Authors: Trevor Noah
I woke up the next morning with that fleeting sensation where you think something has all been a dream. Then I looked around and remembered that it wasn’t. Breakfast came, and I settled in to wait.
A day in jail is mostly silence punctuated by passing guards shouting profanities at you, doing roll call. Inside the holding cell nobody says anything. Nobody walks into a jail cell and says, “Hi, guys! I’m Brian!” Because everyone is afraid, and no one wants to appear vulnerable. Nobody wants to be the bitch. Nobody wants to be the guy getting killed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was just a kid in for a traffic charge, so I reached back in my mind for all the stereotypes of what I imagined people act like in prison, and then I tried to act like that.
In South Africa, everyone knows that colored gangsters are the most ruthless, the most savage. It’s a stereotype that’s fed to you your whole life. The most notorious colored gangs are the Numbers Gangs: the 26s, the 27s, the 28s. They control the prisons. They’re known for being brutally violent—maiming, torturing, raping, cutting off people’s heads—not for the sake of making money but just to prove how ruthless and savage they are, like Mexican drug cartels. In fact a lot of these gangs base their thing on those Mexican gangs. They have the same look: the Converse All Stars with the Dickies pants and the open shirt buttoned only at the top.
By the time I was a teenager, anytime I was profiled by cops or security guards, it usually wasn’t because I was black but because I looked colored. I went to a club once with my cousin and his friend. The bouncer searched Mlungisi, waved him in. He searched our friend, waved him in. Then he searched me and got up in my face.
“Where’s your knife?”
“I don’t have a knife.”
“I know you have a knife somewhere. Where is it?”
He searched and searched and finally gave up and let me in, looking me over like I was trouble.
from you! Okay?”
I figured that if I was in jail people were going to assume I was the kind of colored person who ends up in jail, a violent criminal. So I played it up. I put on this character; I played the stereotype. Anytime the cops asked me questions I started speaking in broken Afrikaans with a thick colored accent. Imagine a white guy in America, just dark enough to pass for Latino, walking around jail doing bad Mexican-gangster dialogue from the movies.
“Shit’s about to get loco,
That’s basically what I was doing—the South African version of that. This was my brilliant plan to survive incarceration. But it worked. The guys in the cell with me, they were there for drunk driving, for domestic abuse, for petty theft. They had no idea what real colored gangsters were like. Everyone left me alone.
We were all playing a game, only nobody knew we were playing it. When I walked in that first night, everyone was giving me this look: “I’m dangerous. Don’t fuck with me.” So I went, “Shit, these people are hardened criminals. I shouldn’t be here, because I am not a criminal.” Then the next day everything turned over quickly. One by one, guys left to go to their hearings, I stayed to wait for my lawyer, and new people started to pitch up. Now I was the veteran, doing my colored-gangster routine, giving the new guys the same look: “I’m dangerous. Don’t fuck with me.” And they looked at me and went, “Shit, he’s a hardened criminal. I shouldn’t be here, because I am not like him.” And round and round we went.
At a certain point it occurred to me that every single person in that cell might be faking it. We were all decent guys from nice neighborhoods and good families, picked up for unpaid parking tickets and other infractions. We could have been having a great time sharing meals, playing cards, and talking about women and soccer. But that didn’t happen, because everyone had adopted this dangerous pose and nobody talked because everyone was afraid of who the other guys were pretending to be. Now those guys were going to get out and go home to their families and say, “Oh, honey, that was rough. Those were some real criminals in there. There was this one colored guy. Man, he was a killer.”
Once I had the game sorted out, I was good again. I relaxed. I was back to thinking,
I got this. This is no big deal
. The food was actually decent. For breakfast they brought you these peanut butter sandwiches on thick slices of bread. Lunch was chicken and rice. The tea was too hot, and it was more water than tea, but it was drinkable. There were older, hard-time prisoners close to parole, and their detail was to come and clean the cells and circulate books and magazines for you to read. It was quite relaxing.
There was one point when I remember eating a meal and saying to myself,
This isn’t so bad. I hang around with a bunch of dudes. There’s no chores. No bills to pay. No one constantly nagging me and telling me what to do. Peanut butter sandwiches? Shit, I eat peanut butter sandwiches all the time. This is pretty sweet. I could do this
. I was so afraid of the ass-whooping waiting for me at home that I genuinely considered going to prison. For a brief moment I thought I had a plan. “I’ll go away for a couple of years, come back, and say I was kidnapped, and mom will never know and she’ll just be happy to see me.”
On the third day, the cops brought in the largest man I’d ever seen. This guy was
. Giant muscles. Dark skin. Hardened face. He looked like he could kill all of us. Me and the other prisoners who’d been acting tough with one another—the second he walked in our tough-guy routines were over. Everyone was terrified. We all stared at him. “Oh, fuck…”
For whatever reason this guy was half naked when the cops picked him up. He was wearing clothes the police had scrounged up for him at the station, this torn-up wifebeater that was way too small, pants so short on him they looked like capris. He looked like a black version of the Incredible Hulk.
This guy went and sat alone in the corner. Nobody said a word. Everyone watched and waited, nervously, to see what he would do. Then one of the cops came back and called the Hulk over; they needed information from him. The cop started asking him a bunch of questions, but the guy kept shaking his head and saying he didn’t understand. The cop was speaking Zulu. The Hulk was speaking Tsonga. Black person to black person, and neither could understand the other—the Tower of Babel. Few people in South Africa speak Tsonga, but since my stepfather was Tsonga I had picked it up along the way. I overheard the cop and the other guy going back and forth with nothing getting across, so I stepped in and translated for them and sorted everything out.
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”
That is exactly what happened with the Hulk. The second I spoke to him, this face that had seemed so threatening and mean lit up with gratitude.
“Ah, na khensa, na khensa, na khensa. Hi wena mani? Mufana wa mukhaladi u xitiela kwini xiTsonga? U huma kwini?”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. Who are you? How does a colored guy know Tsonga? Where are you from?”
Once we started talking I realized he wasn’t the Hulk at all. He was the sweetest man, a gentle giant, the biggest teddy bear in the world. He was simple, not educated. I’d assumed he was in for murder, for squashing a family to death with his bare hands, but it wasn’t anything like that. He’d been arrested for shoplifting PlayStation games. He was out of work and needed money to send to his family back home, and when he saw how much these games sold for he thought he could steal a few and sell them to white kids and make a lot of money. As soon as he told me that, I knew he wasn’t some hardened criminal. I know the world of pirated things—stolen videogames have no value because it’s cheaper and less risky to copy them, like Bolo’s parents did.
I tried to help him out a bit. I told him my trick of putting off your bail hearing to get your defense together, so he stayed in the cell, too, biding his time, and we hit it off and hung out for a few days, having a good time, getting to know each other. No one else in the cell knew what to make of us, the ruthless colored gangster and his menacing, Hulk-like friend. He told me his story, a South African story that was all too familiar to me: The man grows up under apartheid, working on a farm, part of what’s essentially a slave labor force. It’s a living hell but it’s at least something. He’s paid a pittance but at least he’s paid. He’s told where to be and what to do every waking minute of his day. Then apartheid ends and he doesn’t even have that anymore. He finds his way to Johannesburg, looking for work, trying to feed his children back home. But he’s lost. He has no education. He has no skills. He doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know where to be. The world has been taught to be scared of him, but the reality is that he is scared of the world because he has none of the tools necessary to cope with it. So what does he do? He takes shit. He becomes a petty thief. He’s in and out of jail. He gets lucky and finds some construction work, but then he gets laid off from that, and a few days later he’s in a shop and he sees some PlayStation games and he grabs them, but he doesn’t even know enough to know that he’s stolen something of no value.
I felt terrible for him. The more time I spent in jail, the more I realized that the law isn’t rational at all. It’s a lottery. What color is your skin? How much money do you have? Who’s your lawyer? Who’s the judge? Shoplifting PlayStation games was less of an offense than driving with bad number plates. He had committed a crime, but he was no more a criminal than I was. The difference was that he didn’t have any friends or family to help him out. He couldn’t afford anything but a state attorney. He was going to go stand in the dock, unable to speak or understand English, and everyone in the courtroom was going to assume the worst of him. He was going to go to prison for a while and then be set free with the same nothing he had going in. If I had to guess, he was around thirty-five, forty years old, staring down another thirty-five, forty years of the same.
The day of my hearing came. I said goodbye to my new friend and wished him the best. Then I was handcuffed and put in the back of a police van and driven to the courthouse to meet my fate. In South African courts, to minimize your exposure and your opportunities for escape, the holding cell where you await your hearing is a massive pen below the courtroom; you walk up a set of stairs into the dock rather than being escorted through the corridors. What happens in the holding cell is you’re mixed in with the people who’ve been in prison awaiting trial for weeks and months. It’s a weird mix, everything from white-collar criminals to guys picked up on traffic stops to real, hardcore criminals covered with prison tattoos. It’s like the cantina scene from
where the band’s playing music and Han Solo’s in the corner and all of the bad guys and bounty hunters from all over the universe are hanging out—a wretched hive of scum and villainy, only there’s no music and there’s no Han Solo.
I was with these people for only a brief window of time, but in that moment I saw the difference between prison and jail. I saw the difference between criminals and people who’ve committed crimes. I saw the hardness in people’s faces. I thought back on how naive I’d been just hours before, thinking jail wasn’t so bad and I could handle it. I was now truly afraid of what might happen to me.
When I walked into that holding pen, I was a smooth-skinned, fresh-faced young man. At the time, I had a giant Afro, and the only way to control it was to have it tied back in this ponytail thing that looked really girly. I looked like Maxwell. The guards closed the door behind me, and this creepy old dude yelled out in Zulu from the back,
“Ha, ha, ha! Hhe madoda! Angikaze ngibone indoda enhle kangaka! Sizoba nobusuku obuhle!”
“Yo, yo, yo! Damn, guys. I’ve never seen a man this beautiful before. It’s gonna be a good night tonight!”
Right next to me as I walked in was a young man having a complete meltdown, talking to himself, bawling his eyes out. He looked up and locked eyes with me, and I guess he thought I looked like a kindred soul he could talk to. He came straight at me and started crying about how he’d been arrested and thrown in jail and the gangs had stolen his clothes and his shoes and raped him and beat him every day. He wasn’t some ruffian. He was well-spoken, educated. He’d been waiting for a year for his case to be heard; he wanted to kill himself. That guy put the fear of God in me.
I looked around the holding cell. There were easily a hundred guys in there, all of them spread out and huddled into their clearly and unmistakably defined racial groups: a whole bunch of black people in one corner, the colored people in a different corner, a couple of Indians off to themselves, and a handful of white guys off to one side. The guys who’d been with me in the police van, the second we walked in, they instinctively, automatically, walked off to join the groups they belonged to. I froze.
I didn’t know where to go.
I looked over at the colored corner. I was staring at the most notorious, most violent prison gang in South Africa. I looked like them, but I wasn’t them. I couldn’t go over there doing my fake gangster shit and have them discover I was a fraud. No, no, no. That game was over, my friend. The last thing I needed was colored gangsters up against me.
But then what if I went to the black corner? I know that I’m black and I identify as black, but I’m not a black person on the face of it, so would the black guys understand why I was walking over? And what kind of shit would I start by going there? Because going to the black corner as a perceived colored person might piss off the colored gangs even more than going to the colored corner as a fake colored person. Because that’s what had happened to me my entire life. Colored people would see me hanging out with blacks, and they’d confront me, want to fight me. I saw myself starting a race war in the holding cell.