Authors: Trevor Noah
Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d have to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens, a zoo, a giant chessboard with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us. We were in the park, he was walking a good bit away from us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started looking. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him.
I couldn’t walk with my mother, either; a light-skinned child with a black woman would raise too many questions. When I was a newborn, she could wrap me up and take me anywhere, but very quickly that was no longer an option. I was a giant baby, an enormous child. When I was one you’d have thought I was two. When I was two, you’d have thought I was four. There was no way to hide me.
My mom, same as she’d done with her flat and with her maid’s uniforms, found the cracks in the system. It was illegal to be mixed (to have a black parent and a white parent), but it was not illegal to be colored (to have two parents who were both colored). So my mom moved me around the world as a colored child. She found a crèche in a colored area where she could leave me while she was at work. There was a colored woman named Queen who lived in our block of flats. When we wanted to go out to the park, my mom would invite her to go with us. Queen would walk next to me and act like she was my mother, and my mother would walk a few steps behind, like she was the maid working for the colored woman. I’ve got dozens of pictures of me walking with this woman who looks like me but who isn’t my mother. And the black woman standing behind us who looks like she’s photobombing the picture, that’s my mom. When we didn’t have a colored woman to walk with us, my mom would risk walking me on her own. She would hold my hand or carry me, but if the police showed up she would have to drop me and pretend I wasn’t hers, like I was a bag of weed.
When I was born, my mother hadn’t seen her family in three years, but she wanted me to know them and wanted them to know me, so the prodigal daughter returned. We lived in town, but I would spend weeks at a time with my grandmother in Soweto, often during the holidays. I have so many memories from the place that in my mind it’s like we lived there, too.
Soweto was designed to be bombed—that’s how forward-thinking the architects of apartheid were. The township was a city unto itself, with a population of nearly one million. There were only two roads in and out. That was so the military could lock us in, quell any rebellion. And if the monkeys ever went crazy and tried to break out of their cage, the air force could fly over and bomb the shit out of everyone. Growing up, I never knew that my grandmother lived in the center of a bull’s-eye.
In the city, as difficult as it was to get around, we managed. Enough people were out and about, black, white, and colored, going to and from work, that we could get lost in the crowd. But only black people were permitted in Soweto. It was much harder to hide someone who looked like me, and the government was watching much more closely. In the white areas you rarely saw the police, and if you did it was Officer Friendly in his collared shirt and pressed pants. In Soweto the police were an occupying army. They didn’t wear collared shirts. They wore riot gear. They were militarized. They operated in teams known as flying squads, because they would swoop in out of nowhere, riding in armored personnel carriers—hippos, we called them—tanks with enormous tires and slotted holes in the side of the vehicle to fire their guns out of. You didn’t mess with a hippo. You saw one, you ran. That was a fact of life. The township was in a constant state of insurrection; someone was always marching or protesting somewhere and had to be suppressed. Playing in my grandmother’s house, I’d hear gunshots, screams, tear gas being fired into crowds.
My memories of the hippos and the flying squads come from when I was five or six, when apartheid was finally coming apart. I never saw the police before that, because we could never risk the police seeing me. Whenever we went to Soweto, my grandmother refused to let me outside. If she was watching me it was, “No, no, no. He doesn’t leave the house.” Behind the wall, in the yard, I could play, but not in the street. And that’s where the rest of the boys and girls were playing, in the street. My cousins, the neighborhood kids, they’d open the gate and head out and roam free and come back at dusk. I’d beg my grandmother to go outside.
can I go play with my cousins?”
“No! They’re going to take you!”
For the longest time I thought she meant that the other kids were going to steal me, but she was talking about the police. Children could be taken. Children
taken. The wrong color kid in the wrong color area, and the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage. To police the townships, the government relied on its network of
the anonymous snitches who’d inform on suspicious activity. There were also the blackjacks, black people who worked for the police. My grandmother’s neighbor was a blackjack. She had to make sure he wasn’t watching when she smuggled me in and out of the house.
My gran still tells the story of when I was three years old and, fed up with being a prisoner, I dug a hole under the gate in the driveway, wriggled through, and ran off. Everyone panicked. A search party went out and tracked me down. I had no idea how much danger I was putting everyone in. The family could have been deported, my gran could have been arrested, my mom might have gone to prison, and I probably would have been packed off to a home for colored kids.
So I was kept inside. Other than those few instances of walking in the park, the flashes of memory I have from when I was young are almost all indoors, me with my mom in her tiny flat, me by myself at my gran’s. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t know any kids besides my cousins. I wasn’t a lonely kid—I was good at being alone. I’d read books, play with the toy that I had, make up imaginary worlds. I lived inside my head. I still live inside my head. To this day you can leave me alone for hours and I’m perfectly happy entertaining myself. I have to remember to be with people.
Obviously, I was not the only child born to black and white parents during apartheid. Traveling around the world today, I meet other mixed South Africans all the time. Our stories start off identically. We’re around the same age. Their parents met at some underground party in Hillbrow or Cape Town. They lived in an illegal flat. The difference is that in virtually every other case they left. The white parent smuggled them out through Lesotho or Botswana, and they grew up in exile, in England or Germany or Switzerland, because being a mixed family under apartheid was just that unbearable.
Once Mandela was elected we could finally live freely. Exiles started to return. I met my first one when I was around seventeen. He told me his story, and I was like, “Wait,
? You mean we could have
? That was an
?” Imagine being thrown out of an airplane. You hit the ground and break all your bones, you go to the hospital and you heal and you move on and finally put the whole thing behind you—and then one day somebody tells you about parachutes. That’s how I felt. I couldn’t understand why we’d stayed. I went straight home and asked my mom.
“Why? Why didn’t we just leave? Why didn’t we go to Switzerland?”
“Because I am not Swiss,” she said, as stubborn as ever. “This is my country. Why should I leave?”
outh Africa is a mix of the old and the new, the ancient and the modern, and South African Christianity is a perfect example of this. We adopted the religion of our colonizers, but most people held on to the old ancestral ways, too, just in case. In South Africa, faith in the Holy Trinity exists quite comfortably alongside belief in witchcraft, in casting spells and putting curses on one’s enemies.
I come from a country where people are more likely to visit
—shamans, traditional healers, pejoratively known as witch doctors—than they are to visit doctors of Western medicine. I come from a country where people have been arrested and tried for witchcraft—in a court of law. I’m not talking about the 1700s. I’m talking about five years ago. I remember a man being on trial for striking another person with lightning. That happens a lot in the homelands. There are no tall buildings, few tall trees, nothing between you and the sky, so people get hit by lightning all the time. And when someone gets killed by lightning, everyone knows it’s because somebody used Mother Nature to take out a hit. So if you had a beef with the guy who got killed, someone will accuse you of murder and the police will come knocking.
“Mr. Noah, you’ve been accused of murder. You used witchcraft to kill David Kibuuka by causing him to be struck by lightning.”
“What is the evidence?”
“The evidence is that David Kibuuka got struck by lightning and it wasn’t even raining.”
And you go to trial. The court is presided over by a judge. There is a docket. There is a prosecutor. Your defense attorney has to prove lack of motive, go through the crime-scene forensics, present a staunch defense. And your attorney’s argument can’t be “Witchcraft isn’t real.” No, no, no. You’ll lose.
I grew up in a world run by women. My father was loving and devoted, but I could only see him when and where apartheid allowed. My uncle Velile, my mom’s younger brother, lived with my grandmother, but he spent most of his time at the local tavern getting into fights.
The only semi-regular male figure in my life was my grandfather, my mother’s father, who was a force to be reckoned with. He was divorced from my grandmother and didn’t live with us, but he was around. His name was Temperance Noah, which was odd since he was not a man of moderation at all. He was boisterous and loud. His nickname in the neighborhood was “Tat Shisha,” which translates loosely to “the smokin’ hot grandpa.” And that’s exactly who he was. He loved the ladies, and the ladies loved him. He’d put on his best suit and stroll through the streets of Soweto on random afternoons, making everybody laugh and charming all the women he’d meet. He had a big, dazzling smile with bright white teeth—false teeth. At home, he’d take them out and I’d watch him do that thing where he looked like he was eating his own face.
We found out much later in life that he was bipolar, but before that we just thought he was eccentric. One time he borrowed my mother’s car to go to the shop for milk and bread. He disappeared and didn’t come home until late that night when we were way past the point of needing the milk or the bread. Turned out he’d passed a young woman at the bus stop and, believing no beautiful woman should have to wait for a bus, he offered her a ride to where she lived—three hours away. My mom was furious with him because he’d cost us a whole tank of petrol, which was enough to get us to work and school for two weeks.
When he was up you couldn’t stop him, but his mood swings were wild. In his youth he’d been a boxer, and one day he said I’d disrespected him and now he wanted to box me. He was in his eighties. I was twelve. He had his fists up, circling me. “Let’s go, Trevah! Come on! Put your fists up! Hit me! I’ll show you I’m still a man! Let’s go!” I couldn’t hit him because I wasn’t about to hit my elder. Plus I’d never been in a fight and I wasn’t going to have my first one be with an eighty-year-old man. I ran to my mom, and she got him to stop. The day after his pugilistic rage, he sat in his chair and didn’t move or say a word all day.
Temperance lived with his second family in the Meadowlands, and we visited them sparingly because my mom was always afraid of being poisoned. Which was a thing that would happen. The first family were the heirs, so there was always the chance they might get poisoned by the second family. It was like
Game of Thrones
with poor people. We’d go into that house and my mom would warn me.
“Trevor, don’t eat the food.”
“But I’m starving.”
“No. They might poison us.”
“Okay, then why don’t I just pray to Jesus and Jesus will take the poison out of the food?”
So I only saw my grandfather now and then, and when he was gone the house was in the hands of women.
In addition to my mom there was my aunt Sibongile; she and her first husband, Dinky, had two kids, my cousins Mlungisi and Bulelwa. Sibongile was a powerhouse, a strong woman in every sense, big-chested, the mother hen. Dinky, as his name implies, was dinky. He was a small man. He was abusive, but not really. It was more like he tried to be abusive, but he wasn’t very good at it. He was trying to live up to this image of what he thought a husband should be, dominant, controlling. I remember being told as a child, “If you don’t hit your woman, you don’t love her.” That was the talk you’d hear from men in bars and in the streets.
Dinky was trying to masquerade as this patriarch that he wasn’t. He’d slap my aunt and hit her and she’d take it and take it, and then eventually she’d snap and smack him down and put him back in his place. Dinky would always walk around like, “I control my woman.” And you’d want to say, “Dinky, first of all, you don’t. Second of all, you don’t need to. Because she loves you.” I can remember one day my aunt had really had enough. I was in the yard and Dinky came running out of the house screaming bloody murder. Sibongile was right behind him with a pot of boiling water, cursing at him and threatening to douse him with it. In Soweto you were always hearing about men getting doused with pots of boiling water—often a woman’s only recourse. And men were lucky if it was water. Some women used hot cooking oil. Water was if the woman wanted to teach her man a lesson. Oil meant she wanted to end it.
My grandmother Frances Noah was the family matriarch. She ran the house, looked after the kids, did the cooking and the cleaning. She’s barely five feet tall, hunched over from years in the factory, but rock hard and still to this day very active and very much alive. Where my grandfather was big and boisterous, my grandmother was calm, calculating, with a mind as sharp as anything. If you need to know anything in the family history, going back to the 1930s, she can tell you what day it happened, where it happened, and why it happened. She remembers it all.
My great-grandmother lived with us as well. We called her Koko. She was super old, well into her nineties, stooped and frail, completely blind. Her eyes had gone white, clouded over by cataracts. She couldn’t walk without someone holding her up. She’d sit in the kitchen next to the coal stove, bundled up in long skirts and head scarves, blankets over her shoulders. The coal stove was always on. It was for cooking, heating the house, heating water for baths. We put her there because it was the warmest spot in the house. In the morning someone would wake her and bring her to sit in the kitchen. At night someone would come take her to bed. That’s all she did, all day, every day. Sit by the stove. She was fantastic and fully with it. She just couldn’t see and didn’t move.
Koko and my gran would sit and have long conversations, but as a five-year-old I didn’t think of Koko as a real person. Since her body didn’t move, she was like a brain with a mouth. Our relationship was nothing but command prompts and replies, like talking to a computer.
“Good morning, Koko.”
“Good morning, Trevor.”
“Koko, did you eat?”
“Koko, I’m going out.”
“Okay, be careful.”
The fact that I grew up in a world run by women was no accident. Apartheid kept me away from my father because he was white, but for almost all the kids I knew on my grandmother’s block in Soweto, apartheid had taken away their fathers as well, just for different reasons. Their fathers were off working in a mine somewhere, able to come home only during the holidays. Their fathers had been sent to prison. Their fathers were in exile, fighting for the cause. Women held the community together.
was the chant they would rally to during the freedom struggle. “When you strike a woman, you strike a rock.” As a nation, we recognized the power of women, but in the home they were expected to submit and obey.
In Soweto, religion filled the void left by absent men. I used to ask my mom if it was hard for her to raise me alone without a husband. She’d reply, “Just because I live without a man doesn’t mean I’ve never had a husband. God is my husband.” For my mom, my aunt, my grandmother, and all the other women on our street, life centered on faith. Prayer meetings would rotate houses up and down the block based on the day. These groups were women and children only. My mom would always ask my uncle Velile to join, and he’d say, “I would join if there were more men, but I can’t be the only one here.” Then the singing and praying would start, and that was his cue to leave.
For these prayer meetings, we’d jam ourselves into the tiny living area of the host family’s house and form a circle. Then we would go around the circle offering prayers. The grannies would talk about what was happening in their lives. “I’m happy to be here. I had a good week at work. I got a raise and I wanted to say thank you and praise Jesus.” Sometimes they’d pull out their Bible and say, “This scripture spoke to me and maybe it will help you.” Then there would be a bit of song. There was a leather pad called “the beat” that you’d strap to your palm, like a percussion instrument. Someone would clap along on that, keeping time while everyone sang,
“Masango vulekani singene eJerusalema
Masango vulekani singene eJerusalema
That’s how it would go. Pray, sing, pray. Sing, pray, sing. Sing, sing, sing. Pray, pray, pray. Sometimes it would last for hours, always ending with an “amen,” and they could keep that “amen” going on for five minutes at least.
“Ah-men. Ah-ah-ah-men. Ah-ah-ah-ah-men. Ahhhhhhhhahhhhhhhhhhhahhhhhahhhhhhahhhhhmen. Meni-meni-meni. Men-men-men. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmennnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.”
Then everyone would say goodbye and go home. Next night, different house, same thing.
Tuesday nights, the prayer meeting came to my grandmother’s house, and I was always excited, for two reasons. One, I got to clap along on the beat for the singing. And two, I loved to pray. My grandmother always told me that she loved my prayers. She believed my prayers were more powerful, because I prayed in English. Everyone knows that Jesus, who’s white, speaks English. The Bible is in English. Yes, the Bible was not
in English, but the Bible came to South Africa in English so to us it’s in English. Which made my prayers the best prayers because English prayers get answered first. How do we know this? Look at white people. Clearly they’re getting through to the right person. Add to that Matthew 19:14. “Suffer little children to come unto me,” Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So if a child is praying in English? To White Jesus? That’s a powerful combination right there. Whenever I prayed, my grandmother would say, “That prayer is going to get answered. I can
Women in the township always had something to pray for—money problems, a son who’d been arrested, a daughter who was sick, a husband who drank. Whenever the prayer meetings were at our house, because my prayers were so good, my grandmother would want me to pray for everyone. She would turn to me and say, “Trevor, pray.” And I’d pray. I loved doing it. My grandmother had convinced me that my prayers got answered. I felt like I was helping people.
There is something magical about Soweto. Yes, it was a prison designed by our oppressors, but it also gave us a sense of self-determination and control. Soweto was ours. It had an aspirational quality that you don’t find elsewhere. In America the dream is to make it out of the ghetto. In Soweto, because there was no leaving the ghetto, the dream was to transform the ghetto.
For the million people who lived in Soweto, there were no stores, no bars, no restaurants. There were no paved roads, minimal electricity, inadequate sewerage. But when you put one million people together in one place, they find a way to make a life for themselves. A black-market economy rose up, with every type of business being run out of someone’s house: auto mechanics, day care, guys selling refurbished tires.
The most common were the
shops and the shebeens. The
shops were informal grocery stores. People would build a kiosk in their garage, buy wholesale bread and eggs, and then resell them piecemeal. Everyone in the township bought things in minute quantities because nobody had any money. You couldn’t afford to buy a dozen eggs at a time, but you could buy two eggs because that’s all you needed that morning. You could buy a quarter loaf of bread, a cup of sugar. The shebeens were unlawful bars in the back of someone’s house. They’d put chairs in their backyard and hang out an awning and run a speakeasy. The shebeens were where men would go to drink after work and during prayer meetings and most any other time of day as well.
People built homes the way they bought eggs: a little at a time. Every family in the township was allocated a piece of land by the government. You’d first build a shanty on your plot, a makeshift structure of plywood and corrugated iron. Over time, you’d save up money and build a brick wall. One wall. Then you’d save up and build another wall. Then, years later, a third wall and eventually a fourth. Now you had a room, one room for everyone in your family to sleep, eat, do everything. Then you’d save up for a roof. Then windows. Then you’d plaster the thing. Then your daughter would start a family. There was nowhere for them to go, so they’d move in with you. You’d add another corrugated-iron structure onto your brick room and slowly, over years, turn that into a proper room for them as well. Now your house had two rooms. Then three. Maybe four. Slowly, over generations, you’d keep trying to get to the point where you had a home.