Noah’s long journey to fame
Michael Donaldson talks to The Daily Show host Trevor Noah about his extraordinary life as a mixed-race child in apartheid South Africa.
Trevor Noah arrived in the United States in 2011 as an aspiring comedian. Within four years, the 33-year-old South African had landed in American homes as Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show, continuing an overseas takeover of US comedy’s hottest seats.
It might look like he came from nowhere to ascend one of the highest thrones of entertainment, but it’s been a long journey to fame and something of a miracle he even made it out of South Africa alive. And the truth is, he probably shouldn’t have been born at all.
Noah’s recently released memoir Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood doesn’t dwell on how he made the step from South Africa to America – or any of his adult achievements. Instead it focuses purely on an extraordinary, almost bizarre, childhood that allows you to extrapolate the rest of his journey. That story is mixed with short essays that offer a scathing dissection of South Africa’s apartheid system, commentaries on white privilege, the oppression of non-whites, domestic violence, religion and economic hardship.
Noah’s upbringing, much like his DNA, is beyond classification and his relationship with his mother is the essence of the book. Patricia Noah worked her way out of a shack in Soweto to something approaching a middle-class lifestyle. Along the way, she decided to have a child almost as a form of protest at South Africa’s Immorality Act which forbade sexual relations between black and white.
Her decision to have a child with a Swiss-German man who was disinterested in the idea of fatherhood produced what South Africa’s apartheid regime classified as a coloured child whose very existence was proof of the fact a crime had been committed.
‘‘I was lucky in that the year I was born, 1984, apartheid was on its last legs but under the Immorality Act the state could imprison people for up to five years for sex with another race. Me being born was a representation of the crime my parents committed.
‘‘But she was very daring my mum. She always fought to live her life the way she felt she had a right to live it. That served the family well – being in the shadow of a pioneer meant we benefited from those things.’’
‘‘My mum is somebody who sees life in a holistic manner; she looks at the philosophy of life, why things are happening and she tries to make herself better.’’
While she was socially progressive, she was a religious conservative, attending church three times on a Sunday and constantly arguing with her son about religion and the power of prayer.
As a black woman with a coloured child, Patricia often had to pretend she was his nanny as opposed to his mother; and whenever he visited his father they’d stay inside rather than be seen together in public.
She was also a tough disciplinarian and an enterprising problem-solver. Take for instance the fact his mother used to chase him around the streets trying to catch him and punish him for some misdemeanour. She was a quick runner but when her boy proved too elusive she would shout ‘‘Stop! Thief!’’ and implore others to apprehend him on her behalf.
As befits a child born as a statement of dissent, trouble followed Noah everywhere he went. He was a smart child who didn’t quite fit in, blacks saw him as white; whites saw him as black. He learned to adapt (he spoke South Africa’s main official languages, English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu), dissemble and run – very fast. And when he didn’t run fast enough his mixed race colouring often ensured he usually got away with whatever he’d done.
His skin colour, he notes, granted him privilege – he got away with stuff because his mocha colouring confused both his family and authorities. His grandmother refused to hit him the way she hit her black grandchildren because his light-coloured skin showed the bruises and it confounded her. And a shoplifting incident caught on CCTV resulted in his black friend being apprehended but Noah got away because the contrast showed him up as whiter than he was.
From petty crime, such as throwing rocks through windows for fun, to shoplifting, car theft, and the music piracy that launched his career as a DJ in the black township of Alexandra – throughout his childhood, Noah got away with stuff. At any point in his early life he could have been jailed or killed.
‘‘I see these as brushes that could have taken my life in a completely different direction,’’ he says. ‘‘It took a bit of time for my hard-headedness to acknowledge the lessons life was teaching me. And I do acknowledge luck and the role it played in my life but I don’t think of it as just luck – that’s basically what privilege is a lot of the time; you get away with things other people wouldn’t get away with.’’
What Noah’s book does so well is use the personal stories to explore the darkest aspects of apartheid and the equally horrific post-apartheid era where racial oppression was compounded by economic oppression. There are no rose-tinted glasses – the reality is raw and jaw-dropping.
As a book released in the twilight zone that follows Donald Trump’s election as US President, its commentary on race, hate and division seems eerily well-timed.
‘‘The reason I wrote the book is that I felt like the stories of my childhood are more applicable now than ever before,’’ Noah says. ‘‘The conversations we’re having now in America and around the world can apply to a lot of what we went through in South Africa.’’
In fact, he feels as if America – and to a lesser extent Europe – is regressing to an age when apartheid and racial division were the norm.
‘‘We’re in a space where it feels like we’re moving backwards in the world. When people are pressed and feel like they have to make a choice, they are choosing themselves at the expense of others and unfortunately that choice comes in the form of an exclusionary attitude and a hatred. What’s more frightening is that people feel they have a licence and a right to act in a certain way because their votes, and the results of their votes, represent a certain point of view.’’
The parallels between apartheid in South Africa and the rise of the white supremacy (or the alt-right if you prefer that euphemism) in Europe and America, however, are – while relevant – incidental to the political theme of Born A Crime. What Noah wants to tell the world about his homeland is that, like him, there’s more to South Africa’s story than meets the eye.
‘‘The book is about me coming of age during apartheid as well as the coming of age of a country postapartheid. A lot of people think the story of South Africa is that there was apartheid and then it ended. That Nelson Mandela coming to power solved the issue.
‘‘It takes much longer to change the hearts of people. You can change the laws of the land they live in – any law meant to break hateful rhetoric or deliver equal rights doesn’t mean the people in that country immediately adopt that attitude, it takes a long time for the effects to be felt.’’
While Noah describes himself as an ‘‘aficionado of racism’’ and he’s hugely critical of how race is used to pit people against each other; he’s a stronger critic of economic division, noting ‘‘wallet-size’’ is more divisive than skin colour.
One of his constant messages in the book is an extension of the old proverb ‘‘teach a man to fish’’. He argues it’s all very well teaching someone to fish but if you don’t give them a rod, some hooks and access to a boat, the fish are going to stay in the sea.
Which brings us to an issue close to New Zealanders’ hearts – racial quotas in sport, notably the Springboks rugby team, who are compelled to have a squad that is 50 per cent non-white by the time of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, or the Proteas cricket team, which must have six blacks among its 11 players, including two black Africans.
There is huge criticism of the quotas, with many claiming the Springboks fall from power in rugby – they recently lost to Italy for the first time and were beaten by Wales for just the third time in over 100 years – as signs the system is doomed to failure.
But Noah, despite being a rugby fan (like many non-whites in South Africa he supported the All Blacks as a child, because of the name and the fact they had players like Jonah Lomu ‘‘who looked like me’’) is adamant quotas must stay.
‘‘You have to give people the tools and the opportunity. With quotas there are many angles you have to look at. You have to look at the history of a country, and what people were excluded from, and you have to look at the nature of people who did the excluding.
‘‘To the people who say ‘you don’t need a quota, it should be on merit’, you can reply ‘yes but what we’ve seen from our history is that when it was opened up to merit, the merit system didn’t take into account the talent of people but disenfranchised them because of their skin colour’.
‘‘So you have to correct for that now and you have to correct for it until you genuinely think it’s a non-issue. It’s like walking with a brace on your knee after you’ve had an injury – you have to compensate for the fact the knee is not doing what it’s supposed to. You have that in place until the knee is fully functioning again. You can’t argue ‘Why does that need a brace? Why don’t you just walk on it?’.
‘‘A lot of the time people complain about equality because they see it as oppression. That’s because they’ve lived for so long thinking everything is theirs and when they have to share they see that as something taken away from them.
‘‘But the truth is that it was taken away from other people beforehand and it’s now being equally accessed by everyone.’’ ❚ New episodes of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah debut at 11.55pm Tuesdays to Fridays on Sky TV’s Comedy Central. His stand-up comedy special Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark begins streaming on Netflix from February 21.
"Me being born was a representation of the crime my parents committed." Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah’s recently-released memoir Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood focuses purely on an extraordinary, almost bizarre, childhood.