Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
“This book is a breath of fresh air.”
Born A Crime is a rollicking ride of a book, an enjoyable feast of storytelling. Deservedly it is already a number one bestselling book. Combining comedy and tragedy, the book covers the dying days of apartheid in South Africa and the uncertain dawn of a new age as Nelson Mandela tries to birth a Rainbow Nation out of a horrific, nationalist, racist past.
Trevor Noah’s autobiography of his childhood and adolescence in this perilous, shifting landscape cleverly avoids polemical statements and moral platitudes. Instead he describes a resilient and opportunistic child and teenager whose intuitive street smarts lead him into a hustler’s life. The very facts of how he learns to navigate the political currents swirling around him provides vivid commentary on those challenging times for South Africa.
The book begins and ends with chapters on his mother. She is a woman of unbreakable religious faith. Sundays with Mom mean attending three different churches in three different parts of Johannesburg and environs.
Mrs. Noah is a formidable woman. She knowingly broke apartheid laws designating as a crime sexual intercourse between people of different races. Yet, she moved into a “gray” area (neither white nor black-only residences) with a man she loved, a Swiss man. Wanting a child she persuaded him to be the father.
When Trevor was born she moved back to her mother in Soweto, the sprawling black township near Johannesburg. Trevor became accustomed to clandestine visits to his father. He learned that if they were out in public he could not call him “Dad” and must walk alongside his mother but several steps behind his father. In later years his father moved to Cape Town, and they lost contact.
Trevor does not enjoy church and argues continually with his mother about her Sunday regime. But she is steadfast in her faith overcoming all obstacles an inadequate transport system throws in her way. Only when he was an older teenager and living away from home did Trevor stop going to church.
By then we have learned of his mother’s marriage to a Tsonga man, a master mechanic, Abel, and of their move to a previously “whites only” suburb where Abel houses his business. Eventually Trevor has two younger brothers, Andrew and Isaac.
Early on Trevor experiences being on the receiving end of Abel’s strength, wrath and other ravages his alcoholism bring. But this move does not only portend tragedy. Fortuitously it also provides Trevor with a shot at better schooling. He is now enrolled in previous “whites only” schools.
At junior high and high school, Trevor encounters the heartache of crushed love. He struggles to find his identity as a so-called “colored” youth, unacceptable to both the black kids at school and the white. His identity crisis also creates opportunities as he uses his entrepreneurial instincts to keep himself busy and earn some money.
“My life of crime started off small. Selling pirated CDs on the corner. That in itself was a crime, and today I feel I owe all these artists money for stealing their music, but by hood standards it didn’t even qualify as illegal. At the time it never occurred to any of us that we were doing anything wrong—if copying CDs is wrong, why would they make CD writers?”
Trevor graduates from high school and wants to study computer programming at university, but the family does not have the money to pay for his studies. Unemployment among black youth is as high as 50 percent. For the last two years of his adolescence, Trevor, living away from home, and along with friends, works the streets of seedy and dangerous Alexandria Township selling pirated CDs, DJ’ing wherever invited, and working deals for other hustlers that give him and his cronies a cut of the profit.
Inevitably, the day arrives where he is stopped by the cops and arrested for driving a stolen car. The car belongs to Abel but Trevor “borrowed” it and put on false number plates. He cannot find the registration papers. Through guile he avoids a jail sentence but after describing a week in a holding pen awaiting trail, we see fully that the new black police force is as brutal as their white predecessors.
The book ends on a poignant note. Trevor, in his twenties and working as a stand-up comic, on Sunday morning is called by one of his younger brothers and told Abel shot their mother. Her life had moved on from Abel having divorced him and married again. One Sunday in a drunken rage he sought her out and shot her. Miraculously she survives, and Noah writes movingly of how her near-death experience highlights their indestructible bond and how much having her as his mother shaped his life.
Once she is out of danger they sit on her hospital bed, “She broke into a huge smile and started laughing. Through my tears I started laughing too. I was bawling my eyes out and laughing hysterically at the same time. We sat there and she squeezed my hand and we cracked each other up the way we always did, mother and son. Laughing together through the pain in an intensive-care recovery room on a bright and sunny and beautiful day.”
This book is a breath of fresh air. Hopefully a sequel is in the works. We wonder how Trevor Noah made the leap from stand-up comic in South Africa to anchor The Daily Show as Jon Stewart’s successor in New York.