In his historical preface, Noah explains that “apartheid was perfect racism,” a product of centuries of fraught history. First, in the 17th century, the Dutch came to South Africa and founded Cape Town. They fought the native population and then created “a set of laws to subjugate and enslave them.” Then, the British took over Cape Town and forced the Dutch-descended settlers to move inland, where they became “the Afrikaners—the white tribe of Africa.” After the end of the British Empire, the Afrikaners took control of South Africa, sent a commission to “study institutionalized racism all over the world,” and built the system of apartheid laws, which combined the three American stages of racism—the forced relocation of natives onto reservations, slavery, and segregation—into one.
Apartheid itself emerged out of intergroup resentment—the Afrikaners’ anger toward the British, which they then turned against South Africa’s native population (while deciding that they, like the British, were “white” and deserved associated privileges). Just like the Zulu and Xhosa after apartheid, at the beginning of apartheid one group subjugated others in order to cope with their own subjugation in the past. Racial and ethnic violence becomes cyclical when oppressed groups think their oppression justifies oppressing other groups in the future. In turn, apartheid was deliberately based on the assumption that, for whites to thrive, blacks needed to be as subjugated as humanly possible.
The chapter begins. Noah’s family is mixed: his mother is a black Xhosa woman, and his father is a Swiss/German man. Race-mixing is “one of the worst crimes you could commit” during apartheid; it threatens the system so deeply because it challenges its underlying logic. But, of course, the laws never stop it from happening. In South Africa, mixed people are a separate racial category called “colored.” Under apartheid, whites, blacks, colored people, and Indians are all forced onto separate lands; entire police squads enforce the law against race mixing (although, in practice, whites usually manage to sidestep punishment). Patricia is too fearless to worry about the consequences of having Trevor.
The apartheid regime’s deepest weakness is the fact that racism is simply false: people from all groups are fundamentally capable of loving one another, and race does not create a natural boundary between communities. The attempt to turn mixed-race people into a distinctive category further shows that racial groups are hazy, socially constructed categories rather than facts of nature. Patricia’s fearlessness again helps her defy the laws designed to manipulate her through fear and violence, reflecting the fundamental absurdity of a system that defines human life based on race rather than common humanity.
Patricia is also too fearless to settle for the jobs black women usually hold, so she learns to type and becomes a secretary, a job that the apartheid government begins letting blacks take as a response to international pressure over its human rights abuses. She moves from Soweto to downtown Johannesburg—which is illegal because downtown is reserved for whites (blacks have to carry passes and return to the townships at night). Patricia ignores the rules; Xhosa prostitutes teach her how to pass for a maid and advise her to rent a room from a “German fellow” (Robert) who does not much care about the laws. Still, Patricia is arrested over and over and has to repeatedly pay a fine amounting to “nearly half her monthly salary.”
Once again, Patricia insists on defining the life she wants, then figuring out how to pursue it despite apartheid, rather than letting apartheid set the terms and limits of her life. In her youth, she follows her own instincts and sees oppression as an inconvenient obstacle but never an insurmountable barrier to her achievement. In other words, she refuses to follow unjust laws and refuses to compromise her principles or desires out of fear, even if this forces her to largely live in secret. The “German fellow” has a similar mindset and productively uses his privilege as a white man to help circumvent the same laws that create that privilege.
Patricia quickly joins the cosmopolitan, artsy, dissident, and secretly integrated social scene in her new neighborhood of Hillbrow. Doing so is risky, though, as it’s impossible to know who is a police informant. Patricia starts spending more time with the trustworthy Swiss man (Robert) who leased her the apartment and eventually asks him to give her a child—not to act as a husband or father, but just to “make this child for me.” After a long while, he consents, and Trevor Noah is born by C-section nine months later, on February 20, 1984.
Police informants are an integral part of apartheid’s system of terror and control; they allow the government to break down the distinction between public and private life and catch people like Patricia, who continue to pursue their own private values despite being in conflict with public rules. Her fearless, independent streak continues when she decides to have Trevor—in fact, she does not seem to want a man in her way and does not seem to care that it will be extraordinarily difficult for her to live with a child of (technically, according to the government) another race.
The doctors are confused, but Patricia just says Trevor’s father is from Swaziland—this is enough to fill out the birth certificate, even though she is clearly lying. Patricia and Trevor move to the nearby neighborhood of Joubert Park and occasionally visit Trevor’s father in secret. However, Trevor cannot be seen with his white father outside—nor can Trevor be seen with his black mother. Patricia soon finds workarounds: it is legal to have two colored parents, so she brings a local colored woman out on her walks with Trevor. The woman pretends to be Trevor’s mother, while Patricia pretends to be the family’s maid.
Again, Patricia recognizes the birth certificate—official government business—as a farce and obstacle, and her bluff easily succeeds precisely because apartheid is based on the illusion that race is a true, biological, determinable trait. While the fact that she cannot even be seen with Trevor in public shows how totalizing and draconian the apartheid regime is, she again outsmarts the system in order to live the life she wants.
On holidays, Patricia also brings Trevor to visit her family in Soweto, which is literally “designed to be bombed” in the case of rebellion, intentionally built with only two ways to enter or exit. It’s illegal to be colored in Soweto, and there “the police were an occupying army,” outfitted with riot gear and tanks in which they frequently roll through town and massacre protestors. Because of this, Trevor never leaves the house and yard—he cannot play with the other kids in the street, lest the police abduct him and send him to an orphanage. Once, at age three, he digs a tunnel out of the yard and escapes, sending the whole family into a crisis. Since he is always inside, he has no friends, but is perfectly happy being alone and losing himself in his imagination even to this day.
Soweto is ground zero for the apartheid regime’s oppression of blacks: it seems more like a war zone under occupation than a normal suburb, and its frightening design shows that apartheid’s architects were fully aware of how much violence they were willing to perpetuate in order to maintain white rule. This works as much on the macroscopic level of Soweto as a whole as it does on the level of Trevor’s individual family, which must hide him because it is literally against the law for them to coexist in the same place.
In his travels, Noah “meet[s] other mixed South Africans all the time,” but the difference was that their families always smuggled them out of the country. Noah first encounters one of these exiles at the age of 17, after Mandela is elected to the presidency and it becomes safe to live publicly in a mixed family. Noah is astonished to realize that leaving was ever an option, but Patricia insists that it would make no sense: “This is my country. Why should I leave?”
While the author is somewhat astonished to realize that there could have been another way out of his childhood confinement indoors, his mother clearly trusted her own strength enough to always consider their difficulties surmountable. Indeed, she sought to show Trevor that it is possible to defy even one of the most oppressive governments in history and come out unscathed.