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[2 of 5] Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Part I, Chapters 4-8, by Trevor Noah (2019)

Author: Trevor Noah

“Part 1, Chapters 4 - 8.” Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah, Spiegel & Grau, 2019.


One afternoon I was playing with my cousins. I was a doctor and they were my patients. I was operating on my cousin Bulelwa’s ear with a set of matches when I accidentally perforated her eardrum. All hell broke loose. My grandmother came running in from the kitchen. “Kwenzeka ntoni?!” “What’s happening?!” There was blood coming out of my cousin’s head. We were all crying. My grandmother patched up Bulelwa’s ear and made sure to stop the bleeding. But we kept crying. Because clearly we’d done something we were not supposed to do, and we knew we were going to be punished. My grandmother finished up with Bulelwa’s ear and whipped out a belt and she beat the shit out of Bulelwa. Then she beat the shit out of Mlungisi, too. She didn’t touch me.

Later that night my mother came home from work. She found my cousin with a bandage over her ear and my gran crying at the kitchen table.

“What’s going on?” my mom said.

“Oh, Nombuyiselo,” she said. “Trevor is so naughty. He’s the naughtiest child I’ve ever come across in my life.”

“Then you should hit him.” “I can’t hit him.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know how to hit a white child,” she said. “A black child, I understand. A black child, you hit them and they stay black. Trevor, when you hit him he turns blue and green and yellow and red. I’ve never seen those colors before. I’m scared I’m going to break him. I don’t want to kill a white person. I’m so afraid. I’m not going to touch him.” And she never did.

My grandmother treated me like I was white. My grandfather did, too, only he was even more extreme. He called me “Mastah.” In the car, he insisted on driving me as if he were my chauffeur. “Mastah must always sit in the backseat.” I never challenged him on it. What was I going to say? “I believe your perception of race is flawed, Grandfather.” No. I was five. I sat in the back.

There were so many perks to being “white” in a black family, I can’t even front. I was having a great time. My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids. Misbehavior that my cousins would have been punished for, I was given a warning and let off. And I was way naughtier than either of my cousins. It wasn’t even close. If something got broken or if someone was stealing granny’s cookies, it was me. I was trouble.

My mom was the only force I truly feared. She believed if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. But everyone else said, “No, he’s different,” and they gave me a pass. Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I knew my cousins were getting beaten for things that I’d done, but I wasn’t interested in changing my grandmother’s perspective, because that would mean I’d get beaten, too. Why would I do that? So that I’d feel better? Being beaten didn’t make me feel better. I had a choice. I could champion racial justice in our home, or I could enjoy granny’s cookies. I went with the cookies.

At that point I didn’t think of the special treatment as having to do with color. I thought of it as having to do with Trevor. It wasn’t, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is white.” It was, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is Trevor.” Trevor can’t go outside. Trevor can’t walk without supervision. It’s because I’m me; that’s why this is happening. I had no other points of reference. There were no other mixed kids around so that I could say, “Oh, this happens to us.”

Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were black—and then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. “The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.”

Whenever the kids in the street saw me they’d yell, “Indoda yomlungu!” “The white man!” Some of them would run away. Others would call out to their parents to come look. Others would run up and try to touch me to see if I was real. It was pandemonium. What I didn’t understand at the time was that the other kids genuinely had no clue what a white person was. Black kids in the township didn’t leave the township. Few people had televisions. They’d seen the white police roll through, but they’d never dealt with a white person face-to-face, ever.

I’d go to funerals and I’d walk in and the bereaved would look up and see me and they’d stop crying. They’d start whispering. Then they’d wave and say, “Oh!” like they were more shocked by me walking in than by the death of their loved ones. I think people felt like the dead person was more important because a white person had come to the funeral.

After a funeral, the mourners all go to the house of the surviving family to eat.

A hundred people might show up, and you’ve got to feed them. Usually you get a cow and slaughter it and your neighbors come over and help you cook. Neighbors and acquaintances eat outside in the yard and in the street, and the family eats indoors. Every funeral I ever went to, I ate indoors. It didn’t matter if we knew the deceased or not. The family would see me and invite me in. “Awunakuvumela umntana womlungu ame ngaphandle. Yiza naye apha ngaphakathi,” they’d say. “You can’t let the white child stand outside. Bring him in here.”

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.”

I soon learned that the quickest way to bridge the race gap was through language. Soweto was a melting pot: families from different tribes and homelands. Most kids in the township spoke only their home language, but I learned several languages because I grew up in a house where there was no option but to learn them. My mom made sure English was the first language I spoke. If you’re black in South Africa, speaking English is the one thing that can give you a leg up. English is the language of money. English comprehension is equated with intelligence. If you’re looking for a job, English is the difference between getting the job or staying unemployed. If you’re standing in the dock, English is the difference between getting off with a fine or going to prison.

After English, Xhosa was what we spoke around the house. When my mother was angry she’d fall back on her home language. As a naughty child, I was well versed in Xhosa threats. They were the first phrases I picked up, mostly for my own safety—phrases like “Ndiza kubetha entloko.” “I’ll knock you upside the head.” Or “Sidenge ndini somntwana.” “You idiot of a child.” It’s a very passionate language. Outside of that, my mother picked up different languages here and there. She learned Zulu because it’s similar to Xhosa. She spoke German because of my father. She spoke Afrikaans because it is useful to know the language of your oppressor. Sotho she learned in the streets.

Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world. We were in a shop once, and the shopkeeper, right in front of us, turned to his security guard and said, in Afrikaans, “Volg daai swartes, netnou steel hulle iets.” “Follow those blacks in case they steal something.”

My mother turned around and said, in beautiful, fluent Afrikaans, “Hoekom volg jy nie daai swartes sodat jy hulle kan help kry waarna hulle soek nie?” “Why don’t you follow these blacks so you can help them find what they’re looking for?”

“Ag, jammer!” he said, apologizing in Afrikaans. Then—and this was the funny thing—he didn’t apologize for being racist; he merely apologized for aiming his racism at us. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said. “I thought you were like the other blacks. You know how they love to steal.”

I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.”

It became a tool that served me my whole life. One day as a young man I was walking down the street, and a group of Zulu guys was walking behind me, closing in on me, and I could hear them talking to one another about how they were going to mug me. “Asibambe le autie yomlungu. Phuma ngapha mina ngizoqhamuka ngemuva kwakhe.” “Let’s get this white guy. You go to his left, and I’ll come up behind him.” I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t run, so I just spun around real quick and said, “Kodwa bafwethu yingani singavele sibambe umuntu inkunzi? Asenzeni. Mina ngikulindele.” “Yo, guys, why don’t we just mug someone together? I’m ready. Let’s do it.”

They looked shocked for a moment, and then they started laughing. “Oh, sorry, dude. We thought you were something else. We weren’t trying to take anything from you. We were trying to steal from white people. Have a good day, man.” They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.

As apartheid was coming to an end, South Africa’s elite private schools started accepting children of all colors. My mother’s company offered bursaries, scholarships, for underprivileged families, and she managed to get me into Maryvale College, an expensive private Catholic school. Classes taught by nuns. Mass on Fridays. The whole bit. I started preschool there when I was three, primary school when I was five.

In my class we had all kinds of kids. Black kids, white kids, Indian kids, colored kids. Most of the white kids were pretty well off. Every child of color pretty much wasn’t. But because of scholarships we all sat at the same table. We wore the same maroon blazers, the same gray slacks and skirts. We had the same books. We had the same teachers. There was no racial separation. Every clique was racially mixed.

Kids still got teased and bullied, but it was over usual kid stuff: being fat or being skinny, being tall or being short, being smart or being dumb. I don’t remember anybody being teased about their race. I didn’t learn to put limits on what I was supposed to like or not like. I had a wide berth to explore myself. I had crushes on white girls. I had crushes on black girls. Nobody asked me what I was. I was Trevor.

It was a wonderful experience to have, but the downside was that it sheltered me from reality. Maryvale was an oasis that kept me from the truth, a comfortable place where I could avoid making a tough decision. But the real world doesn’t go away. Racism exists. People are getting hurt, and just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And at some point, you have to choose. Black or white. Pick a side. You can try to hide from it. You can say, “Oh, I don’t pick sides,” but at some point life will force you to pick a side.

At the end of grade six I left Maryvale to go to H. A. Jack Primary, a government school. I had to take an aptitude test before I started, and, based on the results of the test, the school counselor told me, “You’re going to be in the smart classes, the A classes.” I showed up for the first day of school and went to my classroom. Of the thirty or so kids in my class, almost all of them were white. There was one Indian kid, maybe one or two black kids, and me.

Then recess came. We went out on the playground, and black kids were everywhere. It was an ocean of black, like someone had opened a tap and all the black had come pouring out. I was like, Where were they all hiding? The white kids I’d met that morning, they went in one direction, the black kids went in another direction, and I was left standing in the middle, totally confused. Were we going to meet up later on? I did not understand what was happening.

I was eleven years old, and it was like I was seeing my country for the first time. In the townships you don’t see segregation, because everyone is black. In the white world, any time my mother took me to a white church, we were the only black people there, and my mom didn’t separate herself from anyone. She didn’t care. She’d go right up and sit with the white people. And at Maryvale, the kids were mixed up and hanging out together. Before that day, I had never seen people being together and yet not together, occupying the same space yet choosing not to associate with each other in any way. In an instant I could see, I could feel, how the boundaries were drawn. Groups moved in color patterns across the yard, up the stairs, down the hall. It was insane. I looked over at the white kids I’d met that morning. Ten minutes earlier I’d thought I was at a school where they were a majority. Now I realized how few of them there actually were compared to everyone else.

I stood there awkwardly by myself in this no-man’s-land in the middle of the playground. Luckily, I was rescued by the Indian kid from my class, a guy named Theesan Pillay. Theesan was one of the few Indian kids in school, so he’d noticed me, another obvious outsider, right away. He ran over to introduce himself. “Hello, fellow anomaly! You’re in my class. Who are you? What’s your story?” We started talking and hit it off. He took me under his wing, the Artful Dodger to my bewildered Oliver.

Through our conversation it came up that I spoke several African languages, and Theesan thought a colored kid speaking black languages was the most amazing trick. He brought me over to a group of black kids. “Say something,” he told them, “and he’ll show you he understands you.” One kid said something in Zulu, and I replied to him in Zulu. Everyone cheered. Another kid said something in Xhosa, and I replied to him in Xhosa. Everyone cheered. For the rest of recess Theesan took me around to different black kids on the playground. “Show them your trick. Do your language thing.”

The black kids were fascinated. In South Africa back then, it wasn’t common to find a white person or a colored person who spoke African languages; during apartheid white people were always taught that those languages were beneath them. So the fact that I did speak African languages immediately endeared me to the black kids.

“How come you speak our languages?” they asked. “Because I’m black,” I said, “like you.”

“You’re not black.” “Yes, I am.”

“No, you’re not. Have you not seen yourself?”

They were confused at first. Because of my color, they thought I was a colored person, but speaking the same languages meant that I belonged to their tribe. It just took them a moment to figure it out. It took me a moment, too.

At some point I turned to one of them and said, “Hey, how come I don’t see you guys in any of my classes?” It turned out they were in the B classes, which also happened to be the black classes. That same afternoon, I went back to the A classes, and by the end of the day I realized that they weren’t for me. Suddenly, I knew who my people were, and I wanted to be with them. I went to see the school counselor.

“I’d like to switch over,” I told her. “I’d like to go to the B classes.”

She was confused. “Oh, no,” she said. “I don’t think you want to do that.” “Why not?”

“Because those kids are…you know.” “No, I don’t know. What do you mean?”

“Look,” she said, “you’re a smart kid. You don’t want to be in that class.” “But aren’t the classes the same? English is English. Math is math.”

“Yeah, but that class is…those kids are gonna hold you back. You want to be in the smart class.”

“But surely there must be some smart kids in the B class.” “No, there aren’t.”

“But all my friends are there.”

“You don’t want to be friends with those kids.” “Yes, I do.”

We went back and forth. Finally she gave me a stern warning.

“You do realize the effect this will have on your future? You do understand what you’re giving up? This will impact the opportunities you’ll have open to you for the rest of your life.”

“I’ll take that chance.”

I moved to the B classes with the black kids. I decided I’d rather be held back with people I liked than move ahead with people I didn’t know.

Being at H. A. Jack made me realize I was black. Before that recess I’d never had to choose, but when I was forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. Because I had a white father, because I’d been in white Sunday school, I got along with the white kids, but I didn’t belong with the white kids. I wasn’t a part of their tribe. But the black kids embraced me. “Come along,” they said. “You’re rolling with us.” With the black kids, I wasn’t constantly trying to be. With the black kids, I just was.

Before apartheid, any black South African who received a formal education was likely taught

by European missionaries, foreign enthusiasts eager to Christianize and Westernize the natives. In the mission schools, black people learned English, European literature, medicine, the law. It’s no coincidence that nearly every major black leader of the anti-apartheid movement, from Nelson Mandela to Steve Biko, was educated by the missionaries—a knowledgeable man is a free man, or at least a man who longs for freedom.

The only way to make apartheid work, therefore, was to cripple the black mind. Under apartheid, the government built what became known as Bantu schools. Bantu schools taught no science, no history, no civics. They taught metrics and agriculture: how to count potatoes, how to pave roads, chop wood, till the soil. “It does not serve the Bantu to learn history and science because he is primitive,” the government said. “This will only mislead him, showing him pastures in which he is not allowed to graze.” To their credit, they were simply being honest. Why educate a slave? Why teach someone Latin when his only purpose is to dig holes in the ground?

Mission schools were told to conform to the new curriculum or shut down. Most of them shut down, and black children were forced into crowded classrooms in dilapidated schools, often with teachers who were barely literate themselves. Our parents and grandparents were taught with little singsong lessons, the way you’d teach a preschooler shapes and colors. My grandfather used to sing the songs and laugh about how silly they were. Two times two is four. Three times two is six. La la la la la. We’re talking about fully grown teenagers being taught this way, for generations.

What happened with education in South Africa, with the mission schools and the Bantu schools, offers a neat comparison of the two groups of whites who oppressed us, the British and the Afrikaners. The difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism was that at least the British gave the natives something to aspire to. If they could learn to speak correct English and dress in proper clothes, if they could Anglicize and civilize themselves, one day they might be welcome in society. The Afrikaners never gave us that option. British racism said, “If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man.” Afrikaner racism said, “Why give a book to a monkey?”


My mother used to tell me, “I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return.” I was a product of her search for belonging. She never felt like she belonged anywhere. She didn’t belong to her mother, didn’t belong to her father, didn’t belong with her siblings. She grew up with nothing and wanted something to call her own.

My grandparents’ marriage was an unhappy one. They met and married in Sophiatown, but one year later the army came in and drove them out. The government seized their home and bulldozed the whole area to build a fancy, new white suburb, Triomf. Triumph. Along with tens of thousands of other black people, my grandparents were forcibly relocated to Soweto, to a neighborhood called the Meadowlands. They divorced not long after that, and my grandmother moved to Orlando with my mom, my aunt, and my uncle.

My mom was the problem child, a tomboy, stubborn, defiant. My gran had no idea how to raise her. Whatever love they had was lost in the constant fighting that went on between them. But my mom adored her father, the charming, charismatic Temperance. She went gallivanting with him on his manic misadventures. She’d tag along when he’d go drinking in the shebeens. All she wanted in life was to please him and be with him. She was always being swatted away by his girlfriends, who didn’t like having a reminder of his first marriage hanging around, but that only made her want to be with him all the more.

When my mother was nine years old, she told my gran that she didn’t want to live with her anymore. She wanted to live with her father. “If that’s what you want,” Gran said, “then go.” Temperance came to pick my mom up, and she happily bounded up into his car, ready to go and be with the man she loved. But instead of taking her to live with him in the Meadowlands, without even telling her why, he packed her off and sent her to live with his sister in the Xhosa homeland, Transkei—he didn’t want her, either. My mom was the middle child. Her sister was the eldest and firstborn. Her brother was the only son, bearer of the family name. They both stayed in Soweto, were both raised and cared for by their parents. But my mom was unwanted. She was the second girl. The only place she would have less value would be China.

My mother didn’t see her family again for twelve years. She lived in a hut with fourteen cousins—fourteen children from fourteen different mothers and fathers. All the husbands and uncles had gone off to the cities to find work, and the children who weren’t wanted, or whom no one could afford to feed, had been sent back to the homeland to live on this aunt’s farm.

The homelands were, ostensibly, the original homes of South Africa’s tribes, sovereign and semi-sovereign “nations” where black people would be “free.” Of course, this was a lie. For starters, despite the fact that black people made up over 80 percent of South Africa’s population, the territory allocated for the homelands was about 13 percent of the country’s land. There was no running water, no electricity. People lived in huts.

Where South Africa’s white countryside was lush and irrigated and green, the black lands were overpopulated and overgrazed, the soil depleted and eroding. Other than the menial wages sent home from the cities, families scraped by with little beyond subsistence-level farming. My mother’s aunt hadn’t taken her in out of charity. She was there to work. “I was one of the cows,” my mother would later say, “one of the oxen.” She and her cousins were up at half past four, plowing fields and herding animals before the sun baked the soil as hard as cement and made it too hot to be anywhere but in the shade.

For dinner there might be one chicken to feed fourteen children. My mom would have to fight with the bigger kids to get a handful of meat or a sip of the gravy or even a bone from which to suck out some marrow. And that’s when there was food for dinner at all. When there wasn’t, she’d steal food from the pigs. She’d steal food from the dogs. The farmers would put out scraps for the animals, and she’d jump for it. She was hungry; let the animals fend for themselves. There were times when she literally ate dirt. She would go down to the river, take the clay from the riverbank, and mix it with the water to make a grayish kind of milk. She’d drink that to feel full.

But my mother was blessed that her village was one of the places where a mission school had contrived to stay open in spite of the government’s Bantu education policies. There she had a white pastor who taught her English. She didn’t have food or shoes or even a pair of underwear, but she had English. She could read and write. When she was old enough she stopped working on the farm and got a job at a factory in a nearby town. She worked on a sewing machine making school uniforms. Her pay at the end of each day was a plate of food. She used to say it was the best food she’d ever eaten, because it was something she had earned on her own. She wasn’t a burden to anyone and didn’t owe anything to anyone.

When my mom turned twenty-one, her aunt fell ill and that family could no longer keep her in Transkei. My mom wrote to my gran, asking her to send the price of a train ticket, about thirty rand, to bring her home. Back in Soweto, my mom enrolled in the secretarial course that allowed her to grab hold of the bottom

rung of the white-collar world. She worked and worked and worked but, living under my grandmother’s roof, she wasn’t allowed to keep her own wages. As a secretary, my mom was bringing home more money than anyone else, and my grandmother insisted it all go to the family. The family needed a radio, an oven, a refrigerator, and it was now my mom’s job to provide it.

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.

My mother never sat me down and told me the whole story of her life in Transkei. She’d give me little bursts, random details, stories of having to keep her wits about her to avoid getting raped by strange men in the village. She’d tell me these things and I’d be like, Lady, clearly you do not know what kind of stories to be telling a ten-year-old.

My mom told me these things so that I’d never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. “Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.” And she never was. The deprivations of her youth, the betrayals of her parents, she never complained about any of it.

Just as she let the past go, she was determined not to repeat it: my childhood would bear no resemblance to hers. She started with my name. The names Xhosa families give their children always have a meaning, and that meaning has a way of becoming self-fulfilling. You have my cousin, Mlungisi. “The Fixer.” That’s who he is. Whenever I got into trouble he was the one trying to help me fix it. He was always the good kid, doing chores, helping around the house. You have my uncle, the unplanned pregnancy, Velile. “He Who Popped Out of Nowhere.” And that’s all he’s done his whole life, disappear and reappear. He’ll go off on a drinking binge and then pop back up out of nowhere a week later.

Then you have my mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. “She Who Gives Back.” That’s what she does. She gives and gives and gives. She did it even as a girl in Soweto. Playing in the streets she would find toddlers, three- and four-year-olds, running around unsupervised all day long. Their fathers were gone and their mothers were drunks. My mom, who was only six or seven herself, used to round up the abandoned kids and form a troop and take them around to the shebeens.

They’d collect empties from the men who were passed out and take the bottles to where you could turn them in for a deposit. Then my mom would take that money, buy food in the spaza shops, and feed the kids. She was a child taking care of children.

When it was time to pick my name, she chose Trevor, a name with no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family. It’s not even a Biblical name. It’s just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.

She gave me the tools to do it as well. She taught me English as my first language. She read to me constantly. The first book I learned to read was the book. The Bible. Church was where we got most of our other books, too. My mom would bring home boxes that white people had donated—picture books, chapter books, any book she could get her hands on. Then she signed up for a subscription program where we got books in the mail. It was a series of how-to books. How to Be a Good Friend. How to Be Honest. She bought a set of encyclopedias, too; it was fifteen years old and way out of date, but I would sit and pore through those.

My books were my prized possessions. I had a bookshelf where I put them, and I was so proud of it. I loved my books and kept them in pristine condition. I read them over and over, but I did not bend the pages or the spines. I treasured every single one. As I grew older I started buying my own books. I loved fantasy, loved to get lost in worlds that didn’t exist. I remember there was some book about white boys who solved mysteries or some shit. I had no time for that. Give me Roald Dahl. James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. That was my fix.

I had to fight to convince my mom to get the Narnia books for me. She didn’t like them.

“This lion,” she said, “he is a false God—a false idol! You remember what happened when Moses came down from the mountain after he got the tablets…”

“Yes, Mom,” I explained, “but the lion is a Christ figure. Technically, he is Jesus. It’s a story to explain Jesus.”

She wasn’t comfortable with that. “No, no. No false idols, my friend.” Eventually I wore her down. That was a big win.

If my mother had one goal, it was to free my mind. My mother spoke to me like an adult, which was unusual. In South Africa, kids play with kids and adults talk to adults. The adults supervise you, but they don’t get down on your level and talk to you. My mom did. All the time. I was like her best friend. She was always telling me stories, giving me lessons, Bible lessons especially. She was big into Psalms. I had to read Psalms every day. She would quiz me on it. “What does the passage mean? What does it mean to you? How do you apply it to your life?” That was every day of my life. My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think.

The end of apartheid was a gradual thing. It wasn’t like the Berlin Wall where one day it just came down. Apartheid’s walls cracked and crumbled over many years. Concessions were made here and there, some laws were repealed, others simply weren’t enforced. There came a point, in the months before Mandela’s release, when we could live less furtively. It was then that my mother decided we needed to move. She felt we had grown as much as we could hiding in our tiny flat in town.

The country was open now. Where would we go? Soweto came with its burdens. My mother still wanted to get out from the shadow of her family. My mother also couldn’t walk with me through Soweto without people saying, “There goes that prostitute with a white man’s child.” In a black area she would always be seen as that. So, since my mom didn’t want to move to a black area and couldn’t afford to move to a white area, she decided to move to a colored area.

Eden Park was a colored neighborhood adjacent to several black townships on the East Rand. Half-colored and half-black, she figured, like us. We’d be camouflaged there. It didn’t work out that way; we never fit in at all. But that was her thinking when we made the move. Plus it was a chance to buy a home—our own home. Eden Park was one of those “suburbs” that are actually out on the edge of civilization, the kind of place where property developers have said, “Hey, poor people. You can live the good life, too. Here’s a house. In the middle of nowhere. But look, you have a yard!” For some reason the streets in Eden Park were named after cars: Jaguar Street. Ferrari Street. Honda Street. I don’t know if that was a coincidence or not, but it’s funny because colored people in South Africa are known for loving fancy cars. It was like living in a white neighborhood with all the streets named after varietals of fine wine.

I remember moving out there in flashbacks, snippets, driving to a place I’d never seen, seeing people I’d never seen. It was flat, not many trees, the same dusty red-clay dirt and grass as Soweto but with proper houses and paved roads and a sense of suburbia to it. Ours was a tiny house at the bend in the road right off Toyota Street. It was modest and cramped inside, but walking in I thought, Wow. We are really living. It was crazy to have my own room. I didn’t like it. My whole life I’d slept in a room with my mom or on the floor with my cousins. I was used to having other human beings right next to me, so I slept in my mom’s bed most nights.

There was no stepfather in the picture yet, no baby brother crying in the night. It was me and her, alone. There was this sense of the two of us embarking on a grand adventure. She’d say things to me like, “It’s you and me against the world.” I understood even from an early age that we weren’t just mother and son. We were a team.

It was when we moved to Eden Park that we finally got a car, the beat-up, tangerine Volkswagen my mother bought secondhand for next to nothing. One out of five times it wouldn’t start. There was no AC. Anytime I made the mistake of turning on the fan the vent would fart bits of leaves and dust all over me. Whenever it broke down we’d catch minibuses, or sometimes we’d hitchhike. She’d make me hide in the bushes because she knew men would stop for a woman but not a woman with a child. She’d stand by the road, the driver would pull over, she’d open the door and then whistle, and I’d come running up to the car. I would watch their faces drop as they realized they weren’t picking up an attractive single woman but an attractive single woman with a fat little kid.

When the car did work, we had the windows down, sputtering along and baking in the heat. For my entire life the dial on that car’s radio stayed on one station. It was called Radio Pulpit, and as the name suggests it was nothing but preaching and praise. I wasn’t allowed to touch that dial. Anytime the radio wasn’t getting reception, my mom would pop in a cassette of Jimmy Swaggart sermons. (When we finally found out about the scandal? Oh, man. That was rough.)

But as shitty as our car was, it was a car. It was freedom. We weren’t black people stuck in the townships, waiting for public transport. We were black people who were out in the world. We were black people who could wake up and say, “Where do we choose to go today?” On the commute to work and school, there was a long stretch of the road into town that was completely deserted. That’s where Mom would let me drive. On the highway. I was six. She’d put me on her lap and let me steer and work the indicators while she worked the pedals and the stick shift. After a few months of that, she taught me how to work the stick. She was still working the clutch, but I’d climb onto her lap and take the stick, and she’d call out the gears as we drove. There was this one part of the road that ran deep into a valley and then back up the other side. We’d get up a head of speed, and we’d stick it into neutral and let go of the brake and the clutch, and, woo-hoo!, we’d race down the hill and then, zoom!, we’d shoot up the other side. We were flying.

If we weren’t at school or work or church, we were out exploring. My mom’s attitude was “I chose you, kid. I brought you into this world, and I’m going to give you everything I never had.” She poured herself into me. She would find places for us to go where we didn’t have to spend money. We must have gone to every park in Johannesburg. My mom would sit under a tree and read the Bible, and I’d run and play and play and play. On Sunday afternoons after church, we’d go for drives out in the country. My mom would find places with beautiful views for us to sit and have a picnic. There was none of the fanfare of a picnic basket or plates or anything like that, only baloney and brown bread and margarine sandwiches wrapped up in butcher paper. To this day, baloney and brown bread and margarine will instantly take me back. You can come with all the Michelin stars in the world, just give me baloney and brown bread and margarine and I’m in heaven.

Food, or the access to food, was always the measure of how good or bad things were going in our lives. My mom would always say, “My job is to feed your body, feed your spirit, and feed your mind.” That’s exactly what she did, and the way she found money for food and books was to spend absolutely nothing on anything else. Her frugality was the stuff of legend. Our car was a tin can on wheels, and we lived in the middle of nowhere. We had threadbare furniture, busted old sofas with holes worn through the fabric. Our TV was a tiny black-and-white with a bunny aerial on top. We changed the channels using a pair of pliers because the buttons didn’t work. Most of the time you had to squint to see what was going on.

We always wore secondhand clothes, from Goodwill stores or that were giveaways from white people at church. All the other kids at school got brands, Nike and Adidas. I never got brands. One time I asked my mom for Adidas sneakers. She came home with some knockoff brand, Abidas.

“Mom, these are fake,” I said. “I don’t see the difference.”

“Look at the logo. There are four stripes instead of three.” “Lucky you,” she said. “You got one extra.”

We got by with next to nothing, but we always had church and we always had books and we always had food. Mind you, it wasn’t necessarily good food. Meat was a luxury. When things were going well we’d have chicken. My mom was an expert at cracking open a chicken bone and getting out every last bit of marrow inside. We didn’t eat chickens. We obliterated them. Our family was an archaeologist’s nightmare. We left no bones behind. When we were done with a chicken there was nothing left but the head. Sometimes the only meat we had was a packaged meat you could buy at the butcher called “sawdust.” It was literally the dust of the meat, the bits that fell off the cuts being packaged for the shop, the bits of fat and whatever’s left. They’d sweep it up and put it into bags. It was meant for dogs, but my mom bought it for us. There were many months where that was all we ate.

The butcher sold bones, too. We called them “soup bones,” but they were actually labeled “dog bones” in the store; people would cook them for their dogs as a treat. Whenever times were really tough we’d fall back on dog bones. My mom would boil them for soup. We’d suck the marrow out of them. Sucking marrow out of bones is a skill poor people learn early. I’ll never forget the first time I went to a fancy restaurant as a grown man and someone told me, “You have to try the bone marrow. It’s such a delicacy. It’s divine.” They ordered it, the waiter brought it out, and I was like, “Dog bones, motherfucker!” I was not impressed.

As modestly as we lived at home, I never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience. We were always out doing something, going somewhere. My mom used to take me on drives through fancy white neighborhoods. We’d go look at people’s houses, look at their mansions. We’d look at their walls, mostly, because that’s all we could see from the road. We’d look at a wall that ran from one end of the block to the other and go, “Wow. That’s only one house. All of that is for one family.” Sometimes we’d pull over and go up to the wall, and she’d put me up on her shoulders like I was a little periscope. I would look into the yards and describe everything I was seeing. “It’s a big white house! They have two dogs! There’s a lemon tree! They have a swimming pool! And a tennis court!”

My mother took me places black people never went. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do. She’d take me to the ice rink to go skating. Johannesburg used to have this epic drive-in movie theater, Top Star Drive-In, on top of a massive mine dump outside the city. She’d take me to movies there; we’d get snacks, hang the speaker on our car window. Top Star had a 360-degree view of the city, the suburbs, Soweto. Up there I could see for miles in every direction. I felt like I was on top of the world.

My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.

We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will.

Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that my mother started her little project, me, at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end. There was no reason to think it would end; it had seen generations come and go. I was nearly six when Mandela was released, ten before democracy finally came, yet she was preparing me to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist. A hard life in the township or a trip to the colored orphanage were the far more likely options on the table. But we never lived that way. We only moved forward and we always moved fast, and by the time the law and everyone else came around we were already miles down the road, flying across the freeway in a bright-orange, piece-of-shit Volkswagen with the windows down and Jimmy Swaggart praising Jesus at the top of his lungs.

People thought my mom was crazy. Ice rinks and drive-ins and suburbs, these things were izinto zabelungu—the things of white people. So many black people had internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom. “Why do all this? Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?”

“Because,” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”

Apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ’em black. It’s simpler that way.”

Interestingly, at the same time, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job was to make sure that people of the wrong color weren’t doing the wrong thing. If he saw an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench, what would he say?

“Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!” “Excuse me. I’m Japanese.”

“Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn’t mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon.”


My mother used to tell me, “I chose to have you because I wanted something to love and something that would love me unconditionally in return—and then I gave birth to the most selfish piece of shit on earth and all it ever did was cry and eat and shit and say, ‘Me, me, me, me me.’

My mom thought having a child was going to be like having a partner, but every child is born the center of its own universe, incapable of understanding the world beyond its own wants and needs, and I was no different. I was a voracious kid. I consumed boxes of books and wanted more, more, more. I ate like a pig. The way I ate I should have been obese. At a certain point the family thought I had worms. Whenever I went to my cousins’ house for the holidays, my mom would drop me off with a bag of tomatoes, onions, and potatoes and a large sack of cornmeal. That was her way of preempting any complaints about my visit. At my gran’s house I always got seconds, which none of the other kids got. My grandmother would give me the pot and say, “Finish it.” If you didn’t want to wash the dishes, you called Trevor. They called me the rubbish bin of the family. I ate and ate and ate.

I was hyperactive, too. I craved constant stimulation and activity. When I walked down the sidewalk as a toddler, if you didn’t have my arm in a death grip, I was off, running full-speed toward the traffic. I loved to be chased. I thought it was a game. The old grannies my mom hired to look after me while she was at work? I would leave them in tears. My mom would come home and they’d be crying. “I quit. I can’t do this. Your son is a tyrant.” It was the same with my schoolteachers, with Sunday school teachers. If you weren’t engaging me, you were in trouble. I wasn’t a shit to people. I wasn’t whiny and spoiled. I had good manners. I was just high-energy and knew what I wanted to do.

My mom used to take me to the park so she could run me to death to burn off the energy. She’d take a Frisbee and throw it, and I’d run and catch it and bring it back. Over and over and over. Sometimes she’d throw a tennis ball. Black people’s dogs don’t play fetch; you don’t throw anything to a black person’s dog unless it’s food. So it was only when I started spending time in parks with white people and their pets that I realized my mom was training me like a dog.

Anytime my extra energy wasn’t burned off, it would find its way into general naughtiness and misbehavior. I prided myself on being the ultimate prankster. Every teacher at school used overhead projectors to put their notes up on the wall during class. One day I went around and took the magnifying glass out of every projector in every classroom. Another time I emptied a fire extinguisher into the school piano, because I knew we were going to have a performance at assembly the next day. The pianist sat down and played the first note and, foomp!, all this foam exploded out of the piano.

The two things I loved most were fire and knives. I was endlessly fascinated by them. Knives were just cool. I collected them from pawnshops and garage sales: flick knives, butterfly knives, the Rambo knife, the Crocodile Dundee knife. Fire was the ultimate, though. I loved fire and I especially loved fireworks. We celebrated Guy Fawkes Day in November, and every year my mom would buy us a ton of fireworks, like a mini-arsenal. I realized that I could take the gunpowder out of all the fireworks and create one massive firework of my own. One afternoon I was doing precisely that, goofing around with my cousin and filling an empty plant pot with a huge pile of gunpowder, when I got distracted by some Black Cat firecrackers. The cool thing you could do with a Black Cat was, instead of lighting it to make it explode, you could break it in half and light it and it would turn into a mini-flamethrower. I stopped midway through building my gunpowder pile to play with the Black Cats and somehow dropped a match into the pile. The whole thing exploded, throwing a massive ball of flame up in my face. Mlungisi screamed, and my mom came running into the yard in a panic.

“What happened?!”

I played it cool, even though I could still feel the heat of the fireball on my face. “Oh, nothing. Nothing happened.”

“Were you playing with fire?!” “No.”

She shook her head. “You know what? I would beat you, but Jesus has already exposed your lies.”


“Go to the bathroom and look at yourself.”

I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror. My eyebrows were gone and the front inch or so of my hair was completely burned off.

From an adult’s point of view, I was destructive and out of control, but as a child I didn’t think of it that way. I never wanted to destroy. I wanted to create. I wasn’t burning my eyebrows. I was creating fire. I wasn’t breaking overhead projectors. I was creating chaos, to see how people reacted.

And I couldn’t help it. There’s a condition kids suffer from, a compulsive disorder that makes them do things they themselves don’t understand. You can tell a child, “Whatever you do, don’t draw on the wall. You can draw on this paper. You can draw in this book. You can draw on any surface you want. But do not draw or write or color on the wall.” The child will look you dead in the eye and say, “Got it.” Ten minutes later the child is drawing on the wall. You start screaming. “Why the hell are you drawing on the wall?!” The child looks at you, and he genuinely has no idea why he drew on the wall. As a kid, I remember having that feeling all the time. Every time I got punished, as my mom was whooping my ass, I’d be thinking, Why did I just do that? I knew not to do that. She told me not to do that. Then once the hiding was over I’d say to myself, I’m going to be so good from here on. I’m never ever going to do a bad thing in my life ever ever ever ever ever—and to remember not to do anything bad, let me write something on the wall to remind myself…and then I would pick up a crayon and get straight back into it, and I never understood why.

My relationship with my mom was like the relationship between a cop and a criminal in the movies—the relentless detective and the devious mastermind she’s determined to catch. They’re bitter rivals, but, damn, they respect the hell out of each other, and somehow they even grow to like each other. Sometimes my mom would catch me, but she was usually one step behind, and she was always giving me the eye. Someday, kid. Someday I’m going to catch you and put you away for the rest of your life. Then I would give her a nod in return. Have a good evening, Officer. That was my whole childhood.

My mom was forever trying to rein me in. Over the years, her tactics grew more and more sophisticated. Where I had youth and energy on my side, she had cunning, and she figured out different ways to keep me in line. One Sunday we were at the shops and there was a big display of toffee apples. I loved toffee apples, and I kept nagging her the whole way through the shop. Please can I have a toffee apple? Please can I have a toffee apple? Please can I have a toffee apple? Please can I have a toffee apple?”

Finally, once we had our groceries and my mom was heading to the front to pay, I succeeded in wearing her down. “Fine,” she said. “Go and get a toffee apple.” I ran, got a toffee apple, came back, and put it on the counter at the checkout.

“Add this toffee apple, please,” I said.

The cashier looked at me skeptically. “Wait your turn, boy. I’m still helping this lady.”

“No,” I said. “She’s buying it for me.”

My mother turned to me. “Who’s buying it for you?” “You’re buying it for me.”

“No, no. Why doesn’t your mother buy it for you?” “What? My mother? You are my mother.”

“I’m your mother? No, I’m not your mother. Where’s your mother?” I was so confused. You’re my mother.”

The cashier looked at her, looked back at me, looked at her again. She shrugged, like, I have no idea what that kid’s talking about. Then she looked at me like she’d never seen me before in her life.

“Are you lost, little boy? Where’s your mother?” “Yeah,” the cashier said. “Where’s your mother?” I pointed at my mother. “She’s my mother.”

“What? She can’t be your mother, boy. She’s black. Can’t you see?”

My mom shook her head. “Poor little colored boy lost his mother. What a shame.”

I panicked. Was I crazy? Is she not my mother? I started bawling. You’re my mother. You’re my mother. She’s my mother. She’s my mother.”

She shrugged again. “So sad. I hope he finds his mother.”

The cashier nodded. She paid him, took our groceries, and walked out of the shop. I dropped the toffee apple, ran out behind her in tears, and caught up to her at the car. She turned around, laughing hysterically, like she’d really got me good.

“Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Because you said you weren’t my mother. Why did you say you weren’t my mother?”

“Because you wouldn’t shut up about the toffee apple. Now get in the car. Let’s go.”

By the time I was seven or eight, I was too smart to be tricked, so she changed tactics. Our life turned into a courtroom drama with two lawyers constantly debating over loopholes and technicalities. My mom was smart and had a sharp tongue, but I was quicker in an argument. She’d get flustered because she couldn’t keep up. So she started writing me letters. That way she could make her points and there could be no verbal sparring back and forth. If I had chores to do, I’d come home to find an envelope slipped under the door, like from the landlord.

Dear Trevor,

“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” —Colossians 3:20

There are certain things I expect from you as my child and as a young man. You need to clean your room. You need to keep the house clean. You need to look after your school uniform. Please, my child, I ask you. Respect my rules so that I may also respect you. I ask you now, please go and do the dishes and do the weeds in the garden.

Yours sincerely, Mom

I would do my chores, and if I had anything to say I would write back. Because my mom was a secretary and I spent hours at her office every day after school, I’d learned a great deal about business correspondence. I was extremely proud of my letter-writing abilities.

To Whom It May Concern: Dear Mom,

I have received your correspondence earlier. I am delighted to say that I am ahead of schedule on the dishes and I will continue to wash them in an hour or so. Please note that the garden is wet and so I cannot do the weeds at this time, but please be assured this task will be completed by the end of the weekend. Also, I completely agree with what you are saying with regard to my respect levels and I will maintain my room to a satisfactory standard.

Yours sincerely, Trevor

Those were the polite letters. If we were having a real, full-on argument or if I’d gotten in trouble at school, I’d find more accusatory missives waiting for me when I got home.

Dear Trevor,

“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.”

—Proverbs 22:15

Your school marks this term have been very disappointing, and your behavior in class continues to be disruptive and disrespectful. It is clear from your actions that you do not respect me. You do not respect your teachers. Learn to respect the women in your life. The way you treat me and the way you treat your teachers will be the way you treat other women in the world. Learn to buck that trend now and you will be a better man because of it. Because of your behavior I am grounding you for one week. There will be no television and no videogames.

Yours sincerely, Mom

I, of course, would find this punishment completely unfair. I’d take the letter and confront her.

“Can I speak to you about this?”

“No. If you want to reply, you have to write a letter.”

I’d go to my room, get out my pen and paper, sit at my little desk, and go after her arguments one by one.

To Whom It May Concern: Dear Mom,

First of all, this has been a particularly tough time in school, and for you to say that my marks are bad is extremely unfair, especially considering the fact that you yourself were not very good in school and I am, after all, a product of yours, and so in part you are to blame because if you were not good in school, why would I be good in school because genetically we are the same. Gran always talks about how naughty you were, so obviously my naughtiness comes from you, so I don’t think it is right or just for you to say any of this. Yours sincerely,


I’d bring her the letter and stand there while she read it. Invariably she’d tear it up and throw it in the dustbin. “Rubbish! This is rubbish!” Then she’d start to launch into me and I’d say, “Ah-ah-ah. No. You have to write a letter.” Then I’d go to my room and wait for her reply. This sometimes went back and forth for days.

The letter writing was for minor disputes. For major infractions, my mom went with the ass-whooping. Like most black South African parents, when it came to discipline my mom was old school. If I pushed her too far, she’d go for the belt or switch. That’s just how it was in those days. Pretty much all of my friends had it the same.

My mom would have given me proper sit-down hidings if I’d given her the opportunity, but she could never catch me. My gran called me “Springbok,” after the second-fastest land mammal on earth, the deer that the cheetah hunts. My mom had to become a guerrilla fighter. She got her licks in where she could, her belt or maybe a shoe, administered on the fly.

One thing I respected about my mom was that she never left me in any doubt as to why I was receiving the hiding. It wasn’t rage or anger. It was discipline from a place of love. My mom was on her own with a crazy child. I destroyed pianos. I shat on floors. I would screw up, she’d beat the shit out of me and give me time to cry, and then she’d pop back into my room with a big smile and go, “Are you ready for dinner? We need to hurry and eat if we want to watch Rescue 911. Are you coming?”

“What? What kind of psychopath are you? You just beat me!”

“Yes. Because you did something wrong. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you anymore.”


“Look, did you or did you not do something wrong?” “I did.”

“And then? I hit you. And now that’s over. So why sit there and cry? It’s time for Rescue 911. William Shatner is waiting. Are you coming or not?”

When it came to discipline, Catholic school was no joke. Whenever I got into trouble with the nuns at Maryvale they’d rap me on the knuckles with the edge of a metal ruler. For cursing they’d wash my mouth out with soap. For serious offenses I’d get sent to the principal’s office. Only the principal could give you an official hiding. You’d have to bend over and he’d hit your ass with this flat rubber thing, like the sole of a shoe.

Whenever the principal would hit me, it was like he was afraid to do it too hard. One day I was getting a hiding and I thought, Man, if only my mom hit me like this, and I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. The principal was quite disturbed. “If you’re laughing while you’re getting beaten,” he said, “then something is definitely wrong with you.”

That was the first of three times the school made my mom take me to a psychologist to be evaluated. Every psychologist who examined me came back and said, “There’s nothing wrong with this kid.” I wasn’t ADD. I wasn’t a sociopath. I was just creative and independent and full of energy. The therapists did give me a series of tests, and they came to the conclusion that I was either going to make an excellent criminal or be very good at catching criminals, because I could always find loopholes in the law. Whenever I thought a rule wasn’t logical, I’d find my way around it.

The rules about communion at Friday mass, for example, made absolutely no sense. We’d be in there for an hour of kneeling, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting, kneeling, standing, sitting, and by the end of it I’d be starving, but I was never allowed to take communion, because I wasn’t Catholic. The other kids could eat Jesus’s body and drink Jesus’s blood, but I couldn’t. And Jesus’s blood was grape juice. I loved grape juice. Grape juice and crackers—what more could a kid want? And they wouldn’t let me have any. I’d argue with the nuns and the priest all the time.

“Only Catholics can eat Jesus’s body and drink Jesus’s blood, right?” “Yes.”

“But Jesus wasn’t Catholic.” “No.”

“Jesus was Jewish.” “Well, yes.”

“So you’re telling me that if Jesus walked into your church right now, Jesus would not be allowed to have the body and blood of Jesus?”


They never had a satisfactory reply.

One morning before mass I decided, I’m going to get me some Jesus blood and Jesus body. I snuck behind the altar and I drank the entire bottle of grape juice and I ate the entire bag of Eucharist to make up for all the other times that I couldn’t.

In my mind, I wasn’t breaking the rules, because the rules didn’t make any sense. And I got caught only because they broke their own rules. Another kid ratted me out in confession, and the priest turned me in.

“No, no,” I protested. You’ve broken the rules. That’s confidential information. The priest isn’t supposed to repeat what you say in confession.”

They didn’t care. The school could break whatever rules it wanted. The principal laid into me.

“What kind of a sick person would eat all of Jesus’s body and drink all of Jesus’s blood?”

“A hungry person.”

I got another hiding and a second trip to the psychologist for that one. The third visit to the shrink, and the last straw, came in grade six. A kid was bullying me. He said he was going to beat me up, and I brought one of my knives to school. I wasn’t going to use it; I just wanted to have it. The school didn’t care. That was the last straw for them. I wasn’t expelled, exactly. The principal sat me down and said, “Trevor, we can expel you. You need to think hard about whether you really want to be at Maryvale next year.” I think he thought he was giving me an ultimatum that would get me to shape up. But I felt like he was offering me an out, and I took it. “No,” I told him, “I don’t want to be here.” And that was the end of Catholic school.

Funnily enough, I didn’t get into trouble with my mom when it happened. There was no ass-whooping waiting for me at home. She’d lost the bursary when she’d left her job at ICI, and paying for private school was becoming a burden. But more than that, she thought the school was overreacting. The truth is she probably took my side against Maryvale more often than not. She agreed with me 100 percent about the Eucharist thing. “Let me get this straight,” she told the principal. “You’re punishing a child because he wants Jesus’s body and Jesus’s blood? Why shouldn’t he have those things? Of course he should have them.” When they made me see a therapist for laughing while the principal hit me, she told the school that was ridiculous, too.

“Ms. Noah, your son was laughing while we were hitting him.”

“Well, clearly you don’t know how to hit a kid. That’s your problem, not mine. Trevor’s never laughed when I’ve hit him, I can tell you.”

That was the weird and kind of amazing thing about my mom. If she agreed with me that a rule was stupid, she wouldn’t punish me for breaking it. Both she and the psychologists agreed that the school was the one with the problem, not me. Catholic school is not the place to be creative and independent.

Catholic school is similar to apartheid in that it’s ruthlessly authoritarian, and its authority rests on a bunch of rules that don’t make any sense. My mother grew up with these rules and she questioned them. When they didn’t hold up, she simply went around them. The only authority my mother recognized was God’s. God is love and the Bible is truth—everything else was up for debate. She taught me to challenge authority and question the system. The only way it backfired on her was that I constantly challenged and questioned her.

When I was seven years old, my mother had been dating her new boyfriend, Abel, for a year maybe, but at that point I was too young to know who they were to each other. It was just “Hey, that’s mom’s friend who’s around a lot.” I liked Abel; he was a really nice guy.

As a black person back then, if you wanted to live in the suburbs you’d have to find a white family renting out their servants’ quarters or sometimes their garage, which was what Abel had done. He lived in a neighborhood called Orange Grove in a white family’s garage, which he’d turned into a cottage-type thing with a hot plate and a bed. Sometimes he’d come and sleep at our house, and sometimes we’d go stay with him. Staying in a garage when we owned our own house wasn’t ideal, but Orange Grove was close to my school and my mom’s work so it had its benefits.

This white family also had a black maid who lived in the servants’ quarters in the backyard, and I’d play with her son whenever we stayed there. At that age my love of fire was in full bloom. One afternoon everyone was at work—my mom and Abel and both of the white parents—and the kid and I were playing together while his mom was inside the house cleaning. One thing I loved doing at the time was using a magnifying glass to burn my name into pieces of wood. You had to aim the lens and get the focus just right and then you got the flame and then you moved it slowly and you could burn shapes and letters and patterns. I was fascinated by it.

That afternoon I was teaching this kid how to do it. We were inside the servants’ quarters, which was really more of a toolshed added on to the back of the house, full of wooden ladders, buckets of old paint, turpentine. I had a box of matches with me, too—all my usual fire-making tools. We were sitting on an old mattress that they used to sleep on the floor, basically a sack stuffed with dried straw. The sun was beaming in through the window, and I was showing the kid how to burn his name into a piece of plywood.

At one point we took a break to go get a snack. I set the magnifying glass and the matches on the mattress and we left. When we came back a few minutes later we found the shed had one of those doors that self-locks from the inside. We couldn’t get back in without going to get his mother, so we decided to run around and play in the yard. After a while I noticed smoke coming out of the cracks in the window frame. I ran over and looked inside. A small fire was burning in the middle of the straw mattress where we’d left the matches and the magnifying glass. We ran and called the maid. She came, but she didn’t know what to do. The door was locked, and before we could figure out how to get into the shed the whole thing caught—the mattress, the ladders, the paint, the turpentine, everything.

The flames moved quickly. Soon the roof was on fire, and from there the blaze spread to the main house, and the whole thing burned and burned and burned.

Smoke was billowing into the sky. A neighbor had called the fire brigade, and the sirens were on their way. Me and this kid and the maid, we ran out to the road and watched as the firemen tried to put it out, but by the time they did, it was too late. There was nothing left but a charred brick-and-mortar shell, roof gone, and gutted from the inside.

The white family came home and stood on the street, staring at the ruins of their house. They asked the maid what happened and she asked her son and the kid totally snitched. “Trevor had matches,” he said. The family said nothing to me. I don’t think they knew what to say. They were completely dumbfounded. They didn’t call the police, didn’t threaten to sue. What were they going to do, arrest a seven-year-old for arson? And we were so poor you couldn’t actually sue us for anything. Plus they had insurance, so that was the end of it.

They kicked Abel out of the garage, which I thought was hilarious because the garage, which was freestanding, was the only piece of the property left unscathed. I saw no reason for Abel to have to leave, but they made him. We packed up his stuff, put it into our car, and drove home to Eden Park; Abel basically lived with us from then on. He and my mom got into a huge fight. “Your son has burned down my life!” But there was no punishment for me that day. My mom was too much in shock. There’s naughty, and then there’s burning down a white person’s house. She didn’t know what to do.

I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I still don’t. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, “Trevor burned down a house.” If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me “Terror” instead. “Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,” he’d say. “He’ll burn it to the ground.”

My cousin Mlungisi, to this day, cannot comprehend how I survived being as naughty as I was for as long as I did, how I withstood the number of hidings that I got. Why did I keep misbehaving? How did I never learn my lesson? Both of my cousins were supergood kids. Mlungisi got maybe one hiding in his life. After that he said he never wanted to experience anything like it ever again, and from that day he always followed the rules. But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s okay. But after a while the bruises fade, and they fade for a reason—because now it’s time to get up to some shit again.

I grew up in a black family in a black neighborhood in a black country. I’ve traveled to other black cities in black countries all over the black continent. And in all of that time I’ve yet to find a place where black people like cats. One of the biggest reasons for that, as we know in South Africa, is that only witches have cats, and all cats are witches.

There was a famous incident during an Orlando Pirates soccer match a few years ago. A cat got into the stadium and ran through the crowd and out onto the pitch in the middle of the game. A security guard, seeing the cat, did what any sensible black person would do. He said to himself, “That cat is a witch.” He caught the cat and—live on TV—he kicked it and stomped it and beat it to death with a sjambok, a hard leather whip.

It was front-page news all over the country. White people lost their shit. Oh my word, it was insane. The security guard was arrested and put on trial and found guilty of animal abuse. He had to pay some enormous fine to avoid spending several months in jail. What was ironic to me was that white people had spent years seeing video of black people being beaten to death by other white people, but this one video of a black man kicking a cat, that’s what sent them over the edge. Black people were just confused. They didn’t see any problem with what the man did. They were like, “Obviously that cat was a witch. How else would a cat know how to get out onto a soccer pitch? Somebody sent it to jinx one of the teams. That man had to kill the cat. He was protecting the players.”

In South Africa, black people have dogs.


A month after we moved to Eden Park, my mother brought home two cats. Black cats. Beautiful creatures. Some woman from her work had a litter of kittens she was trying to get rid of, and my mom ended up with two. I was excited because I’d never had a pet before. My mom was excited because she loves animals. She didn’t believe in any nonsense about cats. It was just another way in which she was a rebel, refusing to conform to ideas about what black people did and didn’t do.

In a black neighborhood, you wouldn’t dare own a cat, especially a black cat. That would be like wearing a sign that said, “Hello, I am a witch.” That would be suicide. Since we’d moved to a colored neighborhood, my mom thought the cats would be okay. Once they were grown we let them out during the day to roam the neighborhood. Then we came home one evening and found the cats strung up by their tails from our front gate, gutted and skinned and bleeding out, their heads chopped off. On our front wall someone had written in Afrikaans, “Heks”—“Witch.”

Colored people, apparently, were no more progressive than black people on the issue of cats.

I wasn’t exactly devastated about the cats. I don’t think we’d had them long enough for me to get attached; I don’t even remember their names. And cats are dicks for the most part. As much as I tried they never felt like real pets. They never showed me affection nor did they accept any of mine. Had the cats made more of an effort, I might have felt like I had lost something. But even as a kid, looking at these dead, mutilated animals, I was like, “Well, there you have it. Maybe if they’d been nicer, they could have avoided this.”

After the cats were killed, we took a break from pets for a while. Then we got dogs. Dogs are cool. Almost every black family I knew had a dog. No matter how poor you were, you had a dog. White people treat dogs like children or members of the family. Black people’s dogs are more for protection, a poor-man’s alarm system. You buy a dog and you keep it out in the yard. Black people name dogs by their traits. If it has stripes, you call it Tiger. If it’s vicious, you call it Danger. If it has spots, you call it Spotty. Given the finite number of traits a dog can have, pretty much everyone’s dogs have the same names; people just recycle them.

We’d never had dogs in Soweto. Then one day some lady at my mom’s work offered us two puppies. They weren’t planned puppies. This woman’s Maltese poodle had been impregnated by the bull terrier from next door, a strange mix. My mom said she’d take them both. She brought them home, and I was the happiest kid on earth.

My mom named them Fufi and Panther. Fufi, I don’t know where her name came from. Panther had a pink nose, so she was Pink Panther and eventually just Panther. They were two sisters who loved and hated each other. They would look out for each other, but they would also fight all the time. Like, blood fights. Biting. Clawing. It was a strange, gruesome relationship.

Panther was my mom’s dog; Fufi was mine. Fufi was beautiful. Clean lines, happy face. She looked like a perfect bull terrier, only skinnier because of the Maltese mixed in. Panther, who was more half-and-half, came out weird and scruffy-looking. Panther was smart. Fufi was dumb as shit. At least we always thought she was dumb as shit. Whenever we called them, Panther would come right away, but Fufi wouldn’t do anything. Panther would run back and get Fufi and then they’d both come. It turned out that Fufi was deaf. Years later Fufi died when a burglar was trying to break into our house. He pushed the gate over and it fell on her back and broke her spine. We took her to the vet and she had to be put down. After examining her, the vet came over and gave us the news.

“It must have been strange for your family living with a dog that was deaf,” he said.


“You didn’t know your dog was deaf?” “No, we thought it was stupid.”

That’s when we realized that their whole lives the one dog had been telling the other dog what to do somehow. The smart, hearing one was helping the dumb, deaf one.

Fufi was the love of my life. Beautiful but stupid. I raised her. I potty-trained her. She slept in my bed. A dog is a great thing for a kid to have. It’s like a bicycle but with emotions.

Fufi could do all sorts of tricks. She could jump super high. I mean, Fufi could jump. I could hold a piece of food out above my own head and she’d leap up and grab it like it was nothing. If YouTube had been around, Fufi would have been a star.

Fufi was a little rascal as well. During the day we kept the dogs in the backyard, which was enclosed by a wall at least five feet high. After a while, every day we’d come home and Fufi would be sitting outside the gate, waiting for us. We were always confused. Was someone opening the gate? What was going on? It never occurred to us that she could actually scale a five-foot wall, but that was exactly what was happening. Every morning, Fufi would wait for us to leave, jump over the wall, and go roaming around the neighborhood.

I caught her one day when I was home for the school holidays. My mom had left for work and I was in the living room. Fufi didn’t know I was there; she thought I was gone because the car was gone. I heard Panther barking in the backyard, looked out, and there was Fufi, scaling the wall. She’d jumped, scampered up the last couple of feet, and then she was gone.

I couldn’t believe this was happening. I ran out front, grabbed my bicycle, and followed her to see where she was going. She went a long way, many streets over, to another part of the neighborhood. Then she went up to this other house and jumped over their wall and into their backyard. What the hell was she doing? I went up to the gate and rang the doorbell. This colored kid answered.

“May I help you?” he said. “Yeah. My dog is in your yard.” “What?”

“My dog. She’s in your yard.”

Fufi walked up and stood between us. “Fufi, come!” I said. “Let’s go!”

This kid looked at Fufi and called her by some other stupid name, Spotty or some bullshit like that.

“Spotty, go back inside the house.”

“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Spotty? That’s Fufi!” “No, that’s my dog, Spotty.”

“No, that’s Fufi, my friend.” “No, this is Spotty.”

“How could this be Spotty? She doesn’t even have spots. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“This is Spotty!” “Fufi!” “Spotty!” “Fufi!”

Of course, since Fufi was deaf she didn’t respond to “Spotty” or “Fufi.” She just stood there. I started cursing the kid out.

“Give me back my dog!”

“I don’t know who you are,” he said, “but you better get out of here.” Then he went into the house and got his mom and she came out.

“What do you want?” she said. “That’s my dog!”

“This is our dog. Go away.”

I started crying. “Why are you stealing my dog?!” I turned to Fufi and begged her. “Fufi, why are you doing this to me?! Why, Fufi?! Why?!” I called to her. I begged her to come. Fufi was deaf to my pleas. And everything else.

I jumped onto my bike and raced home, tears running down my face. I loved Fufi so much. To see her with another boy, acting like she didn’t know me, after I raised her, after all the nights we spent together. I was heartbroken.

That evening Fufi didn’t come home. Because the other family thought I was coming to steal their dog, they had decided to lock her inside, so she couldn’t make it back the way she normally did to wait for us outside the fence. My mom got home from work. I was in tears. I told her Fufi had been kidnapped. We went back to the house. My mom rang the bell and confronted the mom.

“Look, this is our dog.”

This lady lied to my mom’s face. “This is not your dog. We bought this dog.” “You didn’t buy the dog. It’s our dog.”

They went back and forth. This woman wasn’t budging, so we went home to get evidence: pictures of us with the dogs, certificates from the vet. I was crying the whole time, and my mom was losing her patience with me. “Stop crying! We’ll get the dog! Calm down!”

We gathered up our documentation and went back to the house. This time we brought Panther with us, as part of the proof. My mom showed this lady the pictures and the information from the vet. She still wouldn’t give us Fufi. My mom threatened to call the police. It turned into a whole thing. Finally my mom said, “Okay, I’ll give you a hundred rand.”

“Fine,” the lady said.

My mom gave her some money and she brought Fufi out. The other kid, who thought Fufi was Spotty, had to watch his mother sell the dog he thought was his. Now he started crying. “Spotty! No! Mom, you can’t sell Spotty!” I didn’t care. I just wanted Fufi back.

Once Fufi saw Panther she came right away. The dogs left with us and we walked. I sobbed the whole way home, still heartbroken. My mom had no time for my whining.

“Why are you crying?!”

“Because Fufi loves another boy.”

“So? Why would that hurt you? It didn’t cost you anything. Fufi’s here. She still loves you. She’s still your dog. So get over it.”

Fufi was my first heartbreak. No one has ever betrayed me more than Fufi. It was a valuable lesson to me. The hard thing was understanding that Fufi wasn’t cheating on me with another boy. She was merely living her life to the fullest. Until I knew that she was going out on her own during the day, her other relationship hadn’t affected me at all. Fufi had no malicious intent.

I believed that Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasn’t true. Fufi was a dog. I was a boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I’ve felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do not own the thing that you love. I was lucky to learn that lesson at such a young age. I have so many friends who still, as adults, wrestle with feelings of betrayal. They’ll come to me angry and crying and talking about how they’ve been cheated on and lied to, and I feel for them. I understand what they’re going through. I sit with them and buy them a drink and I say, “Friend, let me tell you the story of Fufi.”

When I was twenty-four years old, one day out of the blue my mother said to me, “You need to find your father.”

“Why?” I asked. At that point I hadn’t seen him in over ten years and didn’t think I’d ever see him again.

“Because he’s a piece of you,” she said, “and if you don’t find him you won’t find yourself.” “I don’t need him for that,” I said. “I know who I am.”

“It’s not about knowing who you are. It’s about him knowing who you are, and you knowing who he is. Too many men grow up without their fathers, so they spend their lives with a false impression of who their father is and what a father should be. You need to find your father. You need to show him what you’ve become. You need to finish that story.”


My father is a complete mystery. There are so many questions about his life that I still cannot even begin to answer.

Where’d he grow up? Somewhere in Switzerland. Where’d he go to university? I don’t know if he did. How’d he end up in South Africa? I haven’t a clue.

I’ve never met my Swiss grandparents. I don’t know their names or anything about them. I do know my dad has an older sister, but I’ve never met her, either. I know that he worked as a chef in Montreal and New York for a while before moving to South Africa in the late 1970s. I know that he worked for an industrial food-service company and that he opened a couple of bars and restaurants here and there. That’s about it.

I never called my dad “Dad.” I never addressed him “Daddy” or “Father,” either. I couldn’t. I was instructed not to. If we were out in public or anywhere people might overhear us and I called him “Dad,” someone might have asked questions or called the police. So for as long as I can remember I always called him Robert.

While I know nothing of my dad’s life before me, thanks to my mom and just from the time I have been able to spend with him, I do have a sense of who he is as a person. He’s very Swiss, clean and particular and precise. He’s the only person I know who checks into a hotel room and leaves it cleaner than when he arrived. He doesn’t like anyone waiting on him. No servants, no housekeepers. He cleans up after himself. He likes his space. He lives in his own world and does his own everything.

I know that he never married. He used to say that most people marry because they want to control another person, and he never wanted to be controlled. I know that he loves traveling, loves entertaining, having people over. But at the same time his privacy is everything to him. Wherever he lives he’s never listed in the phone book. I’m sure my parents would have been caught in their time together if he hadn’t been as private as he is. My mom was wild and impulsive. My father was reserved and rational. She was fire, he was ice. They were opposites that attracted, and I am a mix of them both.

One thing I do know about my dad is that he hates racism and homogeneity more than anything, and not because of any feelings of self-righteousness or moral superiority. He just never understood how white people could be racist in South Africa. “Africa is full of black people,” he would say. “So why would you come all the way to Africa if you hate black people? If you hate black people so much, why did you move into their house?” To him it was insane.

Because racism never made sense to my father, he never subscribed to any of the rules of apartheid. In the early eighties, before I was born, he opened one of the first integrated restaurants in Johannesburg, a steakhouse. He applied for a special license that allowed businesses to serve both black and white patrons. These licenses existed because hotels and restaurants needed them to serve black travelers and diplomats from other countries, who in theory weren’t subject to the same restrictions as black South Africans; black South Africans with money in turn exploited that loophole to frequent those hotels and restaurants.

My dad’s restaurant was an instant, booming success. Black people came because there were few upscale establishments where they could eat, and they wanted to come and sit in a nice restaurant and see what that was like. White people came because they wanted to see what it was like to sit with black people. The white people would sit and watch the black people eat, and the black people would sit and eat and watch the white people watching them eat. The curiosity of being together overwhelmed the animosity keeping people apart. The place had a great vibe.

The restaurant closed only because a few people in the neighborhood took it upon themselves to complain. They filed petitions, and the government started looking for ways to shut my dad down. At first the inspectors came and tried to get him on cleanliness and health-code violations. Clearly they had never heard of the Swiss. That failed dismally. Then they decided to go after him by imposing additional and arbitrary restrictions.

“Since you’ve got the license you can keep the restaurant open,” they said, “but you’ll need to have separate toilets for every racial category. You’ll need white toilets, black toilets, colored toilets, and Indian toilets.”

“But then it will be a whole restaurant of nothing but toilets.”

“Well, if you don’t want to do that, your other option is to make it a normal restaurant and only serve whites.”

He closed the restaurant.

After apartheid fell, my father moved from Hillbrow to Yeoville, a formerly quiet, residential neighborhood that had transformed into this vibrant melting pot of black and white and every other hue. Immigrants were pouring in from Nigeria and Ghana and all over the continent, bringing different food and exciting music. Rockey Street was the main strip, and its sidewalks were filled with street vendors and restaurants and bars. It was an explosion of culture.

My dad lived two blocks over from Rockey, on Yeo Street, right next to this incredible park where I loved to go because kids of all races and different countries were running around and playing there. My dad’s house was simple. Nice, but nothing fancy. I feel like my dad had enough money to be comfortable and travel, but he never spent lavishly on things. He’s extremely frugal, the kind of guy who drives the same car for twenty years.

My father and I lived on a schedule. I visited him every Sunday afternoon. Even though apartheid had ended, my mom had made her decision: She didn’t want to get married. So we had our house, and he had his. I’d made a deal with my mom that if I went with her to mixed church and white church in the morning, after that I’d get to skip black church and go to my dad’s, where we’d watch Formula 1 racing instead of casting out demons.

I celebrated my birthday with my dad every year, and we spent Christmas with him as well. I loved Christmas with my dad because my dad celebrated European Christmas. European Christmas was the best Christmas ever. My dad went all out. He had Christmas lights and a Christmas tree. He had fake snow and snow globes and stockings hung by the fireplace and lots of wrapped presents from Santa Claus. African Christmas was a lot more practical. We’d go to church, come home, have a nice meal with good meat and lots of custard and jelly. But there was no tree. You’d get a present, but it was usually just clothes, a new outfit. You might get a toy, but it wasn’t wrapped and it was never from Santa Claus. The whole issue of Santa Claus is a rather contentious one when it comes to African Christmas, a matter of pride. When an African dad buys his kid a present, the last thing he’s going to do is give some fat white man credit for it. African Dad will tell you straight up, “No, no, no. I bought you that.”

Outside of birthdays and special occasions, all we had were our Sunday afternoons. He would cook for me. He’d ask me what I wanted, and I’d always request the exact same meal, a German dish called Rösti, which is basically a pancake made out of potatoes and some sort of meat with a gravy. I’d have that and a bottle of Sprite, and for dessert a plastic container of custard with caramel on top.

A good chunk of those afternoons would pass in silence. My dad didn’t talk much. He was caring and devoted, attentive to detail, always a card on my birthday, always my favorite food and toys when I came for a visit. But at the same time he was a closed book. We’d talk about the food he was making, talk about the F1 racing we’d watched. Every now and then he’d drop a tidbit of information, about a place he’d visited or his steakhouse. But that was it. Being with my dad was like watching a web series. I’d get a few minutes of information a few minutes at a time, then I’d have to wait a week for the next installment.

When I was thirteen my dad moved to Cape Town, and we lost touch. We’d been losing touch for a while, for a couple of reasons. I was a teenager. I had a whole other world I was dealing with now. Videogames and computers meant more to me than spending time with my parents. Also, my mom had married Abel. He was incensed by the idea of my mom being in contact with her previous love, and she decided it was safer for everyone involved not to test his anger. I went from seeing my dad every Sunday to seeing him every other Sunday, maybe once a month, whenever my mom could sneak me over, same as she’d done back in Hillbrow. We’d gone from living under apartheid to living under another kind of tyranny, that of an abusive, alcoholic man.

At the same time, Yeoville had started to suffer from white flight, neglect, general decline. Most of my dad’s German friends had left for Cape Town. If he wasn’t seeing me, he had no reason to stay, so he left. His leaving wasn’t anything traumatic, because it never registered that we might lose touch and never see each other again. In my mind it was just Dad’s moving to Cape Town for a bit. Whatever.

Then he was gone. I stayed busy living my life, surviving high school, surviving my early twenties, becoming a comedian. My career took off quickly. I got a radio DJ gig and hosted a kids’ adventure reality show on television. I was headlining at clubs all over the country. But even as my life was moving forward, the questions about my dad were always there in the back of my mind, bubbling up to the surface now and then. “I wonder where he is. Does he think about me? Does he know what I’m doing? Is he proud of me?” When a parent is absent, you’re left in the lurch of not knowing, and it’s so easy to fill that space with negative thoughts. “They don’t care.” “They’re selfish.” My one saving grace was that my mom never spoke ill of him. She would always compliment him. “You’re good with your money. You get that from your dad.” “You have your dad’s smile.” “You’re clean and tidy like your father.” I never turned to bitterness, because she made sure I knew his absence was because of circumstance and not a lack of love. She always told me the story of her coming home from the hospital and my dad saying, “Where’s my kid? I want that kid in my life.” She’d say to me, “Don’t ever forget: He chose you.” And, ultimately, when I turned twenty-four, it was my mom who made me track him down.

Because my father is so private, finding him was hard work. We didn’t have an address. He wasn’t in the phone book. I started by reaching out to some of his old connections, German expats in Johannesburg, a woman who used to date one of his friends who knew somebody who knew the last place he stayed. I got nowhere. Finally my mom suggested the Swiss embassy. “They have to know where he is,” she said, “because he has to be in touch with them.”

I wrote to the Swiss embassy asking them where my father was, but because my father is not on my birth certificate I had no proof that my father is my father. The embassy wrote back and said they couldn’t give me any information, because they didn’t know who I was. I tried calling them, and I got the runaround there as well. “Look, kid,” they said. “We can’t help you. We’re the Swiss embassy. Do you know nothing about the Swiss? Discretion is kind of our thing. That’s what we do. Tough luck.” I kept pestering them and finally they said, “Okay, we’ll take your letter and, if a man such as you’re describing exists, we might forward your letter to him. If he doesn’t, maybe we won’t. Let’s see what happens.”

A few months later, a letter came back in the post: “Great to hear from you. How are you? Love, Dad.” He gave me his address in Cape Town, in a neighborhood called Camps Bay, and a few months later I went down to visit.

I’ll never forget that day. It was probably one of the weirdest days of my life, going to meet a person I knew and yet did not know at all. My memories of him felt just out of reach. I was trying to remember how he spoke, how he laughed, what his manner was. I parked on his street and started looking for his address. Camps Bay is full of older, semiretired white people, and as I walked down the road all these old white men were walking toward me and past me. My father was pushing seventy by that point, and I was so afraid I’d forgotten what he looked like. I was looking in the face of every old white man who passed me, like, Are you my daddy? Basically it looked like I was cruising old white dudes in a beachfront retirement community. Then finally I got to the address I’d been given and rang the bell, and the second he opened the door I recognized him. Hey! It’s you, I thought. Of course it’s you. You’re the guy. I know you.

We picked up right where we’d left off, which was him treating me exactly the way he’d treated me as a thirteen-year-old boy. Like the creature of habit he was, my father went straight back into it. “Right! So where were we? Here, I’ve got all your favorites. Potato Rösti. A bottle of Sprite. Custard with caramel.” Luckily my tastes hadn’t matured much since the age of thirteen, so I tucked right in.

While I was eating he got up and went and picked up this book, an oversized photo album, and brought it back to the table. “I’ve been following you,” he said, and he opened it up. It was a scrapbook of everything I had ever done, every time my name was mentioned in a newspaper, everything from magazine covers to the tiniest club listings, from the beginning of my career all the way through to that week. He was smiling so big as he took me through it, looking at the headlines. “Trevor Noah Appearing This Saturday at the Blues Room.” “Trevor Noah Hosting New TV Show.”

I felt a flood of emotions rushing through me. It was everything I could do not to start crying. It felt like this ten-year gap in my life closed right up in an instant, like only a day had passed since I’d last seen him. For years I’d had so many questions. Is he thinking about me? Does he know what I’m doing? Is he proud of me? But he’d been with me the whole time. He’d always been proud of me. Circumstance had pulled us apart, but he was never not my father.

I walked out of his house that day an inch taller. Seeing him had reaffirmed his choosing of me. He chose to have me in his life. He chose to answer my letter. I was wanted. Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.

Once we reconnected, I was overcome by this drive to make up for all the years we’d missed. I decided the best way to do it was to interview him. I realized very quickly that that was a mistake. Interviews will give you facts and information, but facts and information weren’t really what I was after. What I wanted was a relationship, and an interview is not a relationship. Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us: time. You can’t make up for that with an interview, but I had to figure that out for myself.

I went down to spend a few days with my father, and I made it my mission: This weekend I will get to know my father. As soon as I arrived I started peppering him with questions. “Where are you from? Where did you go to school? Why did you do this? How did you do that?” He started getting visibly irritated.

“What is this?” he said. “Why are you interrogating me? What’s going on here?”

“I want to get to know you.”

“Is this how you normally get to know people, by interrogating them?” “Well…not really.”

“So how do you get to know people?”

“I dunno. By spending time with them, I guess.” “Okay. So spend time with me. See what you find out.”

So we spent the weekend together. We had dinner and talked about politics. We watched F1 racing and talked about sports. We sat quietly in his backyard and listened to old Elvis Presley records. The whole time he said not one word about himself. Then, as I was packing up to leave, he walked over to me and sat down.

“So,” he said, “in the time we’ve spent together, what would you say you’ve learned about your dad?”

“Nothing. All I know is that you’re extremely secretive.” “You see? You’re getting to know me already.”

DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33