In his brief preface, Noah outlines the history of Alexandra, which was originally a white man’s farm. But this farmer sold his land to blacks before apartheid, when blacks were barred from owning property, and the area gradually filled with squatters before and during apartheid. Unlike Soweto, which has continually grown since its foundation, Alex is completely surrounded by white suburbs and so “pinned in on all sides.” It is extraordinarily dense and has not changed—nor will it.
While the apartheid regime intentionally designed Soweto to be a slum, Alexandra came about accidentally, when apartheid laws were overlaid on preexisting geographical divisions. Because it is “pinned in,” it lacks Soweto’s sense of aspiration: there is no space for people to expand and no hope of living a better life in the neighborhood.
Sizwe is “one of those people who brought out the best in everybody,” which makes him immensely popular. He lives in Alexandra, but Trevor seldom goes there until after high school, when suddenly being from “the hood” is “a badge of honor,” with American hip-hop taking off. Trevor is curious, so accompanies Sizwe one day. To get into Alex, they have to pass one of Johannesburg’s wealthiest neighborhoods, then an industrial belt, and then a chaotic market next to a bus station and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
With American culture becoming an important way for South Africans to take pride in blackness as a unified identity (separate from the ethnic or tribal identities that were dominant before and during apartheid), “authentic” black identity becomes located in the experience of inner-city poverty, which Alexandra best represents in South Africa.
Alexandra itself is “a hive of constant human activity,” with a chaotic energy that “erupts periodically in epic acts of violence and crazy parties.” The buildings are rudimentary, basic sanitation is lacking, and “trash is everywhere,” often burning. The smells of food, sewage, motor oil, and the ubiquitous goats mix together, just like the residents’ various languages and the different genres of music that are constantly playing. It is “a complete sensory overload.” The area also has a geographical order: first avenue is next to the bus station; second through fifth avenues are nice, formal houses; past that is “really shitty”; then the government housing projects, where “you never wanted to go”; and finally, across the river, there is “East Bank, the newest, nicest part of the hood,” full of two-bedroom houses, where Sizwe lives and Trevor spends plenty of time hanging out and “shooting the shit.”
Trevor points out that Alexandra is simultaneously chaotic and ordered, with its “complete sensory overload” actually the product of thousands of people going about their ordinary lives virtually on top of one another and the whole neighborhood actually following a clear spatial hierarchy. It is also a microcosm of post-apartheid black South African life as a whole, and Trevor’s delight at being there is in part a delight at participating in this chaotic mosaic. Trevor feels a sense of belonging there that he has struggled to find throughout his entire childhood, even though he looks colored (while everyone else is black) and lives in a comfortable white suburb.
After high school, Trevor moves out of the house with his mother’s encouragement because Abel is too “toxic.” Trevor needs to make money to afford university tuition, so he decides to sell CDs in Alexandra, where minibus drivers buy their music (which they value as a way to attract customers) and everything is incredibly cheap—except cheese. Cheese is a particularly important sign of wealth, and Sizwe and his friends are “cheese boys,” to their chagrin. They would argue with people from the poorer parts of Alex about “who was hood and who was cheese.”
Abel’s violence continues to create turmoil in the background as Trevor comes of age, giving him a reason to want to stay away from the family and pushing him to seek out a completely independent life all at once; the time he spends in Alex could be seen as a reaction to this turmoil. The new pride in the “hood” creates a huge paradox: everyone wants to make money, but nobody wants to be “cheese.” While Trevor clearly thinks it is important to dignify and humanize people living in poverty, this borders on a counterproductive valorization of poverty. But it also suggests that Sizwe and Trevor may not gain much (besides cheese) from being in a slightly better socioeconomic situation.
However, “cheese boys” like Sizwe and his crew are “in a uniquely fucked situation” because they have seen the outside world, gotten educated, but never acquired the resources to leave their neighborhoods. After apartheid, unemployment skyrocketed because a system of slavery gets replaced with a minimum wage. This hits poor black youth the hardest, and so many end up with nothing to do but hang out on the corner.
Indeed, the complete lack of economic opportunities after apartheid means that the first generation to get an education cannot translate that education into socioeconomic progress because—like Trevor with Daniel’s CD writer—they need some opportunity to make use of. The ability to fend for oneself—the kind of education that Trevor’s mother ensured he got—becomes much more important than having gone to school. In pointing out that unemployment increased after apartheid, Trevor is by no means arguing that apartheid was better for black workers, as some white South Africans have tried to insist—rather, he is pointing out that apartheid was completely dependent on unfree and usually unpaid labor, and that an entirely new market had to grow afterwards, virtually out of nothing, to serve the next generation.
In Alexandra “there is a very fine line between civilian and criminal”; friends become gangsters and gangsters become friends, and crime is ubiquitous in varying degrees because, in short, “crime cares.” It gives people who have nothing else a way to support themselves, and it “doesn’t discriminate.” Initially, Trevor’s “life of crime” is just selling the pirated CDs, which barely counts as crime at all in Alex. He, Sizwe, and their crew sell CDs to the minibus drivers and hang out in a converted shipping container that has a payphone inside. Like Tim, Sizwe is a clever businessman, so starts selling to the bus drivers on credit (with interest) and loaning out money to people in the neighborhood.
Just as under apartheid, the “fine line” between legal and criminal behavior is ultimately relatively meaningless: the state is full of criminals, most criminals are never punished, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Trevor wants the reader to see that, just as his mother taught him, ethical and personal rules are more important than legal ones (as long as one knows how to avoid legal consequences). This does not mean doing whatever one wants, but rather living by principles instead of by social demands and expectations. In this context, when no work is available in the formal sector, it seems unreasonable to refuse informal work on moral grounds.
For instance, a young guy is trying to buy a DVD player from a crackhead for 120 rand—Sizwe gives the crackhead 50 and gets the young guy, who works at a shoe store, to give him a pair of Nikes with his employee discount, then sells the Nikes for 200. While none of this is strictly legal, nobody asks questions. A stolen car radio? Sure, because “white people have insurance.” Even Trevor’s devout mother once bought a bunch of burger patties, which were definitely stolen, from “some guy at work.”
Indeed, even Trevor’s strict mother took advantage of a no-questions-asked bargain, choosing her own necessity over someone else’s property rights. (Arguably, South Africa’s history and extent of inequality calls into question the very legitimacy of property rights that whites gained through illegal expropriation and others’ slave labor during apartheid.)
Every day, Trevor takes the bus into Alex with Sizwe and sets up shop at his house. They eat breakfast and take orders from bus drivers while burning some CDs, sell those CDs when the drivers come back around, and spend the rest of the day making deals, getting from place to place by jumping on minibuses for free to chat about what music to buy. The lunch rush is busy, and in the afternoons moms come by, preferring to buy their household goods and get loans from “upstanding, well-spoken East Bank boys” rather than crackheads and violent loan sharks.
Although Trevor, Sizwe, and their friends have their hustle perfected to a science, there is no clear distinction between their work and leisure, or their paid and unpaid time; rather, they are constantly looking out for opportunities and taking advantage of whatever they can get their hands on. In fact, being “cheese” helps them succeed in business because it lends them credibility with adults, even if other people their age still valorize the “hood” over the “cheese.”
Trevor, Sizwe, and the guys also use loans as an excuse to hang out around the women’s houses, meet their daughters, and invite them out for parties—which these girls usually would not be allowed to attend. Then they could set up “the girl, who was usually thrilled to escape her mother’s prison” with a guy who would bring them beer, which they would then resell.
Just like Tim set up Trevor and Babiki for prom, Trevor and Sizwe serve as middlemen for relationships as well as secondhand goods, using their reputations and relative class status in Alexandra to connect people in exchange for an opportunity to profit—which always remains their goal, even though it does not seem to be improving their lives very much.
At one point, they have “around 10,000 rand in capital” in addition to plenty of goods and cash flowing in and out, which Trevor records in a spreadsheet. The big sales happen after everyone comes home from work, wanting to buy electronics or sell stuff they had stolen. At night, they drink beer and hang out, guessing what kind of guns they can hear in the distance, before going to their DJ gigs or returning home.
With Trevor and Sizwe’s business becoming well-established (and Trevor's computer skills, which he learned from Daniel, and bookkeeping skills, which he learned from his secretary mother, coming in handy) it seems that they have found a place for themselves in the neighborhood and become a rare success story amidst Alexandra’s general desolation.
After two years of this hustle, Trevor is no closer to affording tuition—although he always feels like he is working, it is actually “maximal effort put into minimal gain,” like wasting time on the internet instead of reading books. Alexandra’s real draws are the acceptance—there are few colored people there, but “the hood doesn’t judge”—and the comforts of never having to “ask yourself any of the big questions” about your life or goals. Since there is always someone doing worse and someone doing marginally better, “you don’t feel like you need to do more.”
Trevor’s original motivation was making enough to afford college tuition (a reminder that higher education is also inaccessible to most black South Africans after apartheid) but instead he gets caught up in the day-to-day ups and downs of profit and losses rather than saving anything up in the long term.
And, of course, there is the hood’s “wonderful sense of community,” because everyone knows everyone and eagerly pitches in to help those who need it. For the most part, “the township polices itself as well.” However, it also limits people’s ambition—one of Trevor and Sizwe’s friends gets a job at a clothing store, for which everyone teases him. He soon gets fired for stealing, though, and Trevor is convinced “he did it on purpose […] so that he’d get accepted back into the group again.” It is hard to leave, but when it’s time, it’s time.
What Trevor did find in Alexandra, it becomes clear, was a sense of comfort and belonging, but only because Alexandra unconditionally accepted and never challenged him; whereas Soweto’s community is aspirational, full of individuals mutually supporting one another’s efforts to improve their lives, homes, and families, Alexandra’s is supportive only because of shared desperation.
Trevor is DJing a party in a nice black suburb near Alexandra; the police come in on a noise complaint, brandishing machine guns and ordering Trevor to shut down the music. But he is using Windows 95, which is so incredibly slow to shut down that the cop overreacts and shoots Trevor’s computer monitor. This does not shut off the music, but it does send the crowd into a frenzy, and the cops decide to tear gas the party for good measure. Trevor’s hard drive is destroyed, he loses all his music, and his crew cannot sell CDs anymore.
Even though the police have absolutely no reason to carry machine guns or destroy Trevor’s computer, he has to deal with the consequences of their overreactions, which derail the core of his business and show that, although the police are no longer massacring blacks to preserve apartheid, they still have unlimited and arbitrary power to oppress South Africa’s native peoples.
Soon thereafter, Trevor buys a camera from a local who steals things from people’s baggage at the airport. He sees a white family’s vacation photos and feels horrible; he recognizes that suffering is easy to perpetuate only because people do not see those they hurt, on the other end. He feels too guilty to ever sell the camera.
Probably in large part thanks to his mother, Trevor’s sense of empathy and morality kicks in. When he sees the humans behind his crime, he realizes that there are both constructive and destructive ways to make money (which is not the same as the difference between legal and criminal ones) and decides to choose the constructive path. While many people in Alexandra have few other options, he is there by choice, so he has no excuse to continue making his money by hurting people.
One night, a rival crew from Soweto invites Hitler for a dance-off against their best dancer. He loses, and the party dissolves into a fight. Trevor’s crew takes a minibus home, but it gets pulled over, and the cops find a gun inside. Nobody knows whose it is; a cop hits them all and calls them “trash,” “dogs from Alex […] bunch of fucking hoodlums.” He insists that they are going to jail, and they realize he actually wants a bribe, but they do not have any money, so they actually end up in jail—even though they are on a public bus and the gun doesn’t belong to them.
As in most of the world, the police are above the law, so function effectively as an organized crime syndicate with the backing of the state. Here, they take advantage of (and perpetuate) the stereotype of poor black men as criminals in order to prey on Trevor and his friends—whom, oddly, they insult for being from a poor neighborhood and assume will have enough money to pay a bribe.
In jail, when Trevor tells the cop he is from Highlands North, the cop is baffled, calls him “rich boy,” and tries to get him to rat out his friends. The next day, a friend’s dad posts their “bail” (which is really a bribe, since there is no formal arrest or paperwork). The boys return to their usual lives but realize that they are not really from the hood, just following its way of life because they cannot leave—except Trevor.
The cop’s perceptions of Trevor are based entirely on external factors—his race and where he lives—and not at all on his behavior, character, or decisions. Accordingly, when Trevor mentions he is from a wealthier neighborhood, the cop immediately assumes that Trevor is not like his friends and can be turned against them. In fact, this difference goes no deeper than the fact that Trevor can choose not to spend time in Alex (but says nothing about his socioeconomic status, likelihood to be a criminal, or relationship to the other boys).