Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
By Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau, 2016
Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru
Trevor Noah has been accused of being an African who’s “too Westernized.” The host of ‘The Daily Show’ on the cable channel Comedy Central just achieved the epitome of success in mainstream media history. He’s successfully replaced one of the most popular satiric ‘fake news’ anchor men, Jon Stewart, after his failure had been initially predicted and practically assured.
So how could a South African comedian who probably had little acquaintance with the in’s, out’s and underbelly of American news achieve the sort of satirical edge that Stewart’s audiences had come to expect?
Well, he did it by being real, doing his homework and drawing on his own knowledge, grounded in a global media environment that brought American news into South African homes just as easily as it went into American urban dwellings.
In his memoir, ‘Born a Crime’, Trevor, whose father was Swiss-German and his mother Xhosa (like Nelson Mandela), reveals the key influences and earthy experiences that have shaped his life. The book exposes the gritty, often gut-wrenching struggles he went through to become the amazingly insightful and witty human being he shows himself to be five nights a week on cable TV.
Always the odd man out, Noah’s life was quite literally a crime according to Apartheid law, which was only changed several years after he was born.
He was six years old when Mandela was released from 27 years in prison and life in South Africa began to change. Legal frameworks upholding racism were relaxed. But for poor people, life hardly changed at all.
Trevor had grown up dirt poor. His mother was a brilliantly street-savvy peasant who was bound and determined to have a better life than the rest of her family. She ran away from home in her teens, overcame countless odds during the height of Apartheid, got secretarial training and finally met Trevor’s father.
But while there was a loving relationship between them, the two lived together only briefly. Essentially, Trevor was raised by a single mother who adored her son despite his being a naughty trickster of a child.
Having discovered early on that he would never be anything other than an ‘outsider’, Trevor also realized that his sense of humor was his means of making his way in life.
‘Born a Crime’ also reveals how self-reflective he is. Having grown up on the edge of a racist society which was just barely emerging from the fascist apartheid regime, he had clearly given a good deal of thought to how he’d managed to make his way in the world.
His book is rich with sociological insights on the meaning and methods of racism. But his writing is never academic. It’s exceedingly personal and revealing of the sundry survival tactics he employed to not only survive but actually do quite well financially as well as socially.
Never the lady’s man, Trevor’s experience with women was nearly non-existent, given his staunch Christian upbringing and his mixed status. For in South Africa, he did not fit into any official classification. He was neither white nor black nor colored, although he identified as a black. But blacks largely viewed him as ‘white’ and therefore alien.
The beauty of ‘Born a Crime is that it’s relevant to anyone concerned with how one savvy ‘outsider’ copes with his alienation from society at large. The fact that Trevor found humor his salvation as well as his source of livelihood offers a lesson we can all learn from. For he proves that laughter and wit can go a long way to easing social tensions and solving deep seated social problems.