Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” is as much a tribute to his rebellious and courageous mother as a memoir of his growing years under the brutal and repressive apartheid regime of South Africa. His stories are written in an engaging and vivid style which makes the incidents of his childhood and early adulthood come alive as he takes us through the cruel and unfair hardships imposed on a population that lives in constant fear and deprivation. As Noah puts it, “Apartheid was a police state... built on institutionalised racism, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control.”
Large sections of the population were relocated and segregated into townships with severe restrictions on their movements, employment, housing and mobility. Under apartheid the government did not provide public transport for blacks. Few had private cars and were dependent on an irregular and mafia ridden system of minibuses. But the atrocities of apartheid, horrific and inhuman as they were, are related by Noah without acrimony or bitterness, but rather with a bold and earthy mischievousness, which is at once funny and endearing. Noah recounts with ironic humour an incident when his mother accompanied by him and his baby brother have the misfortune of finding themselves trapped in a minibus with an abusive and dangerous driver. At one point the driver slows down at an intersection and his mother opens the door of the minibus and throws Noah out and then bundles up the baby around her and jumps out herself.
“Bam! I smacked hard on the pavement... She turned and looked at me and screamed: Run.
Why are we running?
What do you mean ‘Why are we running?’ Those men were trying to kill us.
You never told me that! You just threw me out of the car!
I did tell you. Why didn’t you jump?
Jump? I was asleep!
So I should have left you there for them to kill you?
At least they would have woken me up before they killed me.”
The relationship between mother and son is in a way unusual, bitter-sweet and strangely touching. His mother a fearlessly independent, headstrong, yet deeply religious women is determined to bring him up as a good Christian, give him a sound education, a better life and to get him out of the milieu into which she was born and brought up herself. The young Noah, fighting hardships and deprivation and in search of his identity and his integration amongst a confusing mix of groups at school, uses his wits and talents to gain popularity and acceptance. In the process he gets himself into situations which challenge authority and acceptable norms of behaviour and his mother is hell bent to discipline him with talks and lectures and very often through beatings and corporal punishment, which Noah terms as “tough love,” describing his relationship with his mother as: “We had a very Tom and Jerry relationship, me and my mom. She was the strict disciplinarian; I was naughty as shit..... In all the times I received beatings from my mom, I was never scared of her. I didn’t like it, certainly. But I understood that it was discipline and it was being done for a purpose.”
The most inhuman and draconian of the measures imposed by apartheid was a law that made it illegal to marry or have sexual relations across racial lines, in other words prohibition of sex between whites and all non-whites. The penalty for breaking this law was severe. According to Noah, his parents committed this crime, his mother being black and his father white, and hence the title of the book “Born a Crime.” Put facetiously, this union had far reaching and heart-rending repercussions for Noah and his parents. Not only could they not live together as a family, they could not be seen together in public. Noah grew up seeing his white father maybe once a week on Sundays for a few hours up to the age of 13 years and then did not see his father again until he was twenty-four.
Seeing his mother, herself a victim of domestic violence and abuse from a subsequent partner and husband, Noah is prompted to make this impassioned plea: “Where does a woman go in a society where that is the norm? When the police won’t help her? When her own family won’t help her? Where does she go? What does she do?”
Apartheid was officially abolished in the early 1990’s but its economic and social effects continue to the present day. And that is why Noah’s book is so relevant even today, not just for South Africa but all over the world, where the fight for justice, human rights, gender equality and freedom of expression continues unabated.
Bangalore based writer, Saeed Ibrahim , is the author of “Twin Tales from Kutcch,” a family saga set in Colonial India, which has won critical acclaim both in India and overseas. Saeed was born and brought up in Mumbai and was educated at St. Mary’s High School and St. Xavier’s College and later at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. He has also written newspaper articles, short stories, book reviews and some travel writing. His love of history, tradition and heirlooms is highlighted in his current book as also in the stories he has written for the Museum of Material Memory.
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