, which, by the global nature of his job today, demands that he rises above the ‘local’ (South African/African) stereotypes that mainly flavoured his early career.
This book is a lesson aspiring and even experienced Kenyans should read.
What others say
Noah Book received worldwide acclaim
“(A) compelling new memoir . . . By turns alarming, sad and funny, (Trevor Noah’s) book provides a harrowing look, through the prism of Mr. Noah’s family, at life in South Africa under Apartheid. . . . In the end, Born a Crime is not just an unnerving account of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, but a love letter to the author’s remarkable mother.”— Michiko Kakutani,
The New York Times
“What makes Born a Crime such a soul-nourishing pleasure, even with all its darker edges and perilous turns, is reading Noah recount in brisk, warmly conversational prose how he learned to negotiate his way through the bullying and ostracism. . . .
What also helped was having a mother like Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. . . .
Consider Born a Crime another such gift to her—and an enormous gift to the rest of us.”