Authors: Trevor Noah
In the hood, even if you’re not a hardcore criminal, crime is in your life in some way or another. There are degrees of it. It’s everyone from the mom buying some food that fell off the back of a truck to feed her family, all the way up to the gangs selling military-grade weapons and hardware. The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.
My life of crime started off small, selling pirated CDs on the corner. That in itself was a crime, and today I feel like I owe all these artists money for stealing their music, but by hood standards it didn’t even qualify as illegal. At the time it never occurred to any of us that we were doing anything wrong—if copying CDs is wrong, why would they make CD writers?
The garage of Bongani’s house opened up onto Springbok Cresent. Every morning we’d open the doors, run an extension cord out into the street, set up a table, and play music. People would walk by and ask, “What is that? Can I get one, please?” Our corner was also where a lot of minibus drivers ended their routes and turned around to loop back to the minibus rank. They’d swing by, place an order, come back, pick it up. Swing by, place an order, come back, pick it up. We spent our whole day running out to them, going back to the garage to make more mixes, and going back out to sell. There was a converted shipping container around the corner where we’d hang out when we got tired of the wall. It had a pay phone installed inside that we’d use to call people. When things were slow we’d wander back and forth between the container and the wall, talking and hanging out with the other people with nothing to do in the middle of the day. We’d talk to drug dealers, talk to gangsters. Every now and then the cops would come crashing through. A day in the life of the hood. Next day, same thing.
Selling slowly evolved into hustling because Bongani saw all the angles and knew how to exploit them. Like Tom, Bongani was a hustler. But where Tom was only about the short con, Bongani had schemes: If we do this, we get that, then we can flip that for the other thing, which gives us the leverage we need to get something bigger. Some minibus drivers couldn’t pay up front, for example. “I don’t have the money, because I’ve just started my shift,” they’d say. “But I need new music. Can I owe you guys some form of credit? I’ll owe you a ride. I’ll pay you at the end of my shift, at the end of the week?” So we started letting drivers buy on credit, charging them a bit of interest.
We started making more money. Never more than a few hundred, maybe a thousand rand at a time, but it was all cash on hand. Bongani was quick to realize the position we were in. Cash is the one thing everyone in the hood needs. Everyone’s looking for a short-term loan for something, to pay a bill or pay a fine or just hold things together. People started coming to us and asking for money. Bongani would cut a deal, and then he’d come to me. “Yo, we’re going to make a deal with this guy. We’re going to loan him a hundred, and he’s going to give us back one-twenty at the end of the week.” I’d say okay. Then the guy would come back and give us 120 rand. Then we did it again. Then we did it some more. We started to double our money, then triple our money.
Cash gave us leverage in the hood’s barter economy as well. It’s common knowledge that if you’re standing at a corner of a main street in the hood, somebody’s going to try to sell you something. “Yo, yo, yo, man. You want some weed?” “You wanna buy a VCR?” “You wanna buy a DVD player?” “Yo, I’m selling a TV.” That’s just how it works.
Let’s say we see two guys haggling on the corner, a crackhead trying to sell a DVD player and some working dude who wants it but doesn’t have the money because he hasn’t got his wages yet. They’re going back and forth, but the crackhead wants the money now. Crackheads don’t wait. There’s no layaway plan with a crackhead. So Bongani steps in and takes the working guy aside.
“Look, I understand you can’t pay for the DVD player now,” Bongani says. “But how much are you willing to pay for it?”
“I’ll pay one-twenty,” he says.
Then Bongani takes the crackhead aside.
“How much do you want for the DVD player?”
“I want one-forty.”
“Okay, listen. You’re a crackhead. This is a stolen DVD player. I’m going to give you fifty.”
The crackhead protests a bit, but then he takes the money because he’s a crackhead and it’s cash and crack is all about the now. Then Bongani goes back to the working guy.
“All right. We’ll do one-twenty. Here’s your DVD player. It’s yours.”
“But I don’t have the one-twenty.”
“It’s cool. You can take it now, only instead of one-twenty you give us one-forty when you get your wages.”
So now we’ve invested 50 rand with the crackhead and that gets us 140 from the working guy. But Bongani would see a way to flip it and grow it again. Let’s say this guy who bought the DVD player worked at a shoe store.
“How much do you pay for a pair of Nikes with your staff discount?” Bongani would ask.
“I can get a pair of Nikes for one-fifty.”
“Okay, instead of you giving us one-forty, we’ll give you ten and you get us a pair of Nikes with your discount.”
So now this guy’s walking away with a DVD player
10 rand in his pocket. He’s feeling like he got a good deal. He brings us the Nikes and then we go to one of the cheesier cheese boys up in East Bank and we say, “Yo, dude, we know you want the new Jordans. They’re three hundred in the shops. We’ll sell them to you for two hundred.” We sell him the shoes, and now we’ve gone and turned 60 rand into 200.
That’s the hood. Someone’s always buying, someone’s always selling, and the hustle is about trying to be in the middle of that whole thing. None of it was legal. Nobody knew where anything came from. The guy who got us Nikes, did he really have a “staff discount”? You don’t know. You don’t ask. It’s just, “Hey, look what I found” and “Cool, how much do you want?” That’s the international code.
At first I didn’t know not to ask. I remember one time we bought a car stereo or something like that.
“But who did this belong to?” I said.
“Eh, don’t worry about it,” one of the guys told me. “White people have insurance.”
“Yeah, when white people lose stuff they have insurance policies that pay them cash for what they’ve lost, so it’s like they’ve lost nothing.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “Sounds nice.”
And that was as far as we ever thought about it: When white people lose stuff they get money, just another nice perk of being white.
It’s easy to be judgmental about crime when you live in a world wealthy enough to be removed from it. But the hood taught me that everyone has different notions of right and wrong, different definitions of what constitutes crime, and what level of crime they’re willing to participate in. If a crackhead comes through and he’s got a crate of Corn Flakes boxes he’s stolen out of the back of a supermarket, the poor mom isn’t thinking,
I’m aiding and abetting a criminal by buying these Corn Flakes
. No. She’s thinking,
My family needs food and this guy has Corn Flakes,
and she buys the Corn Flakes.
My own mother, my super-religious, law-abiding mother who used to shit on me about breaking the rules and learning to behave, I’ll never forget one day I came home and in the kitchen was a giant box of frozen burger patties, like two hundred of them, from a takeaway place called Black Steer. A burger at Black Steer cost at least 20 rand.
“What the hell is this?” I said.
“Oh, some guy at work had these and was selling them,” she said. “I got a great discount.”
“But where did he get it from?”
“I don’t know. He said he knew somebody who—”
“Mom, he stole it.”
“We don’t know that.”
know that. Where the hell is some guy going to get all of these burger patties from, randomly?”
Of course, we ate the burgers. Then we thanked God for the meal.
When Bongani first said to me, “Let’s go to the hood,” I thought we were going to sell CDs and DJ parties in the hood. It turned out that we were selling CDs and DJing parties in order to capitalize a payday-lending and pawnshop operation in the hood. Very quickly that became our core business.
Every day in the hood was the same. I’d wake up early. Bongani would meet me at my flat and we’d catch a minibus to Alex with my computer, carrying the giant tower and the giant, heavy monitor the whole way. We’d set it up in Bongani’s garage, and start the first batch of CDs. Then we’d walk. We’d go down to the corner of Nineteenth and Roosevelt for breakfast. When you’re trying to stretch your money, food is where you have to be careful. You have to plan or you’ll eat your profits. So every morning for breakfast we eat
which is fried dough, basically. Those were cheap, like 50 cents a pop. We could buy a bunch of those and have enough energy to sustain us until later on in the day.
Then we’d sit on the corner and eat. While we ate, we’d be picking up orders from the minibus drivers as they went past. After that we’d go back to Bongani’s garage, listen to music, lift weights, make the CDs. Around ten or eleven, the drivers would start coming back from their morning routes. We’d take the CDs and head out to the corner for them to pick up their stuff. Then we’d just be on the corner, hanging out, meeting characters, seeing who came by, seeing where the day was going to take us. A guy needs this. A guy’s selling that. You never knew what it was going to be.
There was always a big rush of business at lunch. We’d be all over Alexandra, hitting different shops and corners, making deals with everyone. We’d get free rides from the minibus drivers because we’d hop in with them and use it as an opportunity to talk about what music they needed, but secretly we were riding with the guy for free. “Hey, we want to collect orders. We’ll talk to you while you drive. What do you need? What music are you looking for? Do you need the new Maxwell? Okay, we got the new Maxwell. Okay, we’ll talk to you later. We’ll jump out here.” Then we’d hop on another ride going wherever we were going next.
After lunch, business would die down, and that’s when we’d get our lunch, usually the cheapest thing we could afford, like a smiley with some maize meal. A smiley is a goat’s head. They’re boiled and covered with chili pepper. We call them smileys because when you’re done eating all the meat off it, the goat looks like it’s smiling at you from the plate. The cheeks and the tongue are quite delicious, but the eyes are disgusting. They pop in your mouth. You put the eyeball into your mouth and you bite it, and it’s just a ball of pus that pops. It has no crunch. It has no chew. It has no flavor that is appetizing in any way.
After lunch we’d head back to the garage, relax, sleep off the meal, and make more CDs. In the afternoons we’d see a lot of moms. Moms loved us. They were some of our best customers. Since moms run the household, they’re the ones looking to buy that box of soap that fell off the back of the truck, and they were more likely to buy it from us than from some crackhead. Dealing with crackheads is unpleasant. We were upstanding, well-spoken East Bank boys. We could even charge a premium because we added that layer of respectability to the transaction. Moms are also often the most in need of short-term loans, to pay for this or that for the family. Again, they’d rather deal with us than with some gangster loan shark. Moms knew we weren’t going to break anyone’s legs if they couldn’t pay. We didn’t believe in that. Also we weren’t capable of it—let’s not forget that part. But that’s where Bongani’s brilliance came in. He always knew what a person could provide pending their failure to pay.
We made some of the craziest trades. Moms in the hood are protective of their daughters, especially if their daughters are pretty. In Alex there were girls who got locked up. They went to school, came straight home, and went straight into the house. They weren’t allowed to leave. Boys weren’t allowed to talk to them, weren’t even allowed to hang around the house—none of that. Some guy was always going on about some locked-away girl: “She’s so beautiful. I’ll do anything to get with her.” But he couldn’t. Nobody could.
Then that mom would need a loan. Once we lent her the money, until she paid us back she couldn’t chase us away from her house. We’d go by and hang out, chat, make small talk. The daughter would be right there, but the mom couldn’t say, “Don’t talk to those boys!” The loan gave us access to establish a relationship with the mom. We’d get invited to stay for dinner. Once the mom knew we were nice, upstanding guys, she’d agree to let us take her daughter to a party as long as we promised to get her home safely. So then we’d go to the guy who’d been so desperate to meet the daughter.
“Hey, let’s make a deal. We’ll bring the girl to your party and you get to hang out with her. How much can you give us?”
“I don’t have money,” he’d say, “but I have some cases of beer.”
“Okay, so tonight we’re going to this party. You give us two cases of beer for the party.”
Then we’d go to the party. We’d invite the girl, who was usually thrilled to escape her mother’s prison. The guy would bring the beer, he’d get to hang out with the girl, we’d write off the mom’s debt to show her our gratitude, and we’d make our money back selling the beer. There was always a way to make it work. And often that was the most fun part: working the angles, solving the puzzle, seeing what goes where, who needs what, whom we can connect with who can then get us the money.
At the peak of our operation we probably had around 10,000 rand in capital. We had loans going out and interest coming in. We had our stockpile of Jordans and DVD players we’d bought to resell. We also had to buy blank CDs, hire minibuses to go to our DJ gigs, feed five guys three times a day. We kept track of everything on the computer. Having lived in my mom’s world, I knew how to do spreadsheets. We had a Microsoft Excel document laid out: everybody’s name, how much they owed, when they paid, when they didn’t pay.