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[4 of 5] Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Part III, Chapters 15 & 16, by Trevor Noah (2019)

Author: Trevor Noah

“Part 3, Chapters 15 - 16.” Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah, Spiegel & Grau, 2019.

Part III

In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust. Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it—what it means. As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. “Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?”

In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.” It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.” Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. “Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.”

15 GO HITLER!

When I was in grade nine, three Chinese kids transferred to Sandringham: Bolo, Bruce Lee, and John. They were the only Chinese kids in the school, out of a thousand pupils. Bolo got his nickname because he looked like Bolo Yeung from the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Bloodsport. Bruce Lee’s name really was Bruce Lee, which made our lives. Here was this Chinese guy, quiet, good-looking, in great shape, and his name was Bruce Lee. We were like, This is magic. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us Bruce Lee. John was just John, which was weird because of the other two.

I got to know Bolo because he was one of my tuck-shop clients. Bolo’s parents were professional pirates. They pirated videogames and sold them at flea markets. As the son of pirates, Bolo did the same thing—he started selling bootleg PlayStation games around school. Kids would give him their PlayStation, and he’d bring it back a few days later with a chip in it that enabled them to play pirated games, which he would then sell them. Bolo was friends with this white kid and fellow pirate named Andrew, who traded in bootleg CDs. Andrew was two grades above me and a real computer geek; he even had a CD writer at home, back when nobody had CD writers.

One day on my tuck-shop rounds, I overheard Andrew and Bolo complaining about the black kids at school. They’d realized that they could take Andrew’s and Bolo’s merchandise, say “I’ll pay you later,” and then not pay, because Andrew and Bolo were too scared of black people to go back to ask for the money. I leaned in to their conversation and said, “Listen, you shouldn’t get upset. Black people don’t have any money, so trying to get more stuff for less money is just what we do. But let me help. I’ll be your middleman. You give me the merchandise and I’ll sell it, and then I’ll handle getting the money. In return, you give me a cut of the sale.” They liked the idea right away, and we became partners.

As the tuck-shop guy, I was perfectly positioned. I had my network set up. All I had to do was tap into it. With the money I made selling CDs and videogames, I was able to save up and add new components and more memory to my own computer. Andrew the computer geek showed me how to do it, where to buy the cheapest parts, how to assemble them, how to repair them. He showed me how his business worked, too, how to download music, where to get rewritable CDs in bulk. The only thing I was missing was my own CD writer, because it was the most expensive component. At the time a CD writer cost as much as the rest of the computer, nearly 2,000 rand.

I worked as a middleman for Bolo and Andrew for a year. Then Bolo left school; the rumor was that his parents got arrested. From that point on I worked for Andrew, and then as he was about to matriculate he decided to quit the game. “Trevor,” he told me, “you’ve been a loyal partner.” And, as thanks, he bequeathed unto me his CD writer. At the time, black people barely had access to computers, let’s start there. But a CD writer? That was the stuff of lore. It was mythical. The day Andrew gave it to me, he changed my life. Thanks to him, I now controlled production, sales, distribution—I had everything I needed to lock down the bootleg business.

I was a natural capitalist. I loved selling stuff, and I was selling something that everybody wanted and nobody else could provide. I sold my discs for 30 rand, around $3. A regular CD in the store cost 100 to 150 rand. Once people started buying from me, they wouldn’t buy real CDs ever again—the deal was too good.

I had an instinct for business, but at the time I knew nothing about music, which was odd for someone running a music-pirating business. The only music I knew, still, was Christian music from church, the only music allowed in my mother’s house. The CD writer Andrew gave me was a 1x CD writer, which meant it copied at the speed it played. Every day I’d leave school, go to my room, and sit for five to six hours, copying CDs. I had my own surround-sound system built with old car speakers I’d salvaged from the junkers Abel kept in the yard, and I strung them up around the room. Even though I had to sit there while each CD played, for a long time I didn’t really listen to them. I knew it was against the dealer’s code: Never get high on your own supply.

Thanks to the Internet, I could get anyone anything. I never judged anyone’s taste in music. You wanted the new Nirvana, I got you the new Nirvana. You wanted the new DMX, I got you the new DMX. Local South African music was big, but black American music was what people were desperate for, hip-hop and R&B. Jagged Edge was huge. 112 was huge. I sold a lot of Montell Jordan. So much Montell Jordan.

When I started, I had a dial-up connection and a 24k modem. It would take a day to download an album. But technology kept evolving, and I kept reinvesting in the business. I upgraded to a 56k modem. I got faster CD writers, multiple CD writers. I started downloading more, copying more, selling more. That’s when I got two middlemen of my own, my friend Tom, who went to Northview, and my friend Bongani, who lived in Alex.

One day Bongani came to me and said, “You know what would make a lot of money? Instead of copying whole albums, why don’t you put the best tracks of different albums onto one CD, because people only wanna hear the songs they like.” That sounded like a great idea, so I started making mix CDs. Those sold well. Then a few weeks later Bongani came back and said, “Can you make the tracks fade into one another so the music moves from track one to track two without a break and the beat carries on? It’ll be like a DJ playing a complete set the whole night.” That sounded like a great idea, too. I downloaded a program called BPM, “beats per minute.” It had a graphical interface that looked like two vinyl records side by side, and I could mix and fade between songs, basically everything a DJ can do live. I started making party CDs, and those started selling like hotcakes, too.

Business was booming. By matric I was balling, making 500 rand a week. To put that in perspective, there are maids in South Africa who still earn less than that today. It’s a shit salary if you’re trying to support a family, but as a sixteen-year-old living at home with no real expenses, I was living the dream.

For the first time in my life I had money, and it was the most liberating thing in the world. The first thing I learned about having money was that it gives you choices. People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose. The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money.

With money, I experienced freedom on a whole new level: I went to McDonald’s. People in America don’t understand, but when an American chain opens in a third-world country, people go crazy. That’s true to this day. A Burger King opened for the first time in South Africa last year, and there was a queue around the block. It was an event. Everyone was going around saying, “I have to eat at Burger King. Have you heard? It’s from America.” The funny thing was that the queue was actually just white people. White people went bat-shit crazy for Burger King. Black people were like, whatever. Black people didn’t need Burger King. Our hearts were with KFC and McDonald’s. The crazy thing about McDonald’s is that we knew about it long before it came, probably from movies. We never even dreamed we would ever get one in South Africa; McDonald’s seemed to us like one of those American things that is exclusively American and can’t go anywhere else. Even before we ever tasted McDonald’s, we knew we’d love it, and we did. At one point South Africa was opening more McDonald’s than any other country in the world. With Mandela came freedom—and with freedom came McDonald’s. A McDonald’s had opened up just two blocks from our house not long after we moved to Highlands North, but my mom would never pay for us to eat there. With my own money I was like, Let’s do this. I went all in. They didn’t have “supersize” at the time; “large” was the biggest. So I walked up to the counter, feeling very impressed with myself, and I put down my money and said, “I’ll have a large number one.”

I fell in love with McDonald’s. McDonald’s, to me, tasted like America. McDonald’s is America. You see it advertised and it looks amazing. You crave it. You buy it. You take your first bite, and it blows your mind. It’s even better than you imagined. Then, halfway through, you realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. A few bites later you’re like, Hmm, there’s a lot wrong with this. Then you’re done, you miss it like crazy, and you go back for more.

Once I’d had a taste of America, I never ate at home. I only ate McDonald’s. McDonald’s, McDonald’s, McDonald’s, McDonald’s. Every night my mother would try to cook me dinner.

“Tonight we’re having chicken livers.” “No, I’m gonna have McDonald’s.” “Tonight we’re having dog bones.”

“I think I’m gonna go with McDonald’s again.” “Tonight we’re having chicken feet.”

“Hmmmmm…Okay, I’m in. But tomorrow I’m eating McDonald’s.”

The money kept rolling in and I was balling out of control. This is how balling I was: I bought a cordless telephone. This was before everyone had a cellphone. The range on this cordless phone was strong enough that I could put the base outside my window, walk the two blocks to McDonald’s, order my large number one, walk back home, go up to my room, and fire up my computer, carrying on a conversation the whole time. I was that dude walking down the street holding a giant phone to my ear with the aerial fully extended, talking to my friend. “Yeah, I’m just goin’ down to McDonald’s…”

Life was good, and none of it would have happened without Andrew. Without him, I would never have mastered the world of music piracy and lived a life of endless McDonald’s. What he did, on a small scale, showed me how important it is to empower the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in the wake of oppression. Andrew was white. His family had access to education, resources, computers. For generations, while his people were preparing to go to university, my people were crowded into thatched huts singing, “Two times two is four. Three times two is six. La la la la la.” My family had been denied the things his family had taken for granted. I had a natural talent for selling to people, but without knowledge and resources, where was that going to get me? People always lecture the poor: “Take responsibility for yourself! Make something of yourself!” But with what raw materials are the poor to make something of themselves?

People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, “Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.” Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say, “Oh, that’s a handout.” No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don’t stand a chance without it.

One afternoon I was in my room making a CD when Bongani came over to pick up his inventory. He saw me mixing songs on my computer.

“This is insane,” he said. “Are you doing this live?” “Yeah.”

“Trevor, I don’t think you understand; you’re sitting on a gold mine. We need to do this for a crowd. You need to come to the township and start DJ’ing gigs. No one has ever seen a DJ playing on a computer before.”

Bongani lived in Alexandra. Where Soweto is a sprawling, government-planned ghetto, Alexandra is a tiny, dense pocket of a shantytown, left over from the pre-apartheid days. Rows and rows of cinder-block and corrugated-iron shacks, practically stacked on top of one another. Its nickname is Gomorrah because it has the wildest parties and the worst crimes.

Street parties are the best thing about Alexandra. You get a tent, put it up in the middle of the road, take over the street, and you’ve got a party. There’s no formal invitations or guest list. You just tell a few people, word of mouth travels, and a crowd appears. There are no permits, nothing like that. If you own a tent, you have the right to throw a party in your street. Cars creep up to the intersection and the driver will see the party blocking their way and shrug and make a U-turn. Nobody gets upset. The only rule is that if you throw a party in front of somebody’s house, they get to come and share your alcohol. The parties don’t end until someone gets shot or a bottle gets broken on someone’s face. That’s how it has to end; otherwise, it wasn’t a party.

Back then, most DJs could spin for only a few hours; they were limited by the number of vinyls they could buy. Since parties went all night, you might need five or six DJs to keep the dancing going. But I had a massive hard drive stuffed with MP3s, which is why Bongani was excited when he saw me mixing—he saw a way to corner the market.

“How much music do you have?” he asked. “Winamp says I can play for a week.” “We’ll make a fortune.”

Our first gig was a New Year’s Eve party the summer we graduated from Sandringham. Bongani and I took my tower, my giant monitor, and all the cables and the keyboard and the mouse. We loaded everything up in a minibus and brought it over to Alex. We took over the street in front of his house, ran the electricity out of his place, set up the computer, set up speakers, and borrowed a tent, and people came. It was explosive. By midnight the whole street was packed from one end to the other. Ours was the biggest New Year’s Eve party in Alexandra that year, and to have the biggest party in Alexandra is no joke. All night, from far and wide, people kept coming. The word spread: “There’s a light-skinned guy who plays music on a computer. You’ve never seen anything like it.” I DJ’d by myself until dawn. By then me and my friends were so drunk and exhausted that we passed out on the lawn outside Bongani’s house. The party was so big it made our reputation in the hood, instantly. Pretty soon we were getting booked all over.

Which was a good thing.

When Bongani and I graduated from high school, we couldn’t get jobs. There were no jobs for us to get. The only ways I had to make money were pirating CDs and DJ’ing parties, and now that I’d left Sandringham, the minibus drivers and corner kids in Alexandra were the single biggest market for my CDs. It was also where I was playing the most gigs, so to keep earning I naturally gravitated that way. Most of the white kids I knew were taking a gap year. “I’m going to take a gap year and go to Europe.” That’s what the white kids were saying. So I said, “I, too, am going to take a gap year. I am going to take a year and go to the township and hang out on the corner.” And that’s what I did.

There was a low brick wall running down the middle of the road in front of Bongani’s house in Alex, and every day Bongani and I and our crew would go sit on the wall. I’d bring my CDs. We’d play music and practice dance moves. We hustled CDs all day and DJ’d parties at night. We started getting booked for gigs in other townships, other hoods.

Thanks to my computer and modem I was getting exclusive tracks few people had access to, but that created a problem for me. Sometimes I’d play the new music at parties and people would stand around going, “What is this? How do you dance to it?” For example, if a DJ plays a song like “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”— yes, it’s a catchy song, but what is a whip? What is a nae nae? For that song to be popular you have to know how to do the whip and the nae nae; new music works at parties only if people know how to dance to it. Bongani decided we needed a dance crew to show people the steps to the songs we were playing. Because we spent our days doing nothing but listening to CDs and coming up with dance moves, our crew from the corner already knew all the songs, so they became our dancers. And hands down the best, most beautiful, most graceful dancer in the crew was Bongani’s neighbor, Hitler.

Hitler was a great friend of mine, and good Lord could that guy dance. He was mesmerizing to watch. He had a looseness and a fluidity that defied physics— imagine a jellyfish if it could walk on land. Incredibly handsome, too, tall and lithe and muscular, with beautiful, smooth skin, big teeth, and a great smile, always laughing. And all he did was dance. He’d be up in the morning, blasting house music or hip-hop, practicing moves the whole day.

In the hood, everybody knows who the best dancer in the crew is. He’s like your status symbol. When you’re poor you don’t have cars or nice clothes, but the best dancer gets girls, so that’s the guy you want to roll with. Hitler was our guy. There were parties with dance competitions. Kids from every neighborhood would come and bring their best dancers. We’d always bring Hitler, and he almost always won.

When Bongani and I put together a routine for our dance crew, there was no question who was going to be the star attraction. We built the whole set around Hitler. I’d warm the crowd up with a few songs, then the dancers would come out and do a couple of numbers. Once they’d gotten the party started, they’d fan out to form a semicircle around the stage with a gap in the back for Hitler to enter. I’d crank up Redman’s “Let’s Get Dirty” and start whipping the crowd up even more.

“Are you ready?! I can’t hear you! Let me hear you make some noise!” People would start screaming, and Hitler would jump into the middle of the semicircle and the crowd would lose it. Hitler would do his thing while the guys circled around him, shouting him on. “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”

And because this was hip-hop, the crew would do that thing where you shoot your arm out in front of you with your palm flat, bopping it up and down to the beat.

“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!” We’d have the whole crowd in a frenzy, a thousand people in the street chanting along with their hands in the air.

“Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”

Hitler, although an unusual name, is not unheard-of in South Africa. Part of it has to do with the way a lot of black people pick names. Black people choose their traditional names with great care; those are the names that have deeply personal meanings. But from colonial times through the days of apartheid, black people in South Africa were required to have an English or European name as well—a name that white people could pronounce, basically. So you had your English name, your traditional name, and your last name: Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. Nine times out of ten, your European name was chosen at random, plucked from the Bible or taken from a Hollywood celebrity or a famous politician in the news. I know guys named after Mussolini and Napoleon. And, of course, Hitler.

Westerners are shocked and confused by that, but really it’s a case of the West reaping what it has sown. The colonial powers carved up Africa, put the black man to work, and did not properly educate him. White people don’t talk to black people. So why would black people know what’s going on in the white man’s world? Because of that, many black people in South Africa don’t really know who Hitler was. My own grandfather thought “a hitler” was a kind of army tank that was helping the Germans win the war. Because that’s what he took from what he heard on the news. For many black South Africans, the story of the war was that there was someone called Hitler and he was the reason the Allies were losing the war. This Hitler was so powerful that at some point black people had to go help white people fight against him—and if the white man has to stoop to ask the black man for help fighting someone, that someone must be the toughest guy of all time. So if you want your dog to be tough, you name your dog Hitler. If you want your kid to be tough, you name your kid Hitler. There’s a good chance you’ve got an uncle named Hitler. It’s just a thing.

At Sandringham, we were taught more about World War II than the typical black kids in the townships were, but only in a basic way. We weren’t taught to think critically about Hitler and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We weren’t taught, for instance, that the architects of apartheid were big fans of Hitler, that the racist policies they put in place were inspired, in part, by the racist policies of the Third Reich. We weren’t taught how to think about how Hitler related to the world we lived in. We weren’t being taught to think, period. All we were taught was that in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and in 1941 he invaded the Soviet Union and in 1943 he did something else. They’re just facts. Memorize them, write them down for the test, and forget them.

There is also this to consider: The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.

I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess. When Portugal and Belgium were plundering Angola and the Congo, they weren’t counting the black people they slaughtered. How many black people died harvesting rubber in the Congo? In the gold and diamond mines of the Transvaal?

So in Europe and America, yes, Hitler is the Greatest Madman in History. In Africa he’s just another strongman from the history books. In all my time hanging out with Hitler, I never once asked myself, “Why is his name Hitler?” His name was Hitler because his mom named him Hitler.

Once Bongani and I added the dancers to our DJ sets, we blew up. We called our group the Black and White Boys. The dancers were called the Springbok Boys. We started getting booked everywhere. Successful black families were moving to the suburbs, but their kids still wanted to have block parties and stay connected to the culture of the townships, so they’d book us to play their parties. Word of mouth traveled. Pretty soon we were getting booked more and more in the suburbs, meeting white people, playing for white people.

One kid we knew from the township, his mother was involved in creating cultural programs for schools. In America they’d be called “diversity programs.” They were springing up all over South Africa because we were supposed to be learning about and embracing one another in this post-apartheid era. This kid’s mom asked us if we wanted to play at a cultural day at some school in Linksfield, the wealthy suburb south of Sandringham where my pal Teddy had lived. There was going to be all sorts of different dancing and music, and everyone was going to come together and hang out and be cultural. She offered to pay, so we said sure. She sent us the information with the time and place and the name of the school: the King David School. A Jewish school.

The day of the event, we booked a minibus, loaded it up with our gear, and drove over. Once we arrived we waited in the back of the school’s assembly hall and watched the acts that went onstage before us, different groups took their turns performing, flamenco dancers, Greek dancers, traditional Zulu musicians. Then we were up. We were billed as the Hip Hop Pantsula Dancers—the South African B-Boys. We set up our sound system onstage. I looked out, and the whole hall was nothing but Jewish kids in their yarmulkes, ready to party.

I got on the mic. “Are you ready to rock out?!” “Yeahhhhhh!”

“Make some noise!” “Yeahhhhhh!”

I started playing. The bass was bumping, my crew was dancing, and everyone was having a great time. The teachers, the chaperones, the parents, hundreds of kids—they were all dancing like crazy. Our set was scheduled for fifteen minutes, and at the ten-minute mark came the moment for me to play “Let’s Get Dirty,” bring out my star dancer, and shut shit down.

I started the song, the dancers fanned out in their semicircle, and I got on the mic.

“Are you guys ready?!” “Yeahhhhhh!”

“You guys are not ready! Are you ready?!”

“Yeeeaaahhhhhhhh!”

“All right! Give it up and make some noise for HIIIIIITTTTLLLLEERRRRR-RRRRR!!!”

Hitler jumped out to the middle of the circle and started killing it. The guys around him were all chanting, “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”

They had their arms out in front of them, bouncing to the rhythm. “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!” And I was right there on the mic leading them along. “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”

The whole room stopped. No one was dancing. The teachers, the chaperones, the parents, the hundreds of Jewish kids in their yarmulkes—they froze and stared aghast at us up on the stage. I was oblivious. So was Hitler. We kept going. For a good thirty seconds the only sound in the room was the beat of the music and me on the mic yelling, “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Put your hands in the air for Hitler, yo!”

A teacher ran up behind me and yanked the plug for my system out of the wall. The hall went dead silent, and she turned on me and she was livid. “How dare you?! This is disgusting! You horrible, disgusting vile creature! How dare you?!”

My mind was racing, trying to figure out what she was talking about. Then it clicked. Hitler had a special dance move called o spana va. It means “where you work” and it was very sexual: His hips would gyrate and thrust, like he was fucking the air. That was the move he was doing at the moment the teacher ran out, so clearly the dance was the thing she found so disgusting. But this was a move that African people do all the time. It’s a part of our culture. Here we were sharing our culture for a cultural day, and this woman was calling us disgusting. She was offended, and I was offended by her taking offense.

“Lady,” I said, “I think you need to calm down.”

“I will not calm down! How dare you come here and insult us?!” “This is not insulting anyone. This is who we are!”

“Get out of here! You people are disgusting.”

And there it was. You people. Now I saw what the deal was: This lady was racist. She couldn’t see black men dancing suggestively and not get pissed off. As I started packing up my gear, we kept arguing.

“Listen, lady. We’re free now. We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do. You can’t stop us.”

“I’ll have you know that my people stopped people like you before, and we can stop you again.”

She was talking, of course, about stopping the Nazis in World War II, but that’s not what I was hearing. Jews in South Africa are just white people. All I was hearing was some white lady shouting about how white people beat us before and they’ll beat us again. I said, “You will never stop us again, lady”—and here’s where I played the trump card—“You’ll never stop us, because now we have Nelson Mandela on our side! And he told us we can do this!”

“What?!”

She was so confused. I’d had it. I started cussing her out. “Fuck you, lady. Fuck your program. Fuck your school. Fuck your whole people. Let’s go, guys! We’re out!”

We didn’t walk out of that school. We danced out. We danced down the street pumping our fists in the air. “Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler! Go Hit-ler!”

Because Hitler had shut shit down. Hitler had the most gangster dance moves ever, and those white people didn’t know what hit them.

Alexandra was a farm originally named for the wife of the white man who owned it. Like

Sophiatown and other black spots populating white areas before apartheid, Alex started out as a squatter settlement where blacks gathered and lived when coming to Johannesburg to find work. What was unique about Alex is that this farmer sold plots of land to some of the black tenants in the time before it was illegal for blacks to own property. So while Sophiatown and other black ghettos were razed and rebuilt as white suburbs, Alex fought and held on and asserted its right to exist. Wealthy white suburbs like Sandton grew around it, but Alex remained. More squatters came and more squatters came, putting up makeshift shacks and shanties. They look like the slums in Mumbai or the favelas in Brazil. The first time I saw the favelas in Rio I said, “Yeah, that’s Alexandra, but on a hill.”

Soweto was beautiful because, after democracy, you watched Soweto grow. Soweto has become a proper city unto itself. People went from three-room houses to five-room houses to three-bedroom houses with garages. There was room to grow because the piece of land from the government gave you something to build on. Alexandra can’t do that. Alex can’t get any bigger, because it’s pinned in on all sides, and it can’t build up, because it’s mostly shacks.

When democracy came, people flooded into Alex from the homelands, building new shacks in the backyards of other shacks with still more shacks attached to the backside of those shacks, growing more dense and more compressed, leaving close to 200,000 people living in a few square kilometers. Even if you go back today, Alex hasn’t changed. It can’t change. It’s physically impossible for it to change. It can only be what it is.

16 THE CHEESE BOYS

My friend Bongani was a short, bald, super-buff guy. He wasn’t always that way. His whole life he’d been skinny, and then a bodybuilding magazine found its way into his hands and changed his life. Bongani was one of those people who brought out the best in everybody. He was that friend who believed in you and saw the potential in you that nobody else did, which was why so many of the township kids gravitated toward him, and why I gravitated toward him as well. Bongani was always popular, but his reputation really took off when he beat up one of the more infamous bullies in the school. That cemented his status as sort of the leader and protector of the township kids.

Bongani lived in Alex, but I never visited him there while we were still in school; he’d always come to my house in Highlands North. I’d been to Alex a few times, for brief visits, but I’d never spent any real time there. I’d never been there at night, let’s put it that way. Going to Alex during the day is different from going there at night. The place was nicknamed Gomorrah for a reason.

One day after school, not long before we matriculated, Bongani walked up to me on the quad.

“Hey, let’s go to the hood,” he said. “The hood?”

At first I had no idea what he was talking about. I knew the word “hood” from rap songs, and I knew the different townships where black people lived, but I had never used the one to describe the other.

The walls of apartheid were coming down just as American hip-hop was blowing up, and hip-hop made it cool to be from the hood. Before, living in a township was something to be ashamed of; it was the bottom of the bottom. Then we had movies like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society, and they made the hood look cool. The characters in those movies, in the songs, they owned it. Kids in the townships started doing the same, wearing their identity as a badge of honor: You were no longer from the township—you were from the hood. Being from Alex gave you way more street cred than living in Highlands North. So when Bongani said, “Let’s go to the hood,” I was curious about what he meant. I wanted to find out more.

When Bongani took me to Alex we entered as most people do, from the Sandton side. You ride through one of the richest neighborhoods in Johannesburg, past palatial mansions and huge money. Then you go through the industrial belt of Wynberg that cordons off the rich and white from the poor and black. At the entrance to Alex there’s the huge minibus rank and the bus station. It’s the same bustling, chaotic third-world marketplace you see in James Bond and Jason Bourne movies. It’s Grand Central Station but outdoors. Everything’s dynamic. Everything’s in motion. Nothing feels like it was there yesterday, and nothing feels like it will be there tomorrow, but every day it looks exactly the same.

Right next to the minibus rank, of course, is a KFC. That’s one thing about South Africa: There’s always a KFC. KFC found the black people. KFC did not play games. They were in the hood before McDonald’s, before Burger King, before anyone. KFC was like, “Yo, we’re here for you.”

Once you go past the minibus rank, you’re in Alex proper. I’ve been in few places where there’s an electricity like there is in Alex. It’s a hive of constant human activity, all day long, people coming and going, gangsters hustling, guys on the corner doing nothing, kids running around. There’s nowhere for all that energy to go, no mechanism for it to dissipate, so it erupts periodically in epic acts of violence and crazy parties. One minute it’ll be a placid afternoon, people hanging out, doing their thing, and next thing you know there’s a cop car chasing gangsters, flying through the streets, a gun battle going off, helicopters circling overhead. Then, ten minutes later, it’s like it never happened—everyone’s back to hanging out, back to the hustle, coming and going, running around.

Alex is laid out on a grid, a series of avenues. The streets are paved, but the sidewalks are mostly dirt. The color scheme is cinder block and corrugated iron, gray and dark gray, punctuated by bright splashes of color. Someone’s painted a wall lime green, or there’s a bright-red sign above a takeaway shop, or maybe somebody’s picked up a bright-blue piece of sheet metal just by luck. There’s little in the way of basic sanitation. Trash is everywhere, typically a garbage fire going down some side street. There’s always something burning in the hood.

As you walk, there’s every smell you can imagine. People are cooking, eating takeaways in the streets. Some family has a shack that’s jury-rigged onto the back of someone else’s shack, and they don’t have any running water, so they’ve bathed in a bucket from the outdoor tap and then dumped the dirty water in the street, where it runs into the river of sewerage that’s already there because the water system has backed up again. There’s a guy fixing cars who thinks he knows what he’s doing, but he doesn’t. He’s dumping old motor oil into the street, and now the oil is combining with the dirty bathwater to make a river of filth running down the street. There’s probably a goat hanging around—there’s always a goat. As you’re walking, sound washes over you, the steady thrum of human activity, people talking in a dozen different languages, chatting, haggling, arguing. There’s music playing constantly. You’ve got traditional South African music coming from one corner, someone blasting Dolly Parton from the next corner, and somebody driving past pumping the Notorious B.I.G.

The hood was a complete sensory overload for me, but within the chaos there was order, a system, a social hierarchy based on where you lived. First Avenue was not cool at all because it was right next to the commotion of the minibus rank. Second Avenue was nice because it had semi-houses that were built when there was still some sort of formal settlement going on. Third, Fourth, and Fifth Avenues were nicer—for the township. These were the established families, the old money. Then from Sixth Avenue on down it got really shitty, more shacks and shanties. There were some schools, a few soccer fields. There were a couple of hostels, giant projects built by the government for housing migrant workers. You never wanted to go there. That’s where the serious gangsters were. You only went there if you needed to buy an AK-47.

After Twentieth Avenue you hit the Jukskei River, and on the far side of that, across the Roosevelt Street Bridge, was East Bank, the newest, nicest part of the hood. East Bank was where the government had gone in, cleared out the squatters and their shacks, and started to build actual homes. It was still low-income housing, but decent two-bedroom houses with tiny yards. The families who lived there had a bit of money and usually sent their kids out of the hood to better schools, like Sandringham. Bongani’s parents lived in East Bank, at the corner of Roosevelt and Springbok Crescent, and after walking from the minibus rank through the hood, we wound up there, hanging around outside his house on the low brick wall down the middle of Springbok Crescent, doing nothing, shooting the shit. I didn’t know it then, but I was about to spend the next three years of my life hanging out at that very spot.

I graduated from high school when I was seventeen, and by that point life at home had become toxic because of my stepfather. I didn’t want to be there anymore, and my mom agreed that I should move out. She helped me move to a cheap, roach-infested flat in a building down the road. My plan, insofar as I had one, was to go to university to be a computer programmer, but we couldn’t afford the tuition. I needed to make money. The only way I knew how to make money was selling pirated CDs, and one of the best places to sell CDs was in the hood, because that’s where the minibus rank was. Minibus drivers were always looking for new songs because having good music was something they used to attract customers.

Another nice thing about the hood was that it’s super cheap. You can get by on next to nothing. There’s a meal you can get in the hood called a kota. It’s a quarter loaf of bread. You scrape out the bread, then you fill it with fried potatoes, a slice of baloney, and some pickled mango relish called achar. That costs a couple of rand. The more money you have, the more upgrades you can buy. If you have a bit more money you can throw in a hot dog. If you have a bit more than that, you can throw in a proper sausage, like a bratwurst, or maybe a fried egg. The biggest one, with all the upgrades, is enough to feed three people.

For us, the ultimate upgrade was to throw on a slice of cheese. Cheese was always the thing because it was so expensive. Forget the gold standard—the hood operated on the cheese standard. Cheese on anything was money. If you got a burger, that was cool, but if you got a cheeseburger, that meant you had more money than a guy who just got a hamburger. Cheese on a sandwich, cheese in your fridge, that meant you were living the good life. In any township in South Africa, if you had a bit of money, people would say, “Oh, you’re a cheese boy.” In essence: You’re not really hood because your family has enough money to buy cheese.

In Alex, because Bongani and his crew lived in East Bank, they were considered cheese boys. Ironically, because they lived on the first street just over the river, they were looked down on as the scruff of East Bank and the kids in the nicer houses higher up in East Bank were the cheesier cheese boys. Bongani and his crew would never admit to being cheese boys. They would insist, “We’re not cheese. We’re hood.” But then the real hood guys would say, “Eh, you’re not hood. You’re cheese.” “We’re not cheese,” Bongani’s guys would say, pointing further up East Bank. “They’re cheese.” It was all a bunch of ridiculous posturing about who was hood and who was cheese.

Bongani was the leader of his crew, the guy who got everyone together and got things moving. Then there was Mzi, Bongani’s henchman. Small guy, just wanted to tag along, be in the mix. Bheki was the drinks man, always finding us booze and always coming up with an excuse to drink. Then there was Kakoatse. We called him G. Mr. Nice Guy. All G was interested in was women. If women were in the mix, he was in the game. Then, finally, there was Hitler, the life of the party. Hitler just wanted to dance.

Cheese boys were in a uniquely fucked situation when apartheid ended. It is one thing to be born in the hood and know that you will never leave the hood. But the cheese boy has been shown the world outside. His family has done okay. They have a house. They’ve sent him to a decent school; maybe he’s even matriculated. He has been given more potential, but he has not been given more opportunity. He has been given an awareness of the world that is out there, but he has not been given the means to reach it.

The unemployment rate, technically speaking, was “lower” in South Africa during apartheid, which makes sense. There was slavery—that’s how everyone was employed. When democracy came, everyone had to be paid a minimum wage. The cost of labor went up, and suddenly millions of people were out of work. The unemployment rate for young black men post-apartheid shot up, sometimes as high as 50 percent. What happens to a lot of guys is they finish high school and they can’t afford university, and even little retail jobs can be hard to come by when you’re from the hood and you look and talk a certain way. So, for many young men in South Africa’s townships, freedom looks like this: Every morning they wake up, maybe their parents go to work or maybe not. Then they go outside and chill on the corner the whole day, talking shit. They’re free, they’ve been taught how to fish, but no one will give them a fishing rod.

One of the first things I learned in the hood is that there is a very fine line between civilian and criminal. We like to believe we live in a world of good guys and bad guys, and in the suburbs it’s easy to believe that, because getting to know a career criminal in the suburbs is a difficult thing. But then you go to the hood and you see there are so many shades in between.

In the hood, gangsters were your friends and neighbors. You knew them. You talked to them on the corner, saw them at parties. They were a part of your world. You knew them from before they became gangsters. It wasn’t, “Hey, that’s a crack dealer.” It was, “Oh, little Jimmy’s selling crack now.” The weird thing about these gangsters was that they were all, at a glance, identical. They drove the same red sports car. They dated the same beautiful eighteen-year-old girls. It was strange. It was like they didn’t have personalities; they shared a personality. One could be the other, and the other could be the one. They’d each studied how to be that gangster.

In the hood, even if you’re not a hardcore criminal, crime is in your life in some way or another. There are degrees of it. It’s everyone from the mom buying some food that fell off the back of a truck to feed her family, all the way up to the gangs selling military-grade weapons and hardware. The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.

My life of crime started off small, selling pirated CDs on the corner. That in itself was a crime, and today I feel like I owe all these artists money for stealing their music, but by hood standards it didn’t even qualify as illegal. At the time it never occurred to any of us that we were doing anything wrong—if copying CDs is wrong, why would they make CD writers?

The garage of Bongani’s house opened up onto Springbok Cresent. Every morning we’d open the doors, run an extension cord out into the street, set up a table, and play music. People would walk by and ask, “What is that? Can I get one, please?” Our corner was also where a lot of minibus drivers ended their routes and turned around to loop back to the minibus rank. They’d swing by, place an order, come back, pick it up. Swing by, place an order, come back, pick it up. We spent our whole day running out to them, going back to the garage to make more mixes, and going back out to sell. There was a converted shipping container around the corner where we’d hang out when we got tired of the wall. It had a pay phone installed inside that we’d use to call people. When things were slow we’d wander

back and forth between the container and the wall, talking and hanging out with the other people with nothing to do in the middle of the day. We’d talk to drug dealers, talk to gangsters. Every now and then the cops would come crashing through. A day in the life of the hood. Next day, same thing.

Selling slowly evolved into hustling because Bongani saw all the angles and knew how to exploit them. Like Tom, Bongani was a hustler. But where Tom was only about the short con, Bongani had schemes: If we do this, we get that, then we can flip that for the other thing, which gives us the leverage we need to get something bigger. Some minibus drivers couldn’t pay up front, for example. “I don’t have the money, because I’ve just started my shift,” they’d say. “But I need new music. Can I owe you guys some form of credit? I’ll owe you a ride. I’ll pay you at the end of my shift, at the end of the week?” So we started letting drivers buy on credit, charging them a bit of interest.

We started making more money. Never more than a few hundred, maybe a thousand rand at a time, but it was all cash on hand. Bongani was quick to realize the position we were in. Cash is the one thing everyone in the hood needs. Everyone’s looking for a short-term loan for something, to pay a bill or pay a fine or just hold things together. People started coming to us and asking for money. Bongani would cut a deal, and then he’d come to me. “Yo, we’re going to make a deal with this guy. We’re going to loan him a hundred, and he’s going to give us back one-twenty at the end of the week.” I’d say okay. Then the guy would come back and give us 120 rand. Then we did it again. Then we did it some more. We started to double our money, then triple our money.

Cash gave us leverage in the hood’s barter economy as well. It’s common knowledge that if you’re standing at a corner of a main street in the hood, somebody’s going to try to sell you something. “Yo, yo, yo, man. You want some weed?” “You wanna buy a VCR?” “You wanna buy a DVD player?” “Yo, I’m selling a TV.” That’s just how it works.

Let’s say we see two guys haggling on the corner, a crackhead trying to sell a DVD player and some working dude who wants it but doesn’t have the money because he hasn’t got his wages yet. They’re going back and forth, but the crackhead wants the money now. Crackheads don’t wait. There’s no layaway plan with a crackhead. So Bongani steps in and takes the working guy aside.

“Look, I understand you can’t pay for the DVD player now,” Bongani says. “But how much are you willing to pay for it?”

“I’ll pay one-twenty,” he says. “Okay, cool.”

Then Bongani takes the crackhead aside. “How much do you want for the DVD player?” “I want one-forty.”

“Okay, listen. You’re a crackhead. This is a stolen DVD player. I’m going to give you fifty.”

The crackhead protests a bit, but then he takes the money because he’s a crackhead and it’s cash and crack is all about the now. Then Bongani goes back to the working guy.

“All right. We’ll do one-twenty. Here’s your DVD player. It’s yours.” “But I don’t have the one-twenty.”

“It’s cool. You can take it now, only instead of one-twenty you give us one-forty when you get your wages.”

“Okay.”

So now we’ve invested 50 rand with the crackhead and that gets us 140 from the working guy. But Bongani would see a way to flip it and grow it again. Let’s say this guy who bought the DVD player worked at a shoe store.

“How much do you pay for a pair of Nikes with your staff discount?” Bongani would ask.

“I can get a pair of Nikes for one-fifty.”

“Okay, instead of you giving us one-forty, we’ll give you ten and you get us a pair of Nikes with your discount.”

So now this guy’s walking away with a DVD player and 10 rand in his pocket. He’s feeling like he got a good deal. He brings us the Nikes and then we go to one of the cheesier cheese boys up in East Bank and we say, “Yo, dude, we know you want the new Jordans. They’re three hundred in the shops. We’ll sell them to you for two hundred.” We sell him the shoes, and now we’ve gone and turned 60 rand into 200.

That’s the hood. Someone’s always buying, someone’s always selling, and the hustle is about trying to be in the middle of that whole thing. None of it was legal. Nobody knew where anything came from. The guy who got us Nikes, did he really have a “staff discount”? You don’t know. You don’t ask. It’s just, “Hey, look what I found” and “Cool, how much do you want?” That’s the international code.

At first I didn’t know not to ask. I remember one time we bought a car stereo or something like that.

“But who did this belong to?” I said.

“Eh, don’t worry about it,” one of the guys told me. “White people have insurance.”

“Insurance?”

“Yeah, when white people lose stuff they have insurance policies that pay them cash for what they’ve lost, so it’s like they’ve lost nothing.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. “Sounds nice.”

And that was as far as we ever thought about it: When white people lose stuff they get money, just another nice perk of being white.

It’s easy to be judgmental about crime when you live in a world wealthy enough to be removed from it. But the hood taught me that everyone has different notions of right and wrong, different definitions of what constitutes crime, and what level of crime they’re willing to participate in. If a crackhead comes through and he’s got a crate of Corn Flakes boxes he’s stolen out of the back of a supermarket, the poor mom isn’t thinking, I’m aiding and abetting a criminal by buying these Corn Flakes. No. She’s thinking, My family needs food and this guy has Corn Flakes, and she buys the Corn Flakes.

My own mother, my super-religious, law-abiding mother who used to shit on me about breaking the rules and learning to behave, I’ll never forget one day I came home and in the kitchen was a giant box of frozen burger patties, like two hundred of them, from a takeaway place called Black Steer. A burger at Black Steer cost at least 20 rand.

“What the hell is this?” I said.

“Oh, some guy at work had these and was selling them,” she said. “I got a great discount.”

“But where did he get it from?”

“I don’t know. He said he knew somebody who—” “Mom, he stole it.”

“We don’t know that.”

“We do know that. Where the hell is some guy going to get all of these burger patties from, randomly?”

Of course, we ate the burgers. Then we thanked God for the meal.

When Bongani first said to me, “Let’s go to the hood,” I thought we were going to sell CDs and DJ parties in the hood. It turned out that we were selling CDs and DJing parties in order to capitalize a payday-lending and pawnshop operation in the hood. Very quickly that became our core business.

Every day in the hood was the same. I’d wake up early. Bongani would meet me at my flat and we’d catch a minibus to Alex with my computer, carrying the giant tower and the giant, heavy monitor the whole way. We’d set it up in Bongani’s garage, and start the first batch of CDs. Then we’d walk. We’d go down to the corner of Nineteenth and Roosevelt for breakfast. When you’re trying to stretch your money, food is where you have to be careful. You have to plan or you’ll eat your profits. So every morning for breakfast we eat vetkoek, which is fried dough, basically. Those were cheap, like 50 cents a pop. We could buy a bunch of those and have enough energy to sustain us until later on in the day.

Then we’d sit on the corner and eat. While we ate, we’d be picking up orders from the minibus drivers as they went past. After that we’d go back to Bongani’s garage, listen to music, lift weights, make the CDs. Around ten or eleven, the drivers would start coming back from their morning routes. We’d take the CDs and head out to the corner for them to pick up their stuff. Then we’d just be on the corner, hanging out, meeting characters, seeing who came by, seeing where the day was going to take us. A guy needs this. A guy’s selling that. You never knew what it was going to be.

There was always a big rush of business at lunch. We’d be all over Alexandra, hitting different shops and corners, making deals with everyone. We’d get free rides from the minibus drivers because we’d hop in with them and use it as an opportunity to talk about what music they needed, but secretly we were riding with the guy for free. “Hey, we want to collect orders. We’ll talk to you while you drive. What do you need? What music are you looking for? Do you need the new Maxwell? Okay, we got the new Maxwell. Okay, we’ll talk to you later. We’ll jump out here.” Then we’d hop on another ride going wherever we were going next.

After lunch, business would die down, and that’s when we’d get our lunch, usually the cheapest thing we could afford, like a smiley with some maize meal. A smiley is a goat’s head. They’re boiled and covered with chili pepper. We call them smileys because when you’re done eating all the meat off it, the goat looks like it’s smiling at you from the plate. The cheeks and the tongue are quite delicious, but the eyes are disgusting. They pop in your mouth. You put the eyeball into your mouth and you bite it, and it’s just a ball of pus that pops. It has no crunch. It has no chew. It has no flavor that is appetizing in any way.

After lunch we’d head back to the garage, relax, sleep off the meal, and make more CDs. In the afternoons we’d see a lot of moms. Moms loved us. They were some of our best customers. Since moms run the household, they’re the ones looking to buy that box of soap that fell off the back of the truck, and they were more likely to buy it from us than from some crackhead. Dealing with crackheads is unpleasant. We were upstanding, well-spoken East Bank boys. We could even charge a premium because we added that layer of respectability to the transaction. Moms are also often the most in need of short-term loans, to pay for this or that for the family. Again, they’d rather deal with us than with some gangster loan shark. Moms knew we weren’t going to break anyone’s legs if they couldn’t pay. We didn’t believe in that. Also we weren’t capable of it—let’s not forget that part. But that’s where Bongani’s brilliance came in. He always knew what a person could provide pending their failure to pay.

We made some of the craziest trades. Moms in the hood are protective of their daughters, especially if their daughters are pretty. In Alex there were girls who got locked up. They went to school, came straight home, and went straight into the house. They weren’t allowed to leave. Boys weren’t allowed to talk to them, weren’t even allowed to hang around the house—none of that. Some guy was always going on about some locked-away girl: “She’s so beautiful. I’ll do anything to get with her.” But he couldn’t. Nobody could.

Then that mom would need a loan. Once we lent her the money, until she paid us back she couldn’t chase us away from her house. We’d go by and hang out, chat, make small talk. The daughter would be right there, but the mom couldn’t say, “Don’t talk to those boys!” The loan gave us access to establish a relationship with the mom. We’d get invited to stay for dinner. Once the mom knew we were nice, upstanding guys, she’d agree to let us take her daughter to a party as long as we promised to get her home safely. So then we’d go to the guy who’d been so desperate to meet the daughter.

“Hey, let’s make a deal. We’ll bring the girl to your party and you get to hang out with her. How much can you give us?”

“I don’t have money,” he’d say, “but I have some cases of beer.”

“Okay, so tonight we’re going to this party. You give us two cases of beer for the party.”

“Cool.”

Then we’d go to the party. We’d invite the girl, who was usually thrilled to escape her mother’s prison. The guy would bring the beer, he’d get to hang out with the girl, we’d write off the mom’s debt to show her our gratitude, and we’d make our money back selling the beer. There was always a way to make it work. And often that was the most fun part: working the angles, solving the puzzle, seeing what goes where, who needs what, whom we can connect with who can then get us the money.

At the peak of our operation we probably had around 10,000 rand in capital. We had loans going out and interest coming in. We had our stockpile of Jordans and DVD players we’d bought to resell. We also had to buy blank CDs, hire minibuses to go to our DJ gigs, feed five guys three times a day. We kept track of everything on the computer. Having lived in my mom’s world, I knew how to do spreadsheets. We had a Microsoft Excel document laid out: everybody’s name, how much they owed, when they paid, when they didn’t pay.

After work was when business started to pick up. Minibus drivers picking up one last order, men coming home from work. The men weren’t looking for soap and Corn Flakes. They wanted the gear—DVD players, CD players, PlayStation games. More guys would come through selling stuff, too, because they’d been out hustling and stealing all day. There’d be a guy selling a cellphone, a guy selling some leather jackets, a guy selling shoes. There was this one dude who looked like a black version of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. He’d always come by at the end of his shift with the most random useless crap, like an electric toothbrush without the charger. One time he brought us an electric razor.

“What the hell is this?”

“It’s an electric razor?”

“An electric razor? We’re black. Do you know what these things do to our skin? Do you see anyone around here who can use an electric razor?”

We never knew where he was getting this stuff from. Because you don’t ask. Eventually we pieced it together, though: He worked at the airport. It was all crap he was boosting from people’s luggage.

Slowly the rush would start to taper off and we’d wind down. We’d make our last collections, go over our CD stock, balance our accounts. If there was a party to DJ that night we’d start getting ready for that. Otherwise, we’d buy a few beers and sit around and drink, talk about the day, listen to the gunshots in the distance. Gunshots went off every night, and we’d always try to guess what kind of gun it was. “That’s a nine-millimeter.” Usually there’d be a police chase, cop cars flying through after some guy with a stolen car. Then everyone would go home for dinner with their families. I’d take my computer, get back in a minibus, ride home, sleep, and then come back and do it all again the next day.

A year passed. Then two. I had stopped planning for school, and was no closer to having the money to enroll.

The tricky thing about the hood is that you’re always working, working, working, and you feel like something’s happening, but really nothing’s happening at all. I was out there every day from seven a.m. to seven p.m., and every day it was: How do we turn ten rand into twenty? How do we turn twenty into fifty? How do I turn fifty into a hundred? At the end of the day we’d spend it on food and maybe some beers, and then we’d go home and come back and it was: How do we turn ten into twenty? How do we turn twenty into fifty? It was a whole day’s work to flip that money. You had to be walking, be moving, be thinking. You had to get to a guy, find a guy, meet a guy. There were many days we’d end up back at zero, but I always felt like I’d been very productive.

Hustling is to work what surfing the Internet is to reading. If you add up how much you read in a year on the Internet—tweets, Facebook posts, lists—you’ve read the equivalent of a shit ton of books, but in fact you’ve read no books in a year. When I look back on it, that’s what hustling was. It’s maximal effort put into minimal gain. It’s a hamster wheel. If I’d put all that energy into studying I’d have earned an MBA. Instead I was majoring in hustling, something no university would give me a degree for.

When I first went into Alex, I was drawn by the electricity and the excitement of it, but more important, I was accepted there, more so than I’d been in high school or anywhere else. When I first showed up, a couple of people raised an eyebrow. “Who’s this colored kid?” But the hood doesn’t judge. If you want to be there, you can be there. Because I didn’t live in the hood I was technically an outsider in the hood, but for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like one.

The hood is also a low-stress, comfortable life. All your mental energy goes into getting by, so you don’t have to ask yourself any of the big questions. Who am I? Who am I supposed to be? Am I doing enough? In the hood you can be a forty-year-old man living in your mom’s house asking people for money and it’s not looked down on. You never feel like a failure in the hood, because someone’s always worse off than you, and you don’t feel like you need to do more, because the biggest success isn’t that much higher than you, either. It allows you to exist in a state of suspended animation.

The hood has a wonderful sense of community to it as well. Everyone knows everyone, from the crackhead all the way through to the policeman. People take care of one another. The way it works in the hood is that if any mom asks you to do something, you have to say yes. “Can I send you?” is the phrase. It’s like everyone’s your mom, and you’re everyone’s kid.

“Can I send you?” “Yeah, whaddya need?”

“I need you to go buy milk and bread.” “Yeah, cool.”

Then she gives you some money and you go buy milk and bread. As long as you aren’t busy and it doesn’t cost you anything, you don’t say no.

The biggest thing in the hood is that you have to share. You can’t get rich on your own. You have money? Why aren’t you helping people? The old lady on the block needs help, everyone pitches in. You’re buying beer, you buy beer for everyone. You spread it around. Everyone must know that your success benefits the community in one way or another, or you become a target.

The township polices itself as well. If someone’s caught stealing, the township deals with them. If someone’s caught breaking into a house, the township deals with them. If you’re caught raping a woman, pray to God the police find you before the township does. If a woman is being hit, people don’t get involved. There are too many questions with a beating. What’s the fight about? Who’s responsible? Who started it? But rape is rape. Theft is theft. You’ve desecrated the community.

The hood was strangely comforting, but comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling. In our crew, our friend G was like the rest of us, unemployed, hanging out. Then he got a job at a nice clothing store. Every morning he went to work, and the guys would tease him about going to work. We’d see him headed out all dressed up, and everyone would be laughing at him. “Oh, G, look at you in your fancy clothes!” “Oh, G, going to go see the white man today, huh?” “Oh, G, don’t forget to bring some books back from the library!”

One morning, after a month of G working at the place, we were hanging out on the wall, and G came out in his slippers and his socks. He wasn’t dressed for work.

“Yo, G, what’s going on? What’s up with the job?” “Oh, I don’t work there anymore.”

“Why?”

“They accused me of stealing something and I got fired.”

And I’ll never forget thinking to myself that it felt like he did it on purpose. He sabotaged himself so that he’d get accepted back into the group again.

The hood has a gravitational pull. It never leaves you behind, but it also never lets you leave. Because by making the choice to leave, you’re insulting the place that raised you and made you and never turned you away. And that place fights you back.

As soon as things start going well for you in the hood, it’s time to go. Because the hood will drag you back in. It will find a way. There will be a guy who steals a thing and puts it in your car and the cops find it— something. You can’t stay. You think you can. You’ll start doing better and you’ll bring your hood friends out to a nice club, and the next thing you know somebody starts a fight and one of your friends pulls a gun and somebody’s getting shot and you’re left standing around going, “What just happened?”

The hood happened.

One night I was DJ’ing a party, not in Alex but right outside Alex in Lombardy East, a nicer, middle-class black neighborhood. The police were called about the noise. They came busting in wearing riot gear and pointing machine guns. That’s how our police roll. We don’t have small and then big. What Americans call SWAT is just our regular police. They came looking for the source of the music, and the music was coming from me. This one cop came over to where I was with my computer and pulled this massive assault rifle on me.

“You gotta shut this down right now.” “Okay, okay,” I said. “I’m shutting it down.”

But I was running Windows 95. Windows 95 took forever to shut down. I was closing windows, shutting down programs. I had one of those fat Seagate drives that damaged easily, and I didn’t want to cut the power and possibly damage the drive. This cop clearly didn’t give a fuck about any of that.

“Shut it down! Shut it down!”

“I am! I’m shutting it down! I have to close the programs!”

The crowd was getting angry, and the cop was getting nervous. He turned his gun away from me and shot the computer. Only he clearly didn’t know anything about computers because he shot the monitor. The monitor exploded but the music kept playing. Now there was chaos—music blaring and everyone running and panicking because of the gunshot. I yanked the power cord out of the tower to shut the thing down. Then the cops started firing tear gas into the crowd.

The tear gas had nothing to do with me or the music. Tear gas is just what the police use to shut down parties in black neighborhoods, like the club turning on the lights to tell everyone to go home.

I lost the hard drive. Even though the cop shot the monitor the explosion somehow fried the thing. The computer would still boot up, but it couldn’t read the drive. My music library was gone. Even if I’d had the money for a new hard drive, it had taken me years to amass the music collection. There was no way to replace it. The DJ’ing business was over. The CD-selling business was done. All of a sudden our crew lost its main revenue stream. All we had left was the hustle, and we hustled even harder, taking the bit of cash we had on hand and trying to double it, buying this to flip it for that. We started eating into our savings, and in less than a month we were running on dust.

Then, one evening after work, our friend from the airport, the black Mr. Burns, came by.

“Hey, look what I found,” he said. “What’ve you got?”

“A camera.”

I’ll never forget that camera. It was a digital camera. We bought it from him, and I took it and turned it on. It was full of pictures of a nice white family on vacation, and I felt like shit. The other things we’d bought had never mattered to me. Nikes, electric toothbrushes, electric razors. Who cares? Yeah, some guy might get fired because of the pallet of Corn Flakes that went missing from the supermarket, but that’s degrees removed. You don’t think about it. But this camera had a face. I went through those pictures, knowing how much my family pictures meant to me, and I thought, I haven’t stolen a camera. I’ve stolen someone’s memories. I’ve stolen part of someone’s life.

It’s such a strange thing, but in two years of hustling I never once thought of it as a crime. I honestly didn’t think it was bad. It’s just stuff people found. White people have insurance. Whatever rationalization was handy. In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don’t live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another’s pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place.

As much as we needed the money, I never sold the camera. I felt too guilty, like it would be bad karma, which I know sounds stupid and it didn’t get the family their camera back, but I just couldn’t do it. That camera made me confront the fact that there were people on the other end of this thing I was doing, and what I was doing was wrong.

One night our crew got invited to dance in Soweto against another crew. Hitler was going to compete with their best dancer, Hector, who was one of the best dancers in South Africa at the time. This invitation was a huge deal. We were going over there repping our hood. Alex and Soweto have always had a huge rivalry. Soweto was seen as the snobbish township and Alexandra was seen as the gritty and dirty township. Hector was from Diepkloof, which was the nice, well-off part of Soweto. Diepkloof was where the first million-rand houses were built after democracy. “Hey, we’re not a township anymore. We’re building nice things now.” That was the attitude. That’s who we were up against. Hitler practiced a whole week.

We took a minibus over to Diepkloof the night of the dance, me and Bongani, Mzi and Bheki and G, and Hitler. Hector won the competition. Then G was caught kissing one of their girls, and it turned into a fight and everything broke down. On our way back to Alex, around one in the morning, as we were pulling out of Diepkloof to get on the freeway, some cops pulled our minibus over. They made everyone get out and they searched it. We were standing outside, lined up alongside the car, when one of the cops came back.

“We’ve found a gun,” he said. “Whose gun is it?” We all shrugged.

“We don’t know,” we said.

“Nope, somebody knows. It’s somebody’s gun.” “Officer, we really don’t know,” Bongani said. He slapped Bongani hard across the face. “You’re bullshitting me!”

Then he went down the line, slapping each of us across the face, berating us about the gun. We couldn’t do anything but stand there and take it.

“You guys are trash,” the cop said. “Where are you from?” “Alex.”

“Ohhhhh, okay, I see. Dogs from Alex. You come here and you rob people and you rape women and you hijack cars. Bunch of fucking hoodlums.”

“No, we’re dancers. We don’t know—”

“I don’t care. You’re all going to jail until we figure out whose gun this is.”

At a certain point we realized what was going on. This cop was shaking us down for a bribe. “Spot fine” is the euphemism everyone uses. You go through this elaborate dance with the cop where you say the thing without saying the thing.

“Can’t we do something?” you ask the officer. “What do you want me to do?”

“We’re really sorry, Officer. What can we do?” “You tell me.”

Then you’re supposed to make up a story whereby you indicate to the cop how much money you have on you. Which we couldn’t do because we didn’t have any money. So he took us to jail. It was a public bus. It could have been anyone’s gun, but the guys from Alex were the only ones who got arrested. Everyone else in the car was free to go. The cops took us to the police station and threw us in a cell and pulled us out one by one for questioning. When they pulled me aside I had to give my home address: Highlands North. The cop gave me the most confused look.

“You’re not from Alex,” he said. “What are you doing with these crooks?” I didn’t know what to say. He glared at me hard. “Listen here, rich boy. You think it’s fun running around with these guys? This isn’t play-play anymore. Just tell me the truth about your friends and the gun, and I’ll let you go.”

I told him no, and he threw me back in the cell. We spent the night, and the next day I called a friend, who said he could borrow the money from his dad to get us out. Later that day the dad came down and paid the money. The cops kept calling it “bail,” but it was a bribe. We were never formally arrested or processed. There was no paperwork.

We got out and everything was fine, but it rattled us. Every day we were out in the streets, hustling, trying to act as if we were in some way down with the gangs, but the truth was we were always more cheese than hood. We had created this idea of ourselves as a defense mechanism to survive in the world we were living in. Bongani and the other East Bank guys, because of where they were from, what they looked like—they just had very little hope. You’ve got two options in that situation. You take the retail job, flip burgers at McDonald’s, if you’re one of the lucky few who even gets that much. The other option is to toughen up, put up this facade. You can’t leave the hood, so you survive by the rules of the hood.

I chose to live in that world, but I wasn’t from that world. If anything, I was an imposter. Day to day I was in it as much as everyone else, but the difference was that in the back of my mind I knew I had other options. I could leave. They couldn’t.

Once, when I was ten years old, visiting my dad in Yeoville, I needed batteries for one of my toys. My mom had refused to buy me new batteries because, of course, she thought it was a waste of money, so I snuck out to the shops and shoplifted a pack. A security guard busted me on the way out, pulled me into his office, and called my mom.

“We’ve caught your son shoplifting batteries,” he said. “You need to come and fetch him.”

“No,” she said. “Take him to jail. If he’s going to disobey he needs to learn the consequences.”

Then she hung up. The guard looked at me, confused. Eventually he let me go on the assumption that I was some wayward orphan, because what mother would send her ten-year-old child to jail?

DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33