Authors: Trevor Noah
“Get out of here! You people are disgusting.”
And there it was.
. Now I saw what the deal was: This lady was racist. She couldn’t see black men dancing suggestively and not get pissed off. As I started packing up my gear, we kept arguing.
“Listen, lady. We’re free now. We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do. You can’t stop us.”
“I’ll have you know that my people stopped people like you before, and we can stop you again.”
She was talking, of course, about stopping the Nazis in World War II, but that’s not what I was hearing. Jews in South Africa are just white people. All I was hearing was some white lady shouting about how white people beat us before and they’ll beat us again. I said, “You will
stop us again, lady”—and here’s where I played the trump card—“You’ll never stop us, because now we have
on our side! And he
us we can do this!”
She was so confused. I’d had it. I started cussing her out. “Fuck you, lady. Fuck your program. Fuck your school. Fuck your whole people. Let’s go, guys! We’re out!”
We didn’t walk out of that school. We danced out. We danced down the street pumping our fists in the air.
“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”
Because Hitler had shut shit down. Hitler had the most gangster dance moves ever, and those white people didn’t know what hit them.
lexandra was a farm originally named for the wife of the white man who owned it. Like Sophiatown and other black spots populating white areas before apartheid, Alex started out as a squatter settlement where blacks gathered and lived when coming to Johannesburg to find work. What was unique about Alex is that this farmer sold plots of land to some of the black tenants in the time before it was illegal for blacks to own property. So while Sophiatown and other black ghettos were razed and rebuilt as white suburbs, Alex fought and held on and asserted its right to exist. Wealthy white suburbs like Sandton grew around it, but Alex remained. More squatters came and more squatters came, putting up makeshift shacks and shanties. They look like the slums in Mumbai or the favelas in Brazil. The first time I saw the favelas in Rio I said, “Yeah, that’s Alexandra, but on a hill.”
Soweto was beautiful because, after democracy, you watched Soweto grow. Soweto has become a proper city unto itself. People went from three-room houses to five-room houses to three-bedroom houses with garages. There was room to grow because the piece of land from the government gave you something to build on. Alexandra can’t do that. Alex can’t get any bigger, because it’s pinned in on all sides, and it can’t build up, because it’s mostly shacks.
When democracy came, people flooded into Alex from the homelands, building new shacks in the backyards of other shacks with still more shacks attached to the backside of those shacks, growing more dense and more compressed, leaving close to 200,000 people living in a few square kilometers. Even if you go back today, Alex hasn’t changed. It can’t change. It’s physically impossible for it to change. It can only be what it is.
My friend Bongani was a short, bald, super-buff guy. He wasn’t always that way. His whole life he’d been skinny, and then a bodybuilding magazine found its way into his hands and changed his life. Bongani was one of those people who brought out the best in everybody. He was that friend who believed in you and saw the potential in you that nobody else did, which was why so many of the township kids gravitated toward him, and why I gravitated toward him as well. Bongani was always popular, but his reputation really took off when he beat up one of the more infamous bullies in the school. That cemented his status as sort of the leader and protector of the township kids.
Bongani lived in Alex, but I never visited him there while we were still in school; he’d always come to my house in Highlands North. I’d been to Alex a few times, for brief visits, but I’d never spent any real time there. I’d never been there at night, let’s put it that way. Going to Alex during the day is different from going there at night. The place was nicknamed Gomorrah for a reason.
One day after school, not long before we matriculated, Bongani walked up to me on the quad.
“Hey, let’s go to the hood,” he said.
At first I had no idea what he was talking about. I knew the word “hood” from rap songs, and I knew the different townships where black people lived, but I had never used the one to describe the other.
The walls of apartheid were coming down just as American hip-hop was blowing up, and hip-hop made it cool to be from the hood. Before, living in a township was something to be ashamed of; it was the bottom of the bottom. Then we had movies like
Boyz n the Hood
Menace II Society,
and they made the hood look cool. The characters in those movies, in the songs, they owned it. Kids in the townships started doing the same, wearing their identity as a badge of honor: You were no longer from the township—you were from the hood. Being from Alex gave you way more street cred than living in Highlands North. So when Bongani said, “Let’s go to the hood,” I was curious about what he meant. I wanted to find out more.
When Bongani took me to Alex we entered as most people do, from the Sandton side. You ride through one of the richest neighborhoods in Johannesburg, past palatial mansions and huge money. Then you go through the industrial belt of Wynberg that cordons off the rich and white from the poor and black. At the entrance to Alex there’s the huge minibus rank and the bus station. It’s the same bustling, chaotic third-world 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 it looks exactly the same.
Right next to the minibus rank, of course, is a KFC. That’s one thing about South Africa: There’s always a KFC. KFC found the black people. KFC did not play games. They were in the hood before McDonald’s, before Burger King, before anyone. KFC was like, “Yo, we’re
Once you go past the minibus rank, you’re in Alex proper. I’ve been in few places where there’s an electricity like there is in Alex. It’s a hive of constant human activity, all day long, people coming and going, gangsters hustling, guys on the corner doing nothing, kids running around. There’s nowhere for all that energy to go, no mechanism for it to dissipate, so it erupts periodically in epic acts of violence and crazy parties. One minute it’ll be a placid afternoon, people hanging out, doing their thing, and next thing you know there’s a cop car chasing gangsters, flying through the streets, a gun battle going off, helicopters circling overhead. Then, ten minutes later, it’s like it never happened—everyone’s back to hanging out, back to the hustle, coming and going, running around.
Alex is laid out on a grid, a series of avenues. The streets are paved, but the sidewalks are mostly dirt. The color scheme is cinder block and corrugated iron, gray and dark gray, punctuated by bright splashes of color. Someone’s painted a wall lime green, or there’s a bright-red sign above a takeaway shop, or maybe somebody’s picked up a bright-blue piece of sheet metal just by luck. There’s little in the way of basic sanitation. Trash is everywhere, typically a garbage fire going down some side street. There’s always something burning in the hood.
As you walk, there’s every smell you can imagine. People are cooking, eating takeaways in the streets. Some family has a shack that’s jury-rigged onto the back of someone else’s shack, and they don’t have any running water, so they’ve bathed in a bucket from the outdoor tap and then dumped the dirty water in the street, where it runs into the river of sewerage that’s already there because the water system has backed up again. There’s a guy fixing cars who thinks he knows what he’s doing, but he doesn’t. He’s dumping old motor oil into the street, and now the oil is combining with the dirty bathwater to make a river of filth running down the street. There’s probably a goat hanging around—there’s always a goat. As you’re walking, sound washes over you, the steady thrum of human activity, people talking in a dozen different languages, chatting, haggling, arguing. There’s music playing constantly. You’ve got traditional South African music coming from one corner, someone blasting Dolly Parton from the next corner, and somebody driving past pumping the Notorious B.I.G.
The hood was a complete sensory overload for me, but within the chaos there was order, a system, a social hierarchy based on where you lived. First Avenue was not cool at all because it was right next to the commotion of the minibus rank. Second Avenue was nice because it had semi-houses that were built when there was still some sort of formal settlement going on. Third, Fourth, and Fifth Avenues were nicer—for the township. These were the established families, the old money. Then from Sixth Avenue on down it got really shitty, more shacks and shanties. There were some schools, a few soccer fields. There were a couple of hostels, giant projects built by the government for housing migrant workers. You never wanted to go there. That’s where the serious gangsters were. You only went there if you needed to buy an AK-47.
After Twentieth Avenue you hit the Jukskei River, and on the far side of that, across the Roosevelt Street Bridge, was East Bank, the newest, nicest part of the hood. East Bank was where the government had gone in, cleared out the squatters and their shacks, and started to build actual homes. It was still low-income housing, but decent two-bedroom houses with tiny yards. The families who lived there had a bit of money and usually sent their kids out of the hood to better schools, like Sandringham. Bongani’s parents lived in East Bank, at the corner of Roosevelt and Springbok Crescent, and after walking from the minibus rank through the hood, we wound up there, hanging around outside his house on the low brick wall down the middle of Springbok Crescent, doing nothing, shooting the shit. I didn’t know it then, but I was about to spend the next three years of my life hanging out at that very spot.
I graduated from high school when I was seventeen, and by that point life at home had become toxic because of my stepfather. I didn’t want to be there anymore, and my mom agreed that I should move out. She helped me move to a cheap, roach-infested flat in a building down the road. My plan, insofar as I had one, was to go to university to be a computer programmer, but we couldn’t afford the tuition. I needed to make money. The only way I knew how to make money was selling pirated CDs, and one of the best places to sell CDs was in the hood, because that’s where the minibus rank was. Minibus drivers were always looking for new songs because having good music was something they used to attract customers.
Another nice thing about the hood was that it’s super cheap. You can get by on next to nothing. There’s a meal you can get in the hood called a
It’s a quarter loaf of bread. You scrape out the bread, then you fill it with fried potatoes, a slice of baloney, and some pickled mango relish called
That costs a couple of rand. The more money you have, the more upgrades you can buy. If you have a bit more money you can throw in a hot dog. If you have a bit more than that, you can throw in a proper sausage, like a bratwurst, or maybe a fried egg. The biggest one, with all the upgrades, is enough to feed three people.
For us, the ultimate upgrade was to throw on a slice of cheese. Cheese was always the thing because it was so expensive. Forget the gold standard—the hood operated on the cheese standard. Cheese on anything was money. If you got a burger, that was cool, but if you got a cheeseburger, that meant you had more money than a guy who just got a hamburger. Cheese on a sandwich, cheese in your fridge, that meant you were living the good life. In any township in South Africa, if you had a bit of money, people would say, “Oh, you’re a cheese boy.” In essence: You’re not really hood because your family has enough money to buy cheese.
In Alex, because Bongani and his crew lived in East Bank, they were considered cheese boys. Ironically, because they lived on the first street just over the river, they were looked down on as the scruff of East Bank and the kids in the nicer houses higher up in East Bank were the cheesier cheese boys. Bongani and his crew would never admit to being cheese boys. They would insist, “We’re not cheese. We’re hood.” But then the real hood guys would say, “Eh, you’re not hood. You’re cheese.” “We’re not cheese,” Bongani’s guys would say, pointing further up East Bank. “They’re cheese.” It was all a bunch of ridiculous posturing about who was hood and who was cheese.
Bongani was the leader of his crew, the guy who got everyone together and got things moving. Then there was Mzi, Bongani’s henchman. Small guy, just wanted to tag along, be in the mix. Bheki was the drinks man, always finding us booze and always coming up with an excuse to drink. Then there was Kakoatse. We called him G. Mr. Nice Guy. All G was interested in was women. If women were in the mix, he was in the game. Then, finally, there was Hitler, the life of the party. Hitler just wanted to dance.
Cheese boys were in a uniquely fucked situation when apartheid ended. It is one thing to be born in the hood and know that you will never leave the hood. But the cheese boy has been shown the world outside. His family has done okay. They have a house. They’ve sent him to a decent school; maybe he’s even matriculated. He has been given more potential, but he has not been given more opportunity. He has been given an awareness of the world that is out there, but he has not been given the means to reach it.
The unemployment rate, technically speaking, was “lower” in South Africa during apartheid, which makes sense. There was slavery—that’s how everyone was employed. When democracy came, everyone had to be paid a minimum wage. The cost of labor went up, and suddenly millions of people were out of work. The unemployment rate for young black men post-apartheid shot up, sometimes as high as 50 percent. What happens to a lot of guys is they finish high school and they can’t afford university, and even little retail jobs can be hard to come by when you’re from the hood and you look and talk a certain way. So, for many young men in South Africa’s townships, freedom looks like this: Every morning they wake up, maybe their parents go to work or maybe not. Then they go outside and chill on the corner the whole day, talking shit. They’re free, they’ve been taught how to fish, but no one will give them a fishing rod.
One of the first things I learned in the hood is that there is a very fine line between civilian and criminal. We like to believe we live in a world of good guys and bad guys, and in the suburbs it’s easy to believe that, because getting to know a career criminal in the suburbs is a difficult thing. But then you go to the hood and you see there are so many shades in between.
In the hood, gangsters were your friends and neighbors. You knew them. You talked to them on the corner, saw them at parties. They were a part of your world. You knew them from before they became gangsters. It wasn’t, “Hey, that’s a crack dealer.” It was, “Oh, little Jimmy’s selling crack now.” The weird thing about these gangsters was that they were all, at a glance, identical. They drove the same red sports car. They dated the same beautiful eighteen-year-old girls. It was strange. It was like they didn’t have personalities; they shared a personality. One could be the other, and the other could be the one. They’d each studied how to be