Trevor Noah’s book opens with a copy of the 1927 Immorality Act, which creates criminal penalties for anyone in South Africa, European or native, who has “illicit carnal intercourse” with someone of the other race. Found guilty, men can go to prison for up to five years and women for up to four.
The Immorality Act is significant because it is the precise reason Trevor Noah was “born a crime.” By outlawing sex between people of different races, the act prevents mixed-race people who might help bridge the social gap between them from being born.
In a prefatory note, Noah explains that apartheid is really “apart hate”: it exploits the linguistic and tribal differences among South Africa’s overwhelming black majority to “divide and conquer” by giving different groups slightly different levels of social status and ensuring that they fight one another, rather than collectively turning on the white government. The most notable division is that between the Zulu and the Xhosa, “South Africa’s two dominant groups.” The Zulu are traditionally warriors, so they continued fighting the invading colonial armies and suffering horrible losses. In contrast, the Xhosa “pride themselves on being the thinkers,” so they chose to learn English and negotiate with the white settlers instead. For a long time, the Zulu and Xhosa “blamed the other for a problem neither had created,” and after apartheid, their underlying animosity brings “South Africa […] to war with itself.”
The author more explicitly summarizes the motivations behind laws like the Immorality Act; he clearly implies that South Africa’s nonwhite majorities could take power back from the tiny white minority if they were united, whereas “divide and conquer” focuses them on minor intra-racial differences instead of the big picture of white supremacy. The division between the Zulu and Xhosa parallels a set of opposing attitudes Trevor sees throughout the book in dealing with apartheid and racism: he can either openly resist the system and mark his territory through force, or instead more quietly subvert the system and think his way out of confrontations.
Trevor Noah knows that jumping out of a car hurts more than it seems to in Hollywood movies: when he is nine, his mother throws him out of a car on the way home from church on Sunday. She is very religious, like many indigenous people forced into Christianity: Jesus promises to save them from the same people who impose him on them and call their traditional beliefs “primitive.” And so Noah goes to church Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, and then to three different churches on Sundays. His “mom said each church gave her something different.” Their congregations were also different: mixed, white, and black.
Noah’s mother’s turn to Christianity is at once paradoxical and perfectly logical: it’s paradoxical because she is adopting the same ideology used to justify oppressing her, but it’s logical because religion offers her a means of coping with that oppression. The comically hyperbolic fact that she takes Trevor to three churches in tandem every Sunday suggests that she is much more devout than most white people, but also seriously disciplined and comfortable traversing the racial fault lines of divided South Africa.
The first is a “jubilant” megachurch with a mixed racial congregation. The ex-bodybuilder pastor tries “really hard to make Jesus cool,” and the worship band plays rock music. The second is a white church, which focuses on closely analyzing scriptures, and is where Noah studies biblical stories in Sunday school. At home, Noah’s mother never allows him to consume popular songs or movies—only religious music and the Bible—so Noah always wins the Bible quizzes at white church. The third church is black church—sometimes a different one every week. The services are always outside and last much longer than they do white church; Noah decides that “Black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more.” Likewise, his mom figures that going to more churches would get her more blessings. The best part of black church is watching the pastor exorcise demons from people at the end.
The differences among the three churches also reveal differences among the three groups in question. The mixed-race congregation shows the possibility of different races celebrating together, bound by a common belief. The white church shows the centrality of education in the white culture that enjoys the privilege to access it, which also points to how surprising it is for Trevor to out-Bible quiz the more advantaged white kids at the church. In contrast, the black church shows how suffering and poverty are defining features of blacks’ experiences under apartheid. Africans also clearly interpret Christianity in a distinctive way, including how Trevor’s mother considers blessings and prayers something of a tit-for-tat transaction.
Noah loves church but not the trips to church—it takes an hour to get to white church and forty-five minutes each to the other two (and sometimes back to white church at the end of the day). This particular Sunday, as often happened, the family’s secondhand Volkswagen Beetle won’t start. Noah’s mother decides they will take minibuses instead and blames the devil for the car’s failure to start. She and Trevor argue about whether Jesus wants them to go or not; she ends the argument by yelling, “Sun’qhela,” a Xhosa word that effectively means “don’t undermine me” and functions as “a command and a threat, all at once.”
The geography of Johannesburg is also significant: the churches are in different neighborhoods because different racial groups are forced to live apart, and Trevor’s mother’s willingness to spend almost all Sunday driving—or even riding shared minibuses—attests to her resilience and determination. She does not practice Christianity and speak English to Trevor at the expense of her indigenous Xhosa traditions and language, but rather sustains them both alongside one another, which serves as a model for Trevor’s efforts to bridge different cultures by refusing to compartmentalize himself in accordance with apartheid.
Noah is already the champion of his Catholic school’s sports day because he always has to run from his mother, who has a habit of chasing him, in addition to throwing things at him (and blaming him when they break). So the usual order of business is, “Catch it, put it down, now run.” And, with Trevor always spending the grocery money on video games, he has to run a lot. (When he gets old enough to outrun his mother, she starts yelling, “Stop! Thief!” and watching the townspeople descend on him.)
Trevor’s mother is as serious about disciplining him as she is about going to church; initially, she seems severe and even jarring, willing to go to any length to ensure that Trevor learns his lesson. She has no qualms about treating him the same in public as she does in private, but he clearly learns from her discipline—to run, just as he has learned to practically memorize the Bible.
Nelson Mandela is released from prison when Noah is five. Being so young, Noah scarcely understands what is going on, or what apartheid is and why they are happy for it to be over. But he does witness the violence among black South Africans trying to figure out which ethnic group would rule the country. The Inkatha Freedom Party, which is primarily Zulu, “very militant and very nationalistic,” fights with the African National Congress, which is Xhosa-led but diverse. Riots and murder (especially necklacing, or putting someone’s torso and arms in a tire and setting them on fire) are common. This violence is nearby, in the area surrounding the neighborhood where Noah grows up. But his mother never lets it dissuade them from going to work or school, and she is never afraid: she has God on her side.
Nelson Mandela’s release is a crucial moment in the dissolution of apartheid because he was one of the most prominent activists against the white supremacist regime and spent more than two decades in jail. Yet apartheid’s “divide and conquer” logic does not stop with the emergence of democracy; South Africa’s indigenous groups actually escalate the violence at first in their struggle for power, as though internalizing apartheid’s insistence that one group must rule all the rest. And yet faith gives Trevor’s mother the courage to continue living her own life and refuse to compromise her goals in the face of such violence.
At the end of that Sunday—9:00 P.M. at the white church, late enough that it is dangerous to be out, even though they are in a wealthy white suburb—Noah’s family finds themselves stranded, with no more minibuses coming by (these buses are an informal, private, unreliable system). So Noah’s mother decides to hitchhike. Just as a car pulls over to pick them up, so does a minibus, which swerves in front; a man jumps out with a Zulu “war club” and threatens the car’s driver. So Noah, his mother, and his baby brother Andrew get in the minibus.
The minibuses are informal and unreliable only because the government has failed to provide adequate transportation services for South Africa’s black population; they have to make do for themselves, but the Zulu driver’s threats show that many continue to see violence as the best (or perhaps only) way to secure a living—the man sees competition, not cooperation, as the means to survive.
Soon, the angry minibus driver and Noah’s mother get into an argument—she is a Xhosa woman with a mixed race child, who was climbing into a random man’s car just a few minutes before, and so she perfectly fits the stereotype of Xhosa women as “promiscuous and unfaithful.” As Noah dozes, the driver says Noah’s mother is “going to learn your lesson” and speeds ahead, furious and unwilling to let the family out of the car. At a stoplight, they jump out of the car—Patricia pushes Trevor out and jumps with Andrew after him—and then take off running, which is second nature by now.
The communal tensions between the Xhosa and Zulu play out in the microcosm of Trevor’s mother’s argument with the bus driver; again, it is easy for people to internalize the apartheid logic of racial essentialism and stereotypes, especially when someone like Trevor breaks down the assumption that races will always remain separate. The overwhelming atmosphere of danger and violence in the immediate aftermath of apartheid finally catches up with Trevor’s family, and they’re forced to deal with it on their own.
When they stop running, they realize that they are cut and bleeding. Patricia explains to Trevor that the men were going to kill them; they call the police to bring them home and, while they wait, get into another argument about whether this is all part of God’s plan. Trevor wonders whether, next Sunday, his mom might be able to “ask [Jesus] to meet us at our house” instead. They break out in laughter.
While Patricia and Trevor have to save themselves from violence, they react to the situation constructively rather than destructively, through prayer and humor rather than blame and fear. This contrasts starkly with the bus driver’s attitude and suggests that emotional strength is a healthier and more effective means to healing and survival than physical violence.