Excerpts from the book of Trevor Noah
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other.
Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By “adopt” I mean it was forced on us. The white man was quite stern with the native. “You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.”
But the more we went to church and the longer I sat in those pews the more I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.
I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more. “I’m here to fill up on my blessings for the week,” my mother used to say. The more time we spent at church, she reckoned, the more blessings we accrued, like a Starbucks Rewards Card.
I was five years old, nearly six, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I remember seeing it on TV and everyone being happy. I didn’t know why we were happy, just that we were. I was aware of the fact that there was a thing called apartheid and it was ending and that was a big deal, but I didn’t understand the intricacies of it.
What I do remember, what I will never forget, is the violence that followed. The triumph of democracy over apartheid is sometimes called the Bloodless Revolution. It is called that because very little white blood was spilled. Black blood ran in the streets.
As the apartheid regime fell, we knew that the black man was now going to rule. The question was, which black man?
When you shit, as you first sit down, you’re not fully in the experience yet. You are not yet a shitting person. You’re transitioning from a person about to shit to a person who is shitting. You don’t whip out your smartphone or a newspaper right away. It takes a minute to get the first shit out of the way and get in the zone and get comfortable. Once you reach that moment, that’s when it gets really nice.
It’s a powerful experience, shitting. There’s something magical about it, profound even. I think God made humans shit in the way we do because it brings us back down to earth and gives us humility. I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forget how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away.
Being at H. A. Jack made me realize I was black. Before that recess I’d never had to choose, but when I was forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. Because I had a white father, because I’d been in white Sunday school, I got along with the white kids, but I didn’t belong with the white kids. I wasn’t a part of their tribe. But the black kids embraced me. “Come along,” they said. “You’re rolling with us.” With the black kids, I wasn’t constantly trying to be. With the black kids, I just was.
People thought my mom was crazy. Ice rinks and drive-ins and suburbs, these things were izinto zabelungu—the things of white people. So many black people had internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom. “Why do all this? Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?”
“Because,” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”
Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ’em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same time, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black.
I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job was to make sure that people of the wrong color weren’t doing the wrong thing. If he saw an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench, what would he say?
“Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!”
“Excuse me. I’m Japanese.”
“Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn’t mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon.”
Catholic school is similar to apartheid in that it’s ruthlessly authoritarian, and its authority rests on a bunch of rules that don’t make any sense.
I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason—because now it’s time to get up to some shit again.
I believed that Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasn’t true. Fufi was a dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I’ve felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do not own the thing that you love.
Too many men grow up without their fathers, so they spend their lives with a false impression of who their father is and what a father should be. You need to find your father. You need to show him what you’ve become. You need to finish that story.
Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.
Interviews will give you facts and information, but facts and information weren’t really what I was after. What I wanted was a relationship, and an interview is not a relationship. Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us: time. You can’t make up for that with an interview, but I had to figure that out for myself.
Colored people had it rough. Imagine: You’ve been brainwashed into believing that your blood is tainted. You’ve spent all your time assimilating and aspiring to whiteness. Then, just as you think you’re closing in on the finish line, some fucking guy named Nelson Mandela comes along and flips the country on its head. Now the finish line is back where the starting line was, and the benchmark is black. Black is in charge. Black is beautiful. Black is powerful. For centuries colored people were told: Blacks are monkeys. Don’t swing from the trees like them. Learn to walk upright like the white man. Then all of a sudden it’s Planet of the Apes, and the monkeys have taken over.
Revenge truly is sweet. It takes you to a dark place, but, man, it satisfies a thirst.
Then, immediately after assembly, there would be a race to the tuck shop because the queue to buy food was so long. Every minute you spent in the queue was working against your break time. The sooner you got your food, the longer you had to eat, play a game of soccer, or hang out. Also, if you got there late, the best food was gone.
I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.
With online porn today you just drop straight into the madness, but with dial-up it took so long for the images to load. It was almost gentlemanly compared to now. You’d spend a good five minutes looking at her face, getting to know her as a person. Then a few minutes later you’d get some boobs. By the time you got to her vagina, you’d spent a lot of quality time together.
In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust. Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it—what it means. As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic.
They pirated videogames and sold them at flea markets. As the son of pirates, Bolo did the same thing—he started selling bootleg PlayStation games around school. Kids would give him their PlayStation, and he’d bring it back a few days later with a chip in it that enabled them to play pirated games, which he would then sell them.
I had my own surround-sound system built with old car speakers I’d salvaged from the junkers Abel kept in the yard, and I strung them up around the room. Even though I had to sit there while each CD played, for a long time I didn’t really listen to them. I knew it was against the dealer’s code: Never get high on your own supply.
People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose. The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money.
Life was good, and none of it would have happened without Andrew. Without him, I would never have mastered the world of music piracy and lived a life of endless McDonald’s. What he did, on a small scale, showed me how important it is to empower the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in the wake of oppression.
People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.”
There is also this to consider: The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.
I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they?
So in Europe and America, yes, Hitler is the Greatest Madman in History. In Africa he’s just another strongman from the history books. In all my time hanging out with Hitler, I never once asked myself, “Why is his name Hitler?” His name was Hitler because his mom named him Hitler.
For us, the ultimate upgrade was to throw on a slice of cheese. Cheese was always the thing because it was so expensive. Forget the gold standard—the hood operated on the cheese standard. Cheese on anything was money. If you got a burger, that was cool, but if you got a cheeseburger, that meant you had more money than a guy who just got a hamburger. Cheese on a sandwich, cheese in your fridge, that meant you were living the good life. In any township in South Africa, if you had a bit of money, people would say, “Oh, you’re a cheese boy.” In essence: You’re not really hood because your family has enough money to buy cheese.
Hustling is to work what surfing the Internet is to reading. If you add up how much you read in a year on the Internet—tweets, Facebook posts, lists—you’ve read the equivalent of a shit ton of books, but in fact you’ve read no books in a year.
The hood is also a low-stress, comfortable life. All your mental energy goes into getting by, so you don’t have to ask yourself any of the big questions. Who am I? Who am I supposed to be? Am I doing enough? In the hood you can be a forty-year-old man living in your mom’s house asking people for money and it’s not looked down on. You never feel like a failure in the hood, because someone’s always worse off than you, and you don’t feel like you need to do more, because the biggest success isn’t that much higher than you, either. It allows you to exist in a state of suspended animation.
The hood was strangely comforting, but comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling.
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.”
My cry was not a cry of sadness. It was not catharsis. It wasn’t me feeling sorry for myself. It was an expression of raw pain that came from an inability of my body to express that pain in any other way, shape, or form. She was my mom. She was my teammate. It had always been me and her together, me and her against the world. When Andrew said, “shot her in the head,” I broke in two.
My cry was one of pain and anger. His cry was one of helplessness.