South African comedian Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime recounts his childhood as his nation transitioned from apartheid, a white supremacist system of government based on racial segregation, forced labor, and the disenfranchisement of nonwhites, to a tenuous democracy led by the black majority. Noah is mixed-race, with a white father (Robert) and a black Xhosa mother (Patricia), making his very existence a violation of the apartheid laws against interracial sex. With his single mother, Noah suffers a kind of poverty by design: the apartheid laws are designed to ensure that nonwhites remain too poor and resourceless to fight the government. But the end of apartheid does not end this poverty or inequality; rather, it leaves lasting wounds, especially in the native African communities that remain stuck in a world circumscribed by violence, poverty, and suspicion.
The apartheid government under which Noah is born does everything in its power to systematically repress and disempower nonwhites, forcing them to constantly live under siege. Noah explains that apartheid exploited the minor differences among groups to keep them focused on one another, and not on the government: it separated blacks, Indians, and coloreds into separate territory and ensured that groups like the Zulu and Xhosa remained at one another’s throats. Apartheid is a uniquely cruel system that combines the three stages of American racism—segregation, forced displacement, and slavery—into one. Most notably, it forces native Africans to move to rural “homelands” that are too depleted to farm or slums called “townships” that are intended to be unlivable. For instance, Noah notes that Soweto, the enormous township where his grandmother lives, was “designed to be bombed.” There are only two roads in and out, in case the government wants to respond to unrest by confining people inside and killing them en masse from the air. During apartheid, the police already routinely massacre Soweto’s residents; Noah sees apartheid’s worst, gratuitous violence. Strangely, because he is mixed-race in a black family, he also directly sees “how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks.” His grandmother gives him as much food as he wants and never disciplines him “because [she doesn’t] know how to hit a white child,” for instance, and he becomes famous in Soweto for his light skin.
Even after South Africa becomes a democracy, in many ways apartheid conditions continue; black natives, in particular, are now “free” but lack the opportunities or resources they would need to make anything out of this “freedom.” They lack white families’ intergenerational knowledge about how to advance in a capitalist society and continue to face severe discrimination. When Noah accidentally burns down a white family’s house, luckily the family loses nothing because they have insurance; in contrast, when Noah’s mother is shot at the end of the book, she does not have health insurance, and Noah has to foot the entire bill. Similarly, white businesses continue to dominate the economy, while Noah’s family becomes penniless because they never learned that buying a business (his stepfather Abel’s auto shop) means buying its debt. Apartheid also ensures that older black people are uneducated—the government prevents them from learning anything beyond how to count and work on farms, and they are not allowed to learn languages besides their mother tongue. This means that they cannot find jobs or form coalitions with natives from other groups even under democracy. Therefore, Noah notes, the “cycle of poverty and violence” easily continues. Those who do succeed have to pay what he and his mother call the “black tax,” working harder still to help their families rise out of poverty. During his year after high school selling pirated CDs and secondhand goods in the crowded slum of Alexandria, he realizes that nobody can afford to leave the neighborhood, even though they are technically still no longer forced by the government to live there.
Furthermore, while the new democratic government led by Nelson Mandela is egalitarian in ideology, it cannot substantially change the ingrained corruption and inequality that continue to structure poor black South Africans’ everyday relationships to the law and government. In the poverty-stricken slum of Alexandra, the lines between crime and lawful living are blurred; the people Noah knows are in and out of prison all the time, and the police routinely harass him and his friends just because of where they are from and what they look like, at one point destroying the DJ equipment that is the core of their business operation. In the penultimate chapter, Noah himself gets briefly thrown in jail for driving one of his stepfather’s fixer-upper cars and realizes that most of the others awaiting bail have committed crimes to help support their families. But Abel’s abuse of Patricia in the last chapter shows that, while the police tend to punish poor blacks for doing little, they do not care about serious violence. Patricia calls the police on Abel at least three times after he hits her, but every time the police immediately take Abel’s side even though he admits to beating Patricia. Ultimately, after shooting her in the head with the intent to kill her (and the whole family), Abel turns himself in and gets off without spending a single day in jail.
While Noah emphasizes the uniquely vicious nature of South Africa’s apartheid and post-apartheid inequality, he by no means limits his consideration to his home country’s past; rather, he continually points to apartheid’s enduring effects and global parallels (especially with the United States, on which the system was partially modeled). Beyond showing the lasting effects of apartheid, he shows how South Africa can serve as a case study for understanding the way that governments cultivate misery among segments of their populations deemed enemies to the interests of those in power, and how this often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, ensuring that poverty and violence become ways of life in those communities.
Racism, Apartheid, and the Cycle of Poverty ThemeTracker
Racism, Apartheid, and the Cycle of Poverty Quotes in Born a Crime
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
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?
In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn't merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix—and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.
There is something magical about Soweto. Yes, it was a prison designed by our oppressors, but it also gave us a sense of self-determination and control. Soweto was ours. It had an aspirational quality that you don't find elsewhere. In America the dream is to make it out of the ghetto. In Soweto, because there was no leaving the ghetto, the dream was to transform the ghetto.
For the million people who lived in Soweto, there were no stores, no bars, no restaurants. There were no paved roads, minimal electricity, inadequate sewerage. But when you put one million people together in one place, they find a way to make a life for themselves. A black-market economy rose up, with every type of business being run out of someone's house: auto mechanics, day cafe, guys selling refurbished tires.
As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. I didn't know any of it had anything to do with “race.” I didn't know what race was. My mother never referred to my dad as white or to me as mixed. So when the other kids in Soweto called me “white,” even though I was light brown, I just thought they had their colors mixed up, like they hadn't learned them properly. “Ah, yes, my friend. You've confused aqua with turquoise. I can see how you made that mistake. You're not the first.”
So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero. Working for the family in Soweto, my mom had no more freedom than she'd had in Transkei, so she ran away. She ran all the way down to the train station and jumped on a train and disappeared into the city, determined to sleep in public restrooms and rely on the kindness of prostitutes until she could make her own way in the world.
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.
Life was good, and none of it would have happened without Daniel. 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. Daniel was white. His family had access to education, resources, computers. For generations, while his people were preparing to go to university, my people were crowded into thatched huts singing, “Two times two is four. Three times two is six. La la la ta la.” My family had been denied the things his family had taken for granted. I had a natural talent for selling to people, but without knowledge and resources, where was that going to get me? People always lecture the poor: “Take responsibility for yourself! Make something of yourself!” But with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves?
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.
It's easy to be judgmental about crime when you live in a world wealthy enough to be removed from it. But the hood taught me that everyone has different notions of right and wrong, different definitions of what constitutes crime, and what level of crime they're willing to participate in.
In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don't see the person it affects. We don't see their face. We don't see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don't live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another's pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place.
“I know you see me as some crazy old bitch nagging at you,” she said, “but you forget the reason I ride you so hard and give you so much shit is because I love you. Everything I have ever done I've done from a place of love. If I don't punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn't love you. If the police get you, the police don't love you. When I beat you, I'm trying to save you. When they beat you, they're trying to kill you.”
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn't see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to a different world than the one she grew up in. She bought me the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw that not all families are violent. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that's inflicted on people that they in turn inflict on others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that, she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped, Abel had started.