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Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

October 10th, 2019 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

Last month I snapped up Trevor Noah’s autobiographical book, Born a Crime while it was the 99p Kindle deal of the day. I kind of regret that because it is very much worth the full price – currently £4.99

The book has two big things going for it: a remarkable story to tell and a very readable writing style. Part of the story is the background situation and Noah does a good job of explaining some of the details of apartheid, which are truly shocking. Obviously I remember all the fuss about apartheid in the 80’s, and probably took part in demos about it (there were so many marches and demos then it is hard to remember exactly which I was at) but now realise that I didn’t know a lot about the nitty-gritty details of it, and certainly not the human dimension that this book brings to the topic.

Such details ought to be depressing, and they are, but the tone of the book is far from it. Actually that might be the most depressing thing about it on a meta level: so many of the injustices of apartheid were so ingrained that they were more or less accepted and worked around. This book does not skirt around the basic evil of the system but also highlights some of the ridiculousness of its administration.

As if state-sanctioned racism was not enough, other issues are highlighted like domestic abuse, police corruption and above all poverty. It is very rare to find such good first-hand accounts of extreme poverty because those living it so rarely manage to escape from it to tell that tale.

There are some genuinely hilarious situations in there. The one that springs to mind first is when Trevor is a DJ with a dance crew featuring his friend Hitler and what happens when they perform at a Jewish school. It comes with some interesting background about how and why Hitler is not an uncommon name for black South Africans, including this insight:

Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West, but if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler.

Each section of the book starts with a little history lesson, explaining some aspect of apartheid or South African culture and then the autobiographical part may illustrate that, but sometimes doesn’t. Both the historical parts and the autobiographical parts are so well conveyed in a fluid, informal style, that sometimes disguises the depth of feeling, the seriousness of the topic or the often petic turns of phrase. One passage I particularly liked was this:

At the entrance to Alex there’s a minibus rank and the bus station. It’s the same bustling, chaotic third-worl marketplace you see in James Bond and Jason Bourne movies. It’s Grand Central Station but outdoors. Everything’s dynamic. Everything’s in motion. Nothing feels like it was there yesterday, and nothing feels like it will be there tomorrow, but every day looks exactly the same.

Having only seen Trevor Noah on TV comedy shows I was surprised at just how rough his life was. It was a rough time and place to grow up anyway, but his background prevented him fitting in anywhere because the laws of the land had no category for a child with a black parent and a white parent because such a thing was not supposed to happen. Too light to be black, too dark to be white, and with the wrong background to be officially classed and coloured, and always at risk of being taken away by the authorities. All this against a background of poverty beyond anything we can imagine in the UK.

I had never imagined his childhood and teenage life to involve piracy, petty crime, hustling but also servicing cars at the age of nine. OK so Trevor Noah is now one of the most famous people on TV – listed in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018  – and that is the most intriguing things because the book doesn’t explain how he got there from where he started. Obviously saving that for a sequel, which I will queue up to read if it happens.

This book only really gives details up to about the age of 18, which would be about 2002. At that time he was still aimlessly knocking around, indulging in semi-criminal (by our standards) activities. Only 9 years later he was doing well enough to move to the US and only a couple of years after that he took over from Jon Stewart. There is no indication anywhere of how anybody can make that transition so quickly, from nothing, which makes a sequel absolutely essential.

The last chapter of the book tells of events in 2009 when Trevor is obviously doing OK and has some money in the bank but this is only implied, which makes it all the more intriguing.

The whole thing makes you appreciate just what a big deal it is for Noah to have done so well and how he must be regarded back home in the townships as a local boy done good. It also makes you think that the real hero is his mother, and I really look forward to the film of the book where she will be played by Lupita Nyong’o.

In other words, its a bloody brilliant book. Read it.




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