Authors: Trevor Noah
“Can’t we do something?” you ask the officer.
“What do you want me to do?”
“We’re really sorry, Officer. What can we do?”
“You tell me.”
Then you’re supposed to make up a story whereby you indicate to the cop how much money you have on you. Which we couldn’t do because we didn’t have any money. So he took us to jail. It was a public bus. It could have been anyone’s gun, but the guys from Alex were the only ones who got arrested. Everyone else in the car was free to go. The cops took us to the police station and threw us in a cell and pulled us out one by one for questioning. When they pulled me aside I had to give my home address: Highlands North. The cop gave me the most confused look.
“You’re not from Alex,” he said. “What are you doing with these crooks?” I didn’t know what to say. He glared at me hard. “Listen here, rich boy. You think it’s fun running around with these guys? This isn’t play-play anymore. Just tell me the truth about your friends and the gun, and I’ll let you go.”
I told him no, and he threw me back in the cell. We spent the night, and the next day I called a friend, who said he could borrow the money from his dad to get us out. Later that day the dad came down and paid the money. The cops kept calling it “bail,” but it was a bribe. We were never formally arrested or processed. There was no paperwork.
We got out and everything was fine, but it rattled us. Every day we were out in the streets, hustling, trying to act as if we were in some way down with the gangs, but the truth was we were always more cheese than hood. We had created this idea of ourselves as a defense mechanism to survive in the world we were living in. Bongani and the other East Bank guys, because of where they were from, what they looked like—they just had very little hope. You’ve got two options in that situation. You take the retail job, flip burgers at McDonald’s, if you’re one of the lucky few who even gets that much. The other option is to toughen up, put up this facade. You can’t leave the hood, so you survive by the rules of the hood.
I chose to live in that world, but I wasn’t from that world. If anything, I was an imposter. Day to day I was in it as much as everyone else, but the difference was that in the back of my mind I knew I had other options. I could leave. They couldn’t.
nce, when I was ten years old, visiting my dad in Yeoville, I needed batteries for one of my toys. My mom had refused to buy me new batteries because, of course, she thought it was a waste of money, so I snuck out to the shops and shoplifted a pack. A security guard busted me on the way out, pulled me into his office, and called my mom.
“We’ve caught your son shoplifting batteries,” he said. “You need to come and fetch him.”
“No,” she said. “Take him to jail. If he’s going to disobey he needs to learn the consequences.”
Then she hung up. The guard looked at me, confused. Eventually he let me go on the assumption that I was some wayward orphan, because what mother would send her ten-year-old child to jail?
My mom never gave me an inch. Anytime I got in trouble it was tough love, lectures, punishment, and hidings. Every time. For every infraction. You get that with a lot of black parents. They’re trying to discipline you before the system does. “I need to do this to you before the police do it to you.” Because that’s all black parents are thinking from the day you’re old enough to walk out into the street, where the law is waiting.
In Alex, getting arrested was a fact of life. It was so common that out on the corner we had a sign for it, a shorthand, clapping your wrists together like you were being put in handcuffs. Everyone knew what that meant.
“Oh, shit. When?”
My mom hated the hood. She didn’t like my friends there. If I brought them back to the house, she didn’t even want them coming inside. “I don’t like those boys,” she’d say. She didn’t hate them personally; she hated what they represented. “You and those boys get into so much shit,” she’d say. “You must be careful who you surround yourself with because where you are can determine who you are.”
She said the thing she hated most about the hood was that it didn’t pressure me to become better. She wanted me to hang out with my cousin at his university.
“What’s the difference if I’m at university or I’m in the hood?” I’d say. “It’s not like I’m going to university.”
“Yes, but the pressure of the university is going to get you. I know you. You won’t sit by and watch these guys become better than you. If you’re in an environment that is positive and progressive, you too will become that. I keep telling you to change your life, and you don’t. One day you’re going to get arrested, and when you do, don’t call me. I’ll tell the police to lock you up just to teach you a lesson.”
Because there were some black parents who’d actually do that, not pay their kid’s bail, not hire their kid a lawyer—the ultimate tough love. But it doesn’t always work, because you’re giving the kid tough love when maybe he just needs love. You’re trying to teach him a lesson, and now that lesson is the rest of his life.
One morning I saw an ad in the paper. Some shop was having a clearance sale on mobile phones, and they were selling them at such a ridiculous price I knew Bongani and I could flip them in the hood for a profit. This shop was out in the suburbs, too far to walk and too out-of-the-way to take a minibus. Fortunately my stepfather’s workshop and a bunch of old cars were in our backyard.
I’d been stealing Abel’s junkers to get around since I was fourteen. I would say I was test driving them to make sure they’d been repaired correctly. Abel didn’t think that was funny. I’d been caught many times, caught and subjected to my mother’s wrath. But that had never stopped me from doing anything.
Most of these junkers weren’t street legal. They didn’t have proper registrations or proper number plates. Luckily, Abel also had a stack of old number plates in the back of the garage. I quickly learned I could just put one on an old car and hit the road. I was nineteen, maybe twenty, not thinking about any of the ramifications of this. I stopped by Abel’s garage when no one was around, picked up one of the cars, the red Mazda I’d taken to the matric dance, slapped some old plates on it, and set off in search of discounted cell phones.
I got pulled over in Hillbrow. Cops in South Africa don’t give you a reason when they pull you over. Cops pull you over because they’re cops and they have the power to pull you over; it’s as simple as that. I used to watch American movies where cops would pull people over and say, “You didn’t signal” or “Your taillight’s out.” I’d always wonder,
Why do American cops bother lying?
One thing I appreciate about South Africa is that we have not yet refined the system to the point where we feel the need to lie.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Because you’re a policeman and I’m a black person?”
“That’s correct. License and registration, please.”
When the cop pulled me over, it was one of those situations where I wanted to say, “Hey, I know you guys are racially profiling me!” But I couldn’t argue the case because I was, at that moment, actually breaking the law. The cop walked up to my window, asked me the standard cop questions. Where are you going? Is this your car? Whose car is this? I couldn’t answer. I completely froze.
Being young, funnily enough, I was more worried about getting in trouble with my parents than with the law. I’d had run-ins with the cops in Alexandra, in Soweto, but it was always more about the circumstance: a party getting shut down, a raid on a minibus. The law was all around me, but it had never come down on me, Trevor, specifically. And when you haven’t had much experience with the law, the law appears rational—cops are dicks for the most part, but you also recognize that they’re doing a job.
Your parents, on the other hand, are not rational at all. They have served as judge, jury, and executioner for your entire childhood, and it feels like they give you a life sentence for every misdemeanor. In that moment, when I should have been scared of the cop, all I was thinking was
Shit shit shit; I’m in so much trouble when I get home
The cop called in the number-plate registration and discovered that it didn’t match the car. Now he was really on my case. “This car is not in your name! What’s going on with these plates?! Step out of the vehicle!” It was only then that I realized:
Now I’m in
. I stepped out of the car, and he put the cuffs on me and told me I was being arrested on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle. He took me in, and the car was impounded.
The Hillbrow police station looks exactly like every other police station in South Africa. They were all built by the same contractor at the height of apartheid—separate nodes in the central nervous system of a police state. If you were blindfolded and taken from one to the other, you probably wouldn’t even know that you’d changed locations. They’re sterile, institutional, with fluorescent lights and cheap floor tile, like a hospital. My cop walked me in and sat me down at the front booking desk. I was charged and fingerprinted.
In the meantime, they’d been checking out the car, which wasn’t going well for me, either. Whenever I borrowed cars from Abel’s workshop, I tried to take the junkers rather than a real client’s car; I thought I’d get in less trouble that way. That was a mistake. The Mazda, being one of Abel’s junkers, didn’t have a clear title of ownership. If it had had an owner, the cops would have called the owner, the owner would have explained that the car had been dropped off for repairs, and the whole thing would have been sorted out. Since the car didn’t have an owner, I couldn’t prove I hadn’t stolen it.
Carjackings were common in South Africa at the time, too. So common you weren’t even surprised when they happened. You’d have a friend coming over for a dinner party and you’d get a call.
“Sorry. Got carjacked. Gonna be late.”
“Ah, that sucks. Hey, guys! Dave got carjacked.”
And the party would continue. And that’s if the person survived the carjacking. Often they didn’t. People were getting shot for their cars all the time. Not only could I not prove I hadn’t stolen the car, I couldn’t prove I hadn’t murdered someone for it, either. The cops were grilling me. “You kill anyone to get that car, boy? Eh? You a killer?”
I was in deep, deep trouble. I had only one lifeline: my parents. One call would have fixed everything. “This is my stepfather. He’s a mechanic. I borrowed his car when I shouldn’t have.” Done. At worst I’d get a slap on the wrist for driving a car that wasn’t registered. But what would I be getting at home?
I sat there in the police station—arrested for suspicion of grand theft auto, a plausible suspect for carjacking or murder—and debated whether I should call my parents or go to jail. With my stepfather I was thinking,
He might actually kill me
. In my mind that was an entirely realistic scenario. With my mother I was thinking,
She’s going to make this worse. She’s not the character witness I want right now. She won’t help me
. Because she’d told me she wouldn’t. “If you ever get arrested, don’t call me.” I needed someone sympathetic to my plight, and I didn’t believe she was that person. So I didn’t call my parents. I decided I didn’t need them. I was a man. I could go it alone. I used my call to phone my cousin and told him not to tell anyone what had happened while I figured out what to do—now I just had to figure out what to do.
I’d been picked up late in the afternoon, so by the time I was processed it was close to lights-out. I was spending the night in jail, like it or not. It was at that point that a cop pulled me aside and told me what I was in for.
The way the system works in South Africa is that you’re arrested and held in a cell at the police station until your bail hearing. At the hearing, the judge looks at your case, hears arguments from the opposing sides, and then he either dismisses the charges or sets bail and a trial date. If you can make bail, you pay and go home. But there are all sorts of ways your bail hearing can go wrong: You get some court-appointed lawyer who hasn’t read your case and doesn’t know what’s going on. Your family can’t pay your bail. It could even be that the court’s backed up. “Sorry, we’re too busy. No more hearings today.” It doesn’t matter the reason. Once you leave jail, you can’t go back to jail. If your situation isn’t resolved that day, you go to prison to await trial. In prison you’re housed with the people awaiting trial, not with the general population, but even the awaiting-trial section is incredibly dangerous because you have people picked up for traffic violations all the way up to proper hardened criminals. You’re stuck there together, and you can be there for days, weeks, maybe months. It’s the same way in America. If you’re poor, if you don’t know how the system works, you can slip through the cracks, and the next thing you know you’re in this weird purgatory where you’re not in prison but you’re not not in prison. You haven’t been convicted of any crime, but you’re still locked up and can’t get out.
This cop pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you don’t want to go to your bail hearing. They’ll give you a state attorney who won’t know what’s going on. He’ll have no time for you. He’ll ask the judge for a postponement, and then maybe you’ll go free or maybe you won’t. Trust me, you don’t want to do that. You have the right to stay here for as long as you like. You want to meet with a lawyer and set yourself up before you go anywhere near a court or a judge.” He wasn’t giving me this advice out of the goodness of his heart. He had a deal with a defense attorney, sending him clients in exchange for a kickback. He handed me the attorney’s business card, I called him, and he agreed to take my case. He told me to stay put while he handled everything.
Now I needed money, because lawyers, as nice as they are, don’t do anything for free. I called a friend and asked him if he could ask his dad to borrow some money. He said he’d handle it. He talked to his dad, and the lawyer got his retainer the next day.
With the lawyer taken care of, I felt like I had things under control. I was feeling pretty slick. I’d handled the situation, and, most important, Mom and Abel were none the wiser.
When the time came for lights-out a cop came and took my stuff. My belt, my wallet, my shoelaces.
“Why do you need my shoelaces?”
“So you don’t hang yourself.”
Even when he said that, the gravity of my situation still wasn’t sinking in. Walking to the station’s holding cell, looking around at the other six guys in there, I was thinking,
This is no big deal. Everything’s gonna be cool. I’m gonna get out of this
. I thought that right up until the moment the cell door clanged shut behind me and the guard yelled, “Lights out!” That’s when I thought,
Oh, shit. This is real.
The guards had given me a mat and a scratchy blanket. I rolled them out on the concrete floor and tried to get comfortable. Every bad prison movie I’d ever seen was racing through my head. I was thinking,
I’m gonna get raped. I’m gonna get raped. I’m gonna get raped
. But of course I didn’t get raped, because this wasn’t prison. It was jail, and there’s a big difference, as I would soon come to understand.