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.

The Press - - Culture -

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.

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