“Born A Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood”

noah.jpgTrevor Noah’s first book is brilliant.

Noah is the host of The Daily Show, which I seldom watch. But now I might– though it’s American, he is not. He’s South African.

The book is quirky, funny and tragic all in one go. Noah is mixed race or ‘coloured’ according to the old racial system in South Africa.  He spent his early childhood  hidden indoors by his Black mother,  under the Apartheid regime.  This explains the book’s title Born a Crime. Indeed, under Apartheid, the “Immorality Act” of 1927 which prohibited “Illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto,” meant Noah’s birth was truly a crime. Punishment for his parents – if they had been discovered and charged — would have meant each going to jail for four to five years.   Noah was 5 years old when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, ten when Mandela became president and started to dismantle Apartheid. The politics in the book are sometimes hard hitting and furious, at other times less focused and less driven– but still eye-popping.

What can a man who is 33 years old tell us? Lots.

For starters he tells us that in Apartheid South Africa, Chinese people were classified as Black, but Japanese were classed as White because the government envied Japanese cars,  engineering and productivity and looked for ways to increase commerce with Japan. So the Japanese got to be white people.

He explains that Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws meant to keep black people under total control. According to Noah, the Apartheid laws ran 3,000 pages and weighed 10 pounds. He writes, “In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid. “

Noah writes about his very close relationship with his mother. The currents of their lives are looped through the fabric of the book. His insights are both stark and loving; timid and empowering – clearly his mother is a brave, outspoken and wonderful woman.

Noah discusses the name Hitler, and what it means to South African Blacks. This chapter is riveting reading. Turns out Hitler is not an uncommon name and what took place at a dance party with Noah and his friend Hitler in their final year of high school—was a combination of missed communication, social class and racism.

This book is a must read. I heard last night that Born a Crime just won the 2017 Thurber Prize for American Humor – which tells me the Americans don’t understand a word of Born a Crime or its message.


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