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[5 of 5] Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Part III, Chapters 17 & 18, by Trevor Noah (2019)

Author: Trevor Noah

“Part 3, Chapters 17 & 19.” Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah, Spiegel & Grau, 2019.


My mom never gave me an inch. Anytime I got in trouble it was tough love, lectures, punishment, and hidings. Every time. For every infraction. You get that with a lot of black parents. They’re trying to discipline you before the system does. “I need to do this to you before the police do it to you.” Because that’s all black parents are thinking from the day you’re old enough to walk out into the street, where the law is waiting.

In Alex, getting arrested was a fact of life. It was so common that out on the corner we had a sign for it, a shorthand, clapping your wrists together like you were being put in handcuffs. Everyone knew what that meant.

“Where’s Bongani?” Wrist clap.

“Oh, shit. When?” “Friday night.” “Damn.”

My mom hated the hood. She didn’t like my friends there. If I brought them back to the house, she didn’t even want them coming inside. “I don’t like those boys,” she’d say. She didn’t hate them personally; she hated what they represented. “You and those boys get into so much shit,” she’d say. “You must be careful who you surround yourself with because where you are can determine who you are.”

She said the thing she hated most about the hood was that it didn’t pressure me to become better. She wanted me to hang out with my cousin at his university.

“What’s the difference if I’m at university or I’m in the hood?” I’d say. “It’s not like I’m going to university.”

“Yes, but the pressure of the university is going to get you. I know you. You won’t sit by and watch these guys become better than you. If you’re in an environment that is positive and progressive, you too will become that. I keep telling you to change your life, and you don’t. One day you’re going to get arrested, and when you do, don’t call me. I’ll tell the police to lock you up just to teach you a lesson.”

Because there were some black parents who’d actually do that, not pay their kid’s bail, not hire their kid a lawyer—the ultimate tough love. But it doesn’t always work, because you’re giving the kid tough love when maybe he just needs love. You’re trying to teach him a lesson, and now that lesson is the rest of his life.

One morning I saw an ad in the paper. Some shop was having a clearance sale on mobile phones, and they were selling them at such a ridiculous price I knew Bongani and I could flip them in the hood for a profit. This shop was out in the suburbs, too far to walk and too out-of-the-way to take a minibus. Fortunately my stepfather’s workshop and a bunch of old cars were in our backyard.

I’d been stealing Abel’s junkers to get around since I was fourteen. I would say I was test driving them to make sure they’d been repaired correctly. Abel didn’t think that was funny. I’d been caught many times, caught and subjected to my mother’s wrath. But that had never stopped me from doing anything.

Most of these junkers weren’t street legal. They didn’t have proper registrations or proper number plates. Luckily, Abel also had a stack of old number plates in the back of the garage. I quickly learned I could just put one on an old car and hit the road. I was nineteen, maybe twenty, not thinking about any of the ramifications of this. I stopped by Abel’s garage when no one was around, picked up one of the cars, the red Mazda I’d taken to the matric dance, slapped some old plates on it, and set off in search of discounted cell phones.

I got pulled over in Hillbrow. Cops in South Africa don’t give you a reason when they pull you over. Cops pull you over because they’re cops and they have the power to pull you over; it’s as simple as that. I used to watch American movies where cops would pull people over and say, “You didn’t signal” or “Your taillight’s out.” I’d always wonder, Why do American cops bother lying? One thing I appreciate about South Africa is that we have not yet refined the system to the point where we feel the need to lie.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“Because you’re a policeman and I’m a black person?” “That’s correct. License and registration, please.”

When the cop pulled me over, it was one of those situations where I wanted to say, “Hey, I know you guys are racially profiling me!” But I couldn’t argue the case because I was, at that moment, actually breaking the law. The cop walked up to my window, asked me the standard cop questions. Where are you going? Is this your car? Whose car is this? I couldn’t answer. I completely froze.

Being young, funnily enough, I was more worried about getting in trouble with my parents than with the law. I’d had run-ins with the cops in Alexandra, in Soweto, but it was always more about the circumstance: a party getting shut down, a raid on a minibus. The law was all around me, but it had never come down on me, Trevor, specifically. And when you haven’t had much experience with the law, the law appears rational—cops are dicks for the most part, but you also recognize that they’re doing a job.

Your parents, on the other hand, are not rational at all. They have served as judge, jury, and executioner for your entire childhood, and it feels like they give you a life sentence for every misdemeanor. In that moment, when I should have been scared of the cop, all I was thinking was Shit shit shit; I’m in so much trouble when I get home.

The cop called in the number-plate registration and discovered that it didn’t match the car. Now he was really on my case. “This car is not in your name! What’s going on with these plates?! Step out of the vehicle!” It was only then that I realized: Ohhhhh, shit. Now I’m in real trouble. I stepped out of the car, and he put the cuffs on me and told me I was being arrested on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle. He took me in, and the car was impounded.

The Hillbrow police station looks exactly like every other police station in South Africa. They were all built by the same contractor at the height of apartheid —separate nodes in the central nervous system of a police state. If you were blindfolded and taken from one to the other, you probably wouldn’t even know that you’d changed locations. They’re sterile, institutional, with fluorescent lights and cheap floor tile, like a hospital. My cop walked me in and sat me down at the front booking desk. I was charged and fingerprinted.

In the meantime, they’d been checking out the car, which wasn’t going well for me, either. Whenever I borrowed cars from Abel’s workshop, I tried to take the junkers rather than a real client’s car; I thought I’d get in less trouble that way. That was a mistake. The Mazda, being one of Abel’s junkers, didn’t have a clear title of ownership. If it had had an owner, the cops would have called the owner, the owner would have explained that the car had been dropped off for repairs, and the whole thing would have been sorted out. Since the car didn’t have an owner, I couldn’t prove I hadn’t stolen it.

Carjackings were common in South Africa at the time, too. So common you weren’t even surprised when they happened. You’d have a friend coming over for a dinner party and you’d get a call.

“Sorry. Got carjacked. Gonna be late.”

“Ah, that sucks. Hey, guys! Dave got carjacked.” “Sorry, Dave!”

And the party would continue. And that’s if the person survived the carjacking. Often they didn’t. People were getting shot for their cars all the time. Not only could I not prove I hadn’t stolen the car, I couldn’t prove I hadn’t murdered someone for it, either. The cops were grilling me. “You kill anyone to get that car, boy? Eh? You a killer?”

I was in deep, deep trouble. I had only one lifeline: my parents. One call would have fixed everything. “This is my stepfather. He’s a mechanic. I borrowed his car when I shouldn’t have.” Done. At worst I’d get a slap on the wrist for driving a car that wasn’t registered. But what would I be getting at home?

I sat there in the police station—arrested for suspicion of grand theft auto, a plausible suspect for carjacking or murder—and debated whether I should call my parents or go to jail. With my stepfather I was thinking, He might actually kill me. In my mind that was an entirely realistic scenario. With my mother I was thinking,

She’s going to make this worse. She’s not the character witness I want right now. She won’t help me. Because she’d told me she wouldn’t. “If you ever get arrested, don’t call me.” I needed someone sympathetic to my plight, and I didn’t believe she was that person. So I didn’t call my parents. I decided I didn’t need them. I was a man. I could go it alone. I used my call to phone my cousin and told him not to tell anyone what had happened while I figured out what to do—now I just had to figure out what to do.

I’d been picked up late in the afternoon, so by the time I was processed it was close to lights-out. I was spending the night in jail, like it or not. It was at that point that a cop pulled me aside and told me what I was in for.

The way the system works in South Africa is that you’re arrested and held in a cell at the police station until your bail hearing. At the hearing, the judge looks at your case, hears arguments from the opposing sides, and then he either dismisses the charges or sets bail and a trial date. If you can make bail, you pay and go home. But there are all sorts of ways your bail hearing can go wrong: You get some court-appointed lawyer who hasn’t read your case and doesn’t know what’s going on. Your family can’t pay your bail. It could even be that the court’s backed up. “Sorry, we’re too busy. No more hearings today.” It doesn’t matter the reason. Once you leave jail, you can’t go back to jail. If your situation isn’t resolved that day, you go to prison to await trial. In prison you’re housed with the people awaiting trial, not with the general population, but even the awaiting-trial section is incredibly dangerous because you have people picked up for traffic violations all the way up to proper hardened criminals. You’re stuck there together, and you can be there for days, weeks, maybe months. It’s the same way in America. If you’re poor, if you don’t know how the system works, you can slip through the cracks, and the next thing you know you’re in this weird purgatory where you’re not in prison but you’re not not in prison. You haven’t been convicted of any crime, but you’re still locked up and can’t get out.

This cop pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you don’t want to go to your bail hearing. They’ll give you a state attorney who won’t know what’s going on. He’ll have no time for you. He’ll ask the judge for a postponement, and then maybe you’ll go free or maybe you won’t. Trust me, you don’t want to do that. You have the right to stay here for as long as you like. You want to meet with a lawyer and set yourself up before you go anywhere near a court or a judge.” He wasn’t giving me this advice out of the goodness of his heart. He had a deal with a defense attorney, sending him clients in exchange for a kickback. He handed me the attorney’s business card, I called him, and he agreed to take my case. He told me to stay put while he handled everything.

Now I needed money, because lawyers, as nice as they are, don’t do anything for free. I called a friend and asked him if he could ask his dad to borrow some money. He said he’d handle it. He talked to his dad, and the lawyer got his retainer the next day.

With the lawyer taken care of, I felt like I had things under control. I was feeling pretty slick. I’d handled the situation, and, most important, Mom and Abel were none the wiser.

When the time came for lights-out a cop came and took my stuff. My belt, my wallet, my shoelaces.

“Why do you need my shoelaces?” “So you don’t hang yourself.” “Right.”

Even when he said that, the gravity of my situation still wasn’t sinking in. Walking to the station’s holding cell, looking around at the other six guys in there, I was thinking, This is no big deal. Everything’s gonna be cool. I’m gonna get out of this. I thought that right up until the moment the cell door clanged shut behind me and the guard yelled, “Lights out!” That’s when I thought, Oh, shit. This is real.

The guards had given me a mat and a scratchy blanket. I rolled them out on the concrete floor and tried to get comfortable. Every bad prison movie I’d ever seen was racing through my head. I was thinking, I’m gonna get raped. I’m gonna get raped. I’m gonna get raped. But of course I didn’t get raped, because this wasn’t prison. It was jail, and there’s a big difference, as I would soon come to understand.

I woke up the next morning with that fleeting sensation where you think something has all been a dream. Then I looked around and remembered that it wasn’t. Breakfast came, and I settled in to wait.

A day in jail is mostly silence punctuated by passing guards shouting profanities at you, doing roll call. Inside the holding cell nobody says anything. Nobody walks into a jail cell and says, “Hi, guys! I’m Brian!” Because everyone is afraid, and no one wants to appear vulnerable. Nobody wants to be the bitch. Nobody wants to be the guy getting killed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was just a kid in for a traffic charge, so I reached back in my mind for all the stereotypes of what I imagined people act like in prison, and then I tried to act like that.

In South Africa, everyone knows that colored gangsters are the most ruthless, the most savage. It’s a stereotype that’s fed to you your whole life. The most notorious colored gangs are the Numbers Gangs: the 26s, the 27s, the 28s. They control the prisons. They’re known for being brutally violent—maiming, torturing, raping, cutting off people’s heads—not for the sake of making money but just to prove how ruthless and savage they are, like Mexican drug cartels. In fact a lot of these gangs base their thing on those Mexican gangs. They have the same look: the Converse All Stars with the Dickies pants and the open shirt buttoned only at the top.

By the time I was a teenager, anytime I was profiled by cops or security guards, it usually wasn’t because I was black but because I looked colored. I went to a club once with my cousin and his friend. The bouncer searched Mlungisi, waved him in. He searched our friend, waved him in. Then he searched me and got up in my face.

“Where’s your knife?” “I don’t have a knife.”

“I know you have a knife somewhere. Where is it?”

He searched and searched and finally gave up and let me in, looking me over like I was trouble.

“No shit from you! Okay?”

I figured that if I was in jail people were going to assume I was the kind of colored person who ends up in jail, a violent criminal. So I played it up. I put on this character; I played the stereotype. Anytime the cops asked me questions I started speaking in broken Afrikaans with a thick colored accent. Imagine a white guy in America, just dark enough to pass for Latino, walking around jail doing bad Mexican-gangster dialogue from the movies. “Shit’s about to get loco, ese. That’s basically what I was doing—the South African version of that. This was my brilliant plan to survive incarceration. But it worked. The guys in the cell with me, they were there for drunk driving, for domestic abuse, for petty theft. They had no idea what real colored gangsters were like. Everyone left me alone.

We were all playing a game, only nobody knew we were playing it. When I walked in that first night, everyone was giving me this look: “I’m dangerous. Don’t fuck with me.” So I went, “Shit, these people are hardened criminals. I shouldn’t be here, because I am not a criminal.” Then the next day everything turned over quickly. One by one, guys left to go to their hearings, I stayed to wait for my lawyer, and new people started to pitch up. Now I was the veteran, doing my colored-gangster routine, giving the new guys the same look: “I’m dangerous. Don’t fuck with me.” And they looked at me and went, “Shit, he’s a hardened criminal. I shouldn’t be here, because I am not like him.” And round and round we went.

At a certain point it occurred to me that every single person in that cell might be faking it. We were all decent guys from nice neighborhoods and good families, picked up for unpaid parking tickets and other infractions. We could have been having a great time sharing meals, playing cards, and talking about women and soccer. But that didn’t happen, because everyone had adopted this dangerous pose and nobody talked because everyone was afraid of who the other guys were pretending to be. Now those guys were going to get out and go home to their families and say, “Oh, honey, that was rough. Those were some real criminals in there. There was this one colored guy. Man, he was a killer.”

Once I had the game sorted out, I was good again. I relaxed. I was back to thinking, I got this. This is no big deal. The food was actually decent. For breakfast they brought you these peanut butter sandwiches on thick slices of bread. Lunch was chicken and rice. The tea was too hot, and it was more water than tea, but it was drinkable. There were older, hard-time prisoners close to parole, and their detail was to come and clean the cells and circulate books and magazines for you to read. It was quite relaxing.

There was one point when I remember eating a meal and saying to myself,

This isn’t so bad. I hang around with a bunch of dudes. There’s no chores. No bills to pay. No one constantly nagging me and telling me what to do. Peanut butter sandwiches? Shit, I eat peanut butter sandwiches all the time. This is pretty sweet. I could do this. I was so afraid of the ass-whooping waiting for me at home that I genuinely considered going to prison. For a brief moment I thought I had a plan. “I’ll go away for a couple of years, come back, and say I was kidnapped, and mom will never know and she’ll just be happy to see me.”

On the third day, the cops brought in the largest man I’d ever seen. This guy was huge. Giant muscles. Dark skin. Hardened face. He looked like he could kill all of us. Me and the other prisoners who’d been acting tough with one another—the second he walked in our tough-guy routines were over. Everyone was terrified. We all stared at him. “Oh, fuck…”

For whatever reason this guy was half naked when the cops picked him up. He was wearing clothes the police had scrounged up for him at the station, this torn-up wifebeater that was way too small, pants so short on him they looked like capris. He looked like a black version of the Incredible Hulk.

This guy went and sat alone in the corner. Nobody said a word. Everyone watched and waited, nervously, to see what he would do. Then one of the cops came back and called the Hulk over; they needed information from him. The cop started asking him a bunch of questions, but the guy kept shaking his head and saying he didn’t understand. The cop was speaking Zulu. The Hulk was speaking Tsonga. Black person to black person, and neither could understand the other— the Tower of Babel. Few people in South Africa speak Tsonga, but since my stepfather was Tsonga I had picked it up along the way. I overheard the cop and the other guy going back and forth with nothing getting across, so I stepped in and translated for them and sorted everything out.

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”

That is exactly what happened with the Hulk. The second I spoke to him, this face that had seemed so threatening and mean lit up with gratitude. “Ah, na khensa, na khensa, na khensa. Hi wena mani? Mufana wa mukhaladi u xitiela kwini xiTsonga? U huma kwini?” “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. Who are you? How does a colored guy know Tsonga? Where are you from?”

Once we started talking I realized he wasn’t the Hulk at all. He was the sweetest man, a gentle giant, the biggest teddy bear in the world. He was simple, not educated. I’d assumed he was in for murder, for squashing a family to death with his bare hands, but it wasn’t anything like that. He’d been arrested for shoplifting PlayStation games. He was out of work and needed money to send to his family back home, and when he saw how much these games sold for he thought he could steal a few and sell them to white kids and make a lot of money. As soon as he told me that, I knew he wasn’t some hardened criminal. I know the world of pirated things—stolen videogames have no value because it’s cheaper and less risky to copy them, like Bolo’s parents did.

I tried to help him out a bit. I told him my trick of putting off your bail hearing to get your defense together, so he stayed in the cell, too, biding his time, and we hit it off and hung out for a few days, having a good time, getting to know each other. No one else in the cell knew what to make of us, the ruthless colored gangster and his menacing, Hulk-like friend. He told me his story, a South African story that was all too familiar to me: The man grows up under apartheid, working on a farm, part of what’s essentially a slave labor force. It’s a living hell but it’s at least something. He’s paid a pittance but at least he’s paid. He’s told where to be and what to do every waking minute of his day. Then apartheid ends and he doesn’t even have that anymore. He finds his way to Johannesburg, looking for work, trying to feed his children back home. But he’s lost. He has no education. He has no skills. He doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know where to be. The world has been taught to be scared of him, but the reality is that he is scared of the world because he has none of the tools necessary to cope with it. So what does he do? He takes shit. He becomes a petty thief. He’s in and out of jail. He gets lucky and finds some construction work, but then he gets laid off from that, and a few days later he’s in a shop and he sees some PlayStation games and he grabs them, but he doesn’t even know enough to know that he’s stolen something of no value.

I felt terrible for him. The more time I spent in jail, the more I realized that the law isn’t rational at all. It’s a lottery. What color is your skin? How much money do you have? Who’s your lawyer? Who’s the judge? Shoplifting PlayStation games was less of an offense than driving with bad number plates. He had committed a crime, but he was no more a criminal than I was. The difference was that he didn’t have any friends or family to help him out. He couldn’t afford anything but a state attorney. He was going to go stand in the dock, unable to speak or understand English, and everyone in the courtroom was going to assume the worst of him. He was going to go to prison for a while and then be set free with the same nothing he had going in. If I had to guess, he was around thirty-five, forty years old, staring down another thirty-five, forty years of the same.

The day of my hearing came. I said goodbye to my new friend and wished him the best. Then I was handcuffed and put in the back of a police van and driven to the courthouse to meet my fate. In South African courts, to minimize your exposure and your opportunities for escape, the holding cell where you await your hearing is a massive pen below the courtroom; you walk up a set of stairs into the dock rather than being escorted through the corridors. What happens in the holding cell is you’re mixed in with the people who’ve been in prison awaiting trial for weeks and months. It’s a weird mix, everything from white-collar criminals to guys picked up on traffic stops to real, hardcore criminals covered with prison tattoos. It’s like the cantina scene from Star Wars, where the band’s playing music and Han Solo’s in the corner and all of the bad guys and bounty hunters from all over the universe are hanging out—a wretched hive of scum and villainy, only there’s no music and there’s no Han Solo.

I was with these people for only a brief window of time, but in that moment I saw the difference between prison and jail. I saw the difference between criminals and people who’ve committed crimes. I saw the hardness in people’s faces. I thought back on how naive I’d been just hours before, thinking jail wasn’t so bad and I could handle it. I was now truly afraid of what might happen to me.

When I walked into that holding pen, I was a smooth-skinned, fresh-faced young man. At the time, I had a giant Afro, and the only way to control it was to have it tied back in this ponytail thing that looked really girly. I looked like Maxwell. The guards closed the door behind me, and this creepy old dude yelled out in Zulu from the back, “Ha, ha, ha! Hhe madoda! Angikaze ngibone indoda enhle kangaka! Sizoba nobusuku obuhle!” “Yo, yo, yo! Damn, guys. I’ve never seen a man this beautiful before. It’s gonna be a good night tonight!”


Right next to me as I walked in was a young man having a complete meltdown, talking to himself, bawling his eyes out. He looked up and locked eyes with me, and I guess he thought I looked like a kindred soul he could talk to. He came straight at me and started crying about how he’d been arrested and thrown in jail and the gangs had stolen his clothes and his shoes and raped him and beat

him every day. He wasn’t some ruffian. He was well-spoken, educated. He’d been waiting for a year for his case to be heard; he wanted to kill himself. That guy put the fear of God in me.

I looked around the holding cell. There were easily a hundred guys in there, all of them spread out and huddled into their clearly and unmistakably defined racial groups: a whole bunch of black people in one corner, the colored people in a different corner, a couple of Indians off to themselves, and a handful of white guys off to one side. The guys who’d been with me in the police van, the second we walked in, they instinctively, automatically, walked off to join the groups they belonged to. I froze.

I didn’t know where to go.

I looked over at the colored corner. I was staring at the most notorious, most violent prison gang in South Africa. I looked like them, but I wasn’t them. I couldn’t go over there doing my fake gangster shit and have them discover I was a fraud. No, no, no. That game was over, my friend. The last thing I needed was colored gangsters up against me.

But then what if I went to the black corner? I know that I’m black and I identify as black, but I’m not a black person on the face of it, so would the black guys understand why I was walking over? And what kind of shit would I start by going there? Because going to the black corner as a perceived colored person might piss off the colored gangs even more than going to the colored corner as a fake colored person. Because that’s what had happened to me my entire life. Colored people would see me hanging out with blacks, and they’d confront me, want to fight me. I saw myself starting a race war in the holding cell.

“Hey! Why are you hanging out with the blacks?” “Because I am black.”

“No, you’re not. You’re colored.”

“Ah, yes. I know it looks that way, friend, but let me explain. It’s a funny story, actually. My father is white and my mother is black and race is a social construct, so…”

That wasn’t going to work. Not here.

All of this was happening in my head in an instant, on the fly. I was doing crazy calculations, looking at people, scanning the room, assessing the variables. If I go here, then this. If I go there, then that. My whole life was flashing before me— the playground at school, the spaza shops in Soweto, the streets of Eden Park— every time and every place I ever had to be a chameleon, navigate between groups, explain who I was. It was like the high school cafeteria, only it was the high school cafeteria from hell because if I picked the wrong table I might get beaten or stabbed or raped. I’d never been more scared in my life. But I still had to pick. Because racism exists, and you have to pick a side. You can say that you don’t pick sides, but eventually life will force you to pick a side.

That day I picked white. They just didn’t look like they could hurt me. It was a handful of average, middle-aged white dudes. I walked over to them. We hung out for a while, chatted a bit. They were mostly in for white-collar crimes, money schemes, fraud and racketeering. They’d be useless if anyone came over looking to start trouble; they’d get their asses kicked as well. But they weren’t going to do anything to me. I was safe.

Luckily the time went by fairly quickly. I was in there for only an hour before I was called up to court, where a judge would either let me go or send me to prison to await trial. As I was leaving, one of the white guys reached over to me. “Make sure you don’t come back down here,” he said. “Cry in front of the judge; do whatever you have to do. If you go up and get sent back down here, your life will never be the same.”

Up in the courtroom, I found my lawyer waiting. My cousin Mlungisi was there, too, in the gallery, ready to post my bail if things went my way.

The bailiff read out my case number, and the judge looked up at me. “How are you?” he said.

I broke down. I’d been putting on this tough-guy facade for nearly a week, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.

“I-I’m not fine, Your Honor. I’m not fine.” He looked confused. “What?!”

I said, “I’m not fine, sir. I’m really suffering.” “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because you asked how I was.” “Who asked you?”

“You did. You just asked me.”

“I didn’t say, ‘How are you?’ I said, ‘Who are you?’ Why would I waste time asking ‘How are you?’ ! This is jail. I know everyone is suffering down there. If I asked everyone ‘How are you?’ we’d be here all day. I said, ‘Who are you?’ State your name for the record.”

“Trevor Noah.”

“Okay. Now we can carry on.”

The whole courtroom started laughing, so then I started laughing, too. But now I was even more petrified because I didn’t want the judge to think I wasn’t taking him seriously because I was laughing.

It turned out that I needn’t have been worried. Everything that happened next took only a few minutes. My lawyer had talked to the prosecutor and everything

had been arranged beforehand. He presented my case. I had no priors. I wasn’t dangerous. There were no objections from the opposing side. The judge assigned my trial date and set my bail, and I was free to go.

I walked out of court and the light of day hit my face and I said, “Sweet Jesus, I am never going back there again.” It had been only a week, in a cell that wasn’t terribly uncomfortable with food that wasn’t half bad, but a week in jail is a long, long time. A week without shoelaces is a long, long time. A week with no clocks, with no sun, can feel like an eternity. The thought of anything worse, the thought of doing real time in a real prison, I couldn’t even imagine.

I drove with Mlungisi to his place, took a shower, and slept there. The next day he dropped me back at my mom’s house. I strolled up the driveway acting real casual. My plan was to say I’d been crashing with Mlungisi for a few days. I walked into the house like nothing had happened. “Hey, Mom! What’s up?” Mom didn’t say anything, didn’t ask me any questions. I was like, Okay. Cool. We’re good.

I stayed for most of the day. Later in the afternoon we were sitting at the kitchen table, talking. I was telling all these stories, going on about everything Mlungisi and I had been up to that week, and I caught my mom giving me this look, slowly shaking her head. It was a different look than I had ever seen her give before. It wasn’t “One day, I’m going to catch you.” It wasn’t anger or disapproval. It was disappointment. She was hurt.

“What?” I said. “What is it?”

She said, “Boy, who do you think paid your bail? Hmm? Who do you think paid your lawyer? Do you think I’m an idiot? Did you think no one would tell me?”

The truth came spilling out. Of course she’d known: the car. It had been missing the whole time. I’d been so wrapped up in dealing with jail and covering my tracks I’d forgotten that the proof of my crime was right there in the yard, the red Mazda missing from the driveway. And of course when I called my friend and he’d asked his dad for the money for the lawyer, the dad had pressed him on what the money was for and, being a parent himself, had called my mother immediately. She’d given my friend the money to pay the lawyer. She’d given my cousin the money to pay my bail. I’d spent the whole week in jail thinking I was so slick. But she’d known everything the whole time.

“I know you see me as some crazy old bitch nagging at you,” she said, “but you forget the reason I ride you so hard and give you so much shit is because I love you. Everything I have ever done I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”

My favorite thing to eat as a kid, and still my favorite dessert of all time, was custard and jelly, what Americans would call Jell-O. One Saturday my mom was planning for a big family celebration and she made a huge bowl of custard and jelly and put it in the fridge. It had every flavor: red, green, and yellow. I couldn’t resist it. That whole day, every time I walked past the fridge I’d pop my head in with a spoon and sneak a bite. This was a giant bowl, meant to last for a week for the whole family. I finished it in one day by myself.

That night I went to bed and I got absolutely butchered by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes love to feast on me, and when I was a kid it was bad. They would destroy me at night. I would wake up covered with bites and feel ill to my stomach and itchy all over. Which was exactly what happened this particular Sunday morning. Covered with mosquito bites, my stomach bloated with custard and jelly, I could barely get out of bed. I felt like I was going to vomit. Then my mom walked in.

“Get dressed,” she said. “We’re going to church.” “I don’t feel well.”

“That’s why we’re going to church. That’s where Jesus is going to heal you.” “Eh, I’m not sure that’s how it works.”

My mom and I had different ideas about how Jesus worked. She believed that you pray to Jesus and then Jesus pitches up and does the thing that you need. My views on Jesus were more reality-based.

“Why don’t I take medicine,” I said, “and then pray to Jesus to thank him for giving us the doctors who invented medicine, because medicine is what makes you feel better, not Jesus.”

“You don’t need medicine if you have Jesus. Jesus will heal you. Pray to Jesus.”

“But is medicine not a blessing from Jesus? And if Jesus gives us medicine and we do not take the medicine, are we not denying the grace that he has given us?”

Like all of our debates about Jesus, this conversation went nowhere.

“Trevor,” she said, “if you don’t go to church you’re going to get worse. You’re lucky you got sick on Sunday, because now we’re going to church and you can pray to Jesus and Jesus is going to heal you.”

“That sounds nice, but why don’t I just stay home?” “No. Get dressed. We’re going to church.”


Once I had my hair cornrowed for the matric dance, I started getting attention from girls for the first time. I actually went on dates. At times I thought that it was because I looked better. At other times I thought it was because girls liked the fact that I was going through as much pain as they did to look good. Either way, once I found success, I wasn’t going to mess with the formula. I kept going back to the salon every week, spending hours at a time getting my hair straightened and cornrowed. My mom would just roll her eyes. “I could never date a man who spends more time on his hair than I do,” she’d say.

Monday through Saturday my mom worked in her office and puttered around her garden dressed like a homeless person. Then Sunday morning for church she’d do her hair and put on a nice dress and some high heels and she looked like a million bucks. Once she was all done up, she couldn’t resist teasing me, throwing little verbal jabs the way we’d always do with each other.

“Now who’s the best-looking person in the family, eh? I hope you enjoyed your week of being the pretty one, ’cause the queen is back, baby. You spent four hours at the salon to look like that. I just took a shower.”

She was just having fun with me; no son wants to talk about how hot his mom is. Because, truth be told, she was beautiful. Beautiful on the outside, beautiful on the inside. She had a self-confidence about her that I never possessed. Even when she was working in the garden, dressed in overalls and covered in mud, you could see how attractive she was.

I can only assume that my mother broke more than a few hearts in her day, but from the time I was born, there were only two men in her life, my father and my stepfather. Right around the corner from my father’s house in Yeoville, there was a garage called Mighty Mechanics. Our Volkswagen was always breaking down, and my mom would take it there to get it repaired. We met this really cool guy there, Abel, one of the auto mechanics. I’d see him when we went to fetch the car. The car broke down a lot, so we were there a lot. Eventually it felt like we were there even when there was nothing wrong with the vehicle. I was six, maybe seven. I didn’t understand everything that was happening. I just knew that suddenly this guy was around. He was tall, lanky and lean but strong. He had these long arms and big hands. He could lift car engines and gearboxes. He was handsome, but he wasn’t good-looking. My mom liked that about him; she used to say there’s a type of ugly that women find attractive. She called him Abie. He called her Mbuyi, short for Nombuyiselo.

I liked him, too. Abie was charming and hilarious and had an easy, gracious smile. He loved helping people, too, especially anyone in distress. If someone’s car broke down on the freeway, he pulled over to see what he could do. If someone yelled “Stop, thief!” he was the guy who gave chase. The old lady next door needed help moving boxes? He’s that guy. He liked to be liked by the world, which made his abuse even harder to deal with. Because if you think someone is a monster and the whole world says he’s a saint, you begin to think that you’re the bad person. It must be my fault this is happening is the only conclusion you can draw, because why are you the only one receiving his wrath?

Abel was always cool with me. He wasn’t trying to be my dad, and my dad was still in my life, so I wasn’t looking for anyone to replace him. That’s mom’s cool friend is how I thought of him. He started coming out to stay with us in Eden Park. Some nights he’d want us to crash with him at his converted garage flat in Orange Grove, which we did. Then I burned down the white people’s house, and that was the end of that. From then on we lived together in Eden Park.

One night my mom and I were at a prayer meeting and she took me aside.

“Hey,” she said. “I want to tell you something. Abel and I are going to get married.”

Instinctively, without even thinking, I said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I wasn’t upset or anything. I just had a sense about the guy, an intuition. I’d felt it even before the mulberry tree. That night hadn’t changed my feelings toward Abel; it had only shown me, in flesh and blood, what he was capable of.

“I understand that it’s hard,” she said. “I understand that you don’t want a new dad.”

“No,” I said. “It’s not that. I like Abel. I like him a lot. But you shouldn’t marry him.” I didn’t know the word “sinister” then, but if I had I probably would have used it. “There’s just something not right about him. I don’t trust him. I don’t think he’s a good person.”

I’d always been fine with my mom dating this guy, but I’d never considered the possibility of him becoming a permanent addition to our family. I enjoyed being with Abel the same way I enjoyed playing with a tiger cub the first time I went to a tiger sanctuary: I liked it, I had fun with it, but I never thought about bringing it home.

If there was any doubt about Abel, the truth was right there in front of us all along, in his name. He was Abel, the good brother, the good son, a name straight out of the Bible. And he lived up to it as well. He was the firstborn, dutiful, took care of his mother, took care of his siblings. He was the pride of his family.

But Abel was his English name. His Tsonga name was Ngisaveni. It means “Be afraid.”

Mom and Abel got married. There was no ceremony, no exchange of rings. They went and signed the papers and that was it. A year or so later, my baby brother, Andrew, was born. I only vaguely remember my mom being gone for a few days, and when she got back there was now this thing in the house that cried and shat and got fed, but when you’re nine years older than your sibling, their arrival doesn’t change much for you. I wasn’t changing diapers; I was out playing arcade games at the shop, running around the neighborhood.

The main thing that marked Andrew’s birth for me was our first trip to meet Abel’s family during the Christmas holidays. They lived in Tzaneen, a town in Gazankulu, what had been the Tsonga homeland under apartheid. Tzaneen has a tropical climate, hot and humid. The white farms nearby grow some of the most amazing fruit—mangoes, lychees, the most beautiful bananas you’ve ever seen in your life. That’s where all the fruit we export to Europe comes from. But on the black land twenty minutes down the road, the soil has been decimated by years of overfarming and overgrazing. Abel’s mother and his sisters were all traditional, stay-at-home moms, and Abel and his younger brother, who was a policeman, supported the family. They were all very kind and generous and accepted us as part of the family right away.

Tsonga culture, I learned, is extremely patriarchal. We’re talking about a world where women must bow when they greet a man. Men and women have limited social interactions. The men kill the animals, and the women cook the food. Men are not even allowed in the kitchen. As a nine-year-old boy, I thought this was fantastic. I wasn’t allowed to do anything. At home my mom was forever making me do chores—wash the dishes, sweep the house—but when she tried to do that in Tzaneen, the women wouldn’t allow it.

“Trevor, make your bed,” my mom would say.

“No, no, no, no,” Abel’s mother would protest. “Trevor must go outside and play.”

I was made to run off and have fun while my girl step-cousins had to clean the house and help the women cook. I was in heaven.

My mother loathed every moment of being there. For Abel, a firstborn son who was bringing home his own firstborn son, this trip was a huge deal. In the homelands, the firstborn son almost becomes the father/husband by default because the dad is off working in the city. The firstborn son is the man of the house. He raises his siblings. His mom treats him with a certain level of respect as the dad’s surrogate. Since this was Abel’s big homecoming with Andrew, he expected my mother to play her traditional role, too. But she refused.

The women in Tzaneen had a multitude of jobs during the day. They prepared breakfast, prepared tea, prepared lunch, did the washing and the cleaning. The men had been working all year in the city to support the family, so this was their vacation, more or less. They were at leisure, waited on by the women. They might slaughter a goat or something, do whatever manly tasks needed to be done, but then they would go to an area that was only for men and hang out and drink while the women cooked and cleaned. But my mom had been working in the city all year, too, and Patricia Noah didn’t stay in anyone’s kitchen. She was a free-roaming spirit. She insisted on walking to the village, going where the men hung out, talking to the men as equals.

The whole tradition of women bowing to the men, my mom found that absurd. But she didn’t refuse to do it. She overdid it. She made a mockery of it. The other women would bow before men with this polite little curtsy. My mom would go down and cower, groveling in the dirt like she was worshipping a deity, and she’d stay down there for a long time, like a really long time, long enough to make everyone very uncomfortable. That was my mom. Don’t fight the system. Mock the system. To Abel, it looked like his wife didn’t respect him. Every other man had some docile girl from the village, and here he’d come with this modern woman, a Xhosa woman no less, a culture whose women were thought of as particularly loudmouthed and promiscuous. The two of them fought and bickered the whole time, and after that first trip my mother refused to go back.

Up to that point I’d lived my whole life in a world run by women, but after my mom and Abel were married, and especially after Andrew was born, I watched him try to assert himself and impose his ideas of what he thought his family should be. One thing that became clear early on was that those ideas did not include me. I was a reminder that my mom had lived a life before him. I didn’t even share his color. His family was him, my mom, and the new baby. My family was my mom and me. I actually appreciated that about him. Sometimes he was my buddy, sometimes not, but he never pretended our relationship was anything other than what it was. We’d joke around and laugh together. We’d watch TV together. He’d slip me pocket money now and again after my mother said I’d had enough. But he never gave me a birthday present or a Christmas present. He never gave me the affection of a father. I was never his son.

Abel’s presence in the house brought with it new rules. One of the first things he did was kick Fufi and Panther out of the house.

“No dogs in the house.”

“But we’ve always had the dogs in the house.”

“Not anymore. In an African home, dogs sleep outside. People sleep inside.”

Putting the dogs in the yard was Abel’s way of saying, “We’re going to do things around here the way they’re supposed to be done.” When they were just dating, my mother was still the free spirit, doing what she wanted, going where she wanted. Slowly, those things got reined in. I could feel that he was trying to rein in our independence. He even got upset about church. “You cannot be at church the whole day,” he’d say. “My wife is gone all day, and what will people say? ‘Why is his wife not around? Where is she? Who goes to church for the whole day?’ No, no, no. This brings disrespect to me.”

He tried to stop her from spending so much time at church, and one of the most effective tools he used was to stop fixing my mother’s car. It would break down, and he’d purposefully let it sit. My mom couldn’t afford another car, and she couldn’t get the car fixed somewhere else. You’re married to a mechanic and you’re going to get your car fixed by another mechanic? That’s worse than cheating. So Abel became our only transport, and he would refuse to take us places. Ever defiant, my mother would take minibuses to get to church.

Losing the car also meant losing access to my dad. We had to ask Abel for rides into town, and he didn’t like what they were for. It was an insult to his manhood.

“We need to go to Yeoville.” “Why are you going to Yeoville?” “To see Trevor’s dad.”

“What? No, no. How can I take my wife and her child and drop you off there? You’re insulting me. What do I tell my friends? What do I tell my family? My wife is at another man’s house? The man who made that child with her? No, no, no.”

I saw my father less and less. Not long after, he moved down to Cape Town.

Abel wanted a traditional marriage with a traditional wife. For a long time I wondered why he ever married a woman like my mom in the first place, as she was the opposite of that in every way. If he wanted a woman to bow to him, there were plenty of girls back in Tzaneen being raised solely for that purpose. The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. “He’s like an exotic bird collector,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”

When we first met Abel, he smoked a lot of weed. He drank, too, but it was mostly weed. Looking back, I almost miss his pothead days because the weed mellowed him out. He’d smoke, chill, watch TV, and fall asleep. I think subconsciously it was something he knew he needed to do to take the edge off his anger. He stopped smoking after he and my mom got married. She made him stop for religious reasons—the body is a temple and so on. But what none of us saw coming was that when he stopped smoking weed he just replaced it with alcohol. He started drinking more and more. He never came home from work sober. An average day

was a six-pack of beer after work. Weeknights he’d have a buzz on. Some Fridays and Saturdays he just didn’t come home.

When Abel drank, his eyes would go red, bloodshot. That was the clue I learned to read. I always thought of Abel as a cobra: calm, perfectly still, then explosive. There was no ranting and raving, no clenched fists. He’d be very quiet, and then out of nowhere the violence would come. The eyes were my only clue to stay away. His eyes were everything. They were the eyes of the Devil.

Late one night we woke up to a house filled with smoke. Abel hadn’t come home by the time we’d gone to bed, and I’d fallen asleep in my mother’s room with her and Andrew, who was still a baby. I jerked awake to her shaking me and screaming. “Trevor! Trevor!” There was smoke everywhere. We thought the house was burning down.

My mom ran down the hallway to the kitchen, where she discovered the kitchen on fire. Abel had driven home drunk, blind drunk, drunker than we’d ever seen him before. He’d been hungry, tried to heat up some food on the stove, and passed out on the couch while it was cooking. The pot had burned itself out and burned up the kitchen wall behind the stove, and smoke was billowing everywhere. She turned off the stove and opened the doors and the windows to try to air the place out. Then she went over to the couch and woke him up and started berating him for nearly burning the house down. He was too drunk to care.

She came back into the bedroom, picked up the phone, and called my grandmother. She started going on and on about Abel and his drinking. “This man, he’s going to kill us one day. He almost burnt the house down…”

Abel walked into the bedroom, very calm, very quiet. His eyes were blood red, his eyelids heavy. He put his finger on the cradle and hung up the call. My mom lost it.

“How dare you! Don’t you hang up my phone call! What do you think you’re doing?!”

“You don’t tell people what’s happening in this house,” he said.

“Oh, please! You’re worried about what the world is thinking? Worry about this world! Worry about what your family is thinking!”

Abel towered over my mother. He didn’t raise his voice, didn’t get angry. “Mbuyi,” he said softly, “you don’t respect me.”

“Respect?! You almost burned down our house. Respect? Oh, please! Earn your respect! You want me to respect you as a man, then act like a man! Drinking your money in the streets, and where are your child’s diapers?! Respect?! Earn your respect—”


“You’re not a man; you’re a child—”


“I can’t have a child for a husband—” “Mbuyi—”

“I’ve got my own children to raise—” “Mbuyi, shut up—”

“A man who comes home drunk—” “Mbuyi, shut up—”

“And burns down the house with his children—” “Mbuyi, shut up—”

“And you call yourself a father—”

Then out of nowhere, like a clap of thunder when there were no clouds, crack!, he smacked her across the face. She ricocheted off the wall and collapsed like a ton of bricks. I’d never seen anything like it. She went down and stayed down for a good thirty seconds. Andrew started screaming. I don’t remember going to pick him up, but I clearly remember holding him at some point. My mom pulled herself up and struggled back to her feet and launched right back into him. She’d clearly been knocked for a loop, but she was trying to act more with-it than she was. I could see the disbelief in her face. This had never happened to her before in her life. She got right back in his face and started shouting at him.

“Did you just hit me?”

The whole time, in my head, I kept thinking the same thing Abel was saying.

Shut up, Mom. Shut up. You’re going to make it worse. Because I knew, as the receiver of many beatings, the one thing that doesn’t help is talking back. But she wouldn’t stay quiet.

“Did you just hit me?” “Mbuyi, I told you—”

“No man has ever! Don’t think you can control me when you can’t even control—”

Crack! He hit her again. She stumbled back but this time didn’t fall. She scrambled, grabbed me, and grabbed Andrew.

“Let’s go. We’re leaving.”

We ran out of the house and up the road. It was the dead of night, cold outside. I was wearing nothing but a T-shirt and sweatpants. We walked to the Eden Park police station, over a kilometer away. My mom marched us in, and there were two cops on duty at the front desk.

“I’m here to lay a charge,” she said.

“What are you here to lay a charge about?”

“I’m here to lay a charge against the man who hit me.”

To this day I’ll never forget the patronizing, condescending way they spoke to her.

“Calm down, lady. Calm down. Who hit you?” “My husband.”

“Your husband? What did you do? Did you make him angry?” “Did I…what? No. He hit me. I’m here to lay a charge against—”

“No, no. Ma’am. Why do you wanna make a case, eh? You sure you want to do this? Go home and talk to your husband. You do know once you lay charges you can’t take them back? He’ll have a criminal record. His life will never be the same. Do you really want your husband going to jail?”

My mom kept insisting that they take a statement and open a case, and they actually refused—they refused to write up a charge sheet.

“This is a family thing,” they said. “You don’t want to involve the police. Maybe you want to think it over and come back in the morning.”

Mom started yelling at them, demanding to see the station commander, and right then Abel walked into the station. He’d driven down. He’d sobered up a bit, but he was still drunk, driving into a police station. That didn’t matter. He walked over to the cops, and the station turned into a boys’ club. Like they were a bunch of old pals.

“Hey, guys,” he said. “You know how it is. You know how women can be. I just got a little angry, that’s all.”

“It’s okay, man. We know. It happens. Don’t worry.”

I had never seen anything like it. I was nine years old, and I still thought of the police as the good guys. You get in trouble, you call the police, and those flashing red-and-blue lights are going to come and save you. But I remember standing there watching my mom, flabbergasted, horrified that these cops wouldn’t help her. That’s when I realized the police were not who I thought they were. They were men first, and police second.

We left the station. My mother took me and Andrew, and we went out to stay with my grandmother in Soweto for a while. A few weeks later, Abel drove over and apologized. Abel was always sincere and heartfelt with his apologies: He didn’t mean it. He knows he was wrong. He’ll never do it again. My grandmother convinced my mom that she should give Abel a second chance. Her argument was basically, “All men do it.” My grandfather, Temperance, had hit her. Leaving Abel was no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again, and at least Abel was willing to apologize. So my mom decided to give him another chance. We drove back to

Eden Park together, and for years, nothing—for years Abel didn’t lay a finger on her. Or me. Everything went back to the way it was.

Abel was an amazing mechanic, probably one of the best around at the time. He’d been to technical college, graduated first in his class. He’d had job offers from BMW and Mercedes. His business thrived on referrals. People would bring their cars from all over the city for him to fix because he could work miracles on them. My mom truly believed in him. She thought she could raise him up, help him make good on his potential, not merely as a mechanic but as the owner of his own workshop.

As headstrong and independent as my mom is, she remains the woman who gives back. She gives and gives and gives; that is her nature. She refused to be subservient to Abel at home, but she did want him to succeed as a man. If she could make their marriage a true marriage of equals, she was willing to pour herself into it completely, the same way she poured herself into her children. At some point, Abel’s boss decided to sell Mighty Mechanics and retire. My mom had some money saved, and she helped Abel buy it. They moved the workshop from Yeoville to the industrial area of Wynberg, just west of Alex, and Mighty Mechanics became the new family business.

When you first go into business there are so many things nobody tells you. That’s especially true when you’re two young black people, a secretary and a mechanic, coming out of a time when blacks had never been allowed to own businesses at all. One of the things nobody tells you is that when you buy a business you buy its debt. After my mom and Abel opened up the books on Mighty Mechanics and came to a full realization of what they’d bought, they saw how much trouble the company was already in.

The garage gradually took over our lives. I’d get out of school and walk the five kilometers from Maryvale to the workshop. I’d sit for hours and try to do my homework with the machines and repairs going on around me. Inevitably Abel would get behind schedule on a car, and since he was our ride, we’d have to wait for him to finish before we could go home. It started out as “We’re running late. Go nap in a car, and we’ll tell you when we’re leaving.” I’d crawl in the backseat of some sedan, they’d wake me up at midnight, and we’d drive all the way back out to Eden Park and crash. Then pretty soon it was “We’re running late. Go sleep in a car, and we’ll wake you for school in the morning.” We started sleeping at the garage. At first it was one or two nights a week, then three or four. Then my mom sold the house and put that money into the business as well. She went all in. She gave up everything for him.

From that point on we lived in the garage. It was a warehouse, basically, and not the fancy, romantic sort of warehouse hipsters might one day turn into lofts. No, no. It was a cold, empty space. Gray concrete floors stained with oil and grease, old junk cars and car parts everywhere. Near the front, next to the roller door that opened onto the street, there was a tiny office built out of drywall for doing paperwork and such. In the back was a kitchenette, just a sink, a portable hot plate, and some cabinets. To bathe, there was only an open wash basin, like a janitor’s sink, with a showerhead rigged up above.

Abel and my mom slept with Andrew in the office on a thin mattress they’d roll out on the floor. I slept in the cars. I got really good at sleeping in cars. I know all the best cars to sleep in. The worst were the cheap ones, Volkswagens, low-end Japanese sedans. The seats barely reclined, no headrests, cheap fake-leather upholstery. I’d spend half the night trying not to slide off the seat. I’d wake up with sore knees because I couldn’t stretch out and extend my legs. German cars were wonderful, especially Mercedes. Big, plush leather seats, like couches. They were cold when you first climbed in, but they were well insulated and warmed up nicely. All I needed was my school blazer to curl up under, and I could get really cozy inside a Mercedes. But the best, hands-down, were American cars. I used to pray for a customer to come in with a big Buick with bench seats. If I saw one of those, I’d be like, Yes! It was rare for American cars to come in, but when they did, boy, was I in heaven.

Since Mighty Mechanics was now a family business, and I was family, I also had to work. There was no more time for play. There wasn’t even time for homework. I’d walk home, the school uniform would come off, the overalls would go on, and I’d get under the hood of some sedan. I got to a point where I could do a basic service on a car by myself, and often I did. Abel would say, “That Honda. Minor service.” And I’d get under the hood. Day in and day out. Points, plugs, condensers, oil filters, air filters. Install new seats, change tires, swap headlights, fix taillights. Go to the parts shop, buy the parts, back to the workshop. Eleven years old, and that was my life. I was falling behind in school. I wasn’t getting anything done. My teachers used to come down on me.

“Why aren’t you doing your homework?”

“I can’t do my homework. I have work, at home.”

We worked and worked and worked, but no matter how many hours we put in, the business kept losing money. We lost everything. We couldn’t even afford real food. There was one month I’ll never forget, the worst month of my life. We were so broke that for weeks we ate nothing but bowls of marogo, a kind of wild spinach, cooked with caterpillars. Mopane worms, they’re called. Mopane worms are literally the cheapest thing that only the poorest of poor people eat. I grew up poor, but there’s poor and then there’s “Wait, I’m eating worms.” Mopane worms are the sort of thing where even people in Soweto would be like, “Eh…no.” They’re these spiny, brightly colored caterpillars the size of your finger. They’re nothing like escargot, where someone took a snail and gave it a fancy name. They’re fucking worms. They have black spines that prick the roof of your mouth as you’re eating them. When you bite into a mopane worm, it’s not uncommon for its yellow-green excrement to squirt into your mouth.

For a while I sort of enjoyed the caterpillars. It was like a food adventure, but then over the course of weeks, eating them every day, day after day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I’ll never forget the day I bit a mopane worm in half and that yellow-green ooze came out and I thought, “I’m eating caterpillar shit.” Instantly I wanted to throw up. I snapped and ran to my mom crying. “I don’t want to eat caterpillars anymore!” That night she scraped some money together and bought us chicken. As poor as we’d been in the past, we’d never been without food.

That was the period of my life I hated the most—work all night, sleep in some car, wake up, wash up in a janitor’s sink, brush my teeth in a little metal basin, brush my hair in the rearview mirror of a Toyota, then try to get dressed without getting oil and grease all over my school clothes so the kids at school won’t know I live in a garage. Oh, I hated it so much. I hated cars. I hated sleeping in cars. I hated working on cars. I hated getting my hands dirty. I hated eating worms. I hated it all.

I didn’t hate my mom, or even Abel, funnily enough. Because I saw how hard everyone was working. At first I didn’t know about the mistakes being made on the business level that were making it hard, so it just felt like a hard situation. But eventually I started to see why the business was hemorrhaging money. I used to go around and buy auto parts for Abel, and I learned that he was buying his parts on credit. The vendors were charging him a crazy markup. The debt was crippling the company, and instead of paying off the debt he was drinking what little cash he made. Brilliant mechanic, horrible businessman.

At a certain point, in order to try to save the garage, my mother quit her job at ICI and stepped in to help him run the workshop. She brought her office skills to the garage full-time and started keeping the books, making the schedule, balancing the accounts. And it was going well, until Abel started to feel like she was running his business. People started commenting on it as well. Clients were getting their cars on time, vendors were getting paid on time, and they would say, “Hey, Abie, this workshop is going so much better now that your wife has taken over.” That didn’t help.

We lived in the workshop for close to a year, and then my mom had had enough. She was willing to help him, but not if he was going to drink all the profits. She had always been independent, self-sufficient, but she’d lost that part of herself at the mercy of someone else’s failed dream. At a certain point she said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m out of this. I’m done.” She went out and got a job as a secretary with a real-estate developer, and somehow, between that and borrowing against whatever equity was left in Abel’s workshop, she was able to get us the house in Highlands North. We moved, the workshop was seized by Abel’s creditors, and that was the end of that.

Growing up I suffered no shortage of my mother’s old school, Old Testament discipline. She spared no rod and spoiled no child. With Andrew, she was different. He got spankings at first, but they tapered off and eventually went away. When I asked her why I got beatings and Andrew didn’t, she made a joke about it like she does with everything. “I beat you like that because you could take it,” she said. “I can’t hit your little brother the same way because he’s a skinny little stick. He’ll break. But you, God gave you that ass for whipping.” Even though she was kidding, I could tell that the reason she didn’t beat Andrew was because she’d had a genuine change of heart on the matter. It was a lesson she’d learned, oddly enough, from me.

I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to a different world than the one she grew up in. She bought me the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw that not all families are violent. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict on others.

I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that, she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped, Abel had started.

In all the times I received beatings from my mom, I was never scared of her. I didn’t like it, certainly. When she said, “I hit you out of love,” I didn’t necessarily agree with her thinking. But I understood that it was discipline and it was being done for a purpose. The first time Abel hit me I felt something I had never felt before. I felt terror.

I was in grade six, my last year at Maryvale. We’d moved to Highlands North, and I’d gotten in trouble at school for forging my mom’s signature on some document; there was some activity I didn’t want to participate in, so I’d signed the release in her name to get out of it. The school called my mom, and she asked me about it when I got home that afternoon. I was certain she was going to punish me, but this turned out to be one of those times when she didn’t care. She said I should have just asked her; she would have signed the form anyway. Then Abel, who’d been sitting in the kitchen with us, watching the whole thing, said, “Hey, can I talk to you for a second?” Then he took me into this tiny room, a walk-in pantry off the kitchen, and he closed the door behind us.

He was standing between me and the door, but I didn’t think anything of it. It didn’t occur to me to be scared. Abel had never tried to discipline me before. He’d never even given me a lecture. It was always “Mbuyi, your son did this,” and then my mother would handle it. And this was the middle of the afternoon. He was completely sober, which made what happened next all the more terrifying. “Why did you forge your mother’s signature?” he said.

I started making up some excuse. “Oh, I, uh, forgot to bring the form home—” “Don’t lie to me. Why did you forge your mom’s signature?”

I started stammering out more bullshit, oblivious to what was coming, and then out of nowhere it came.

The first blow hit me in the ribs. My mind flashed: It’s a trap! I’d never been in a fight before, had never learned how to fight, but I had this instinct that told me to get in close. I had seen what those long arms could do. I’d seen him take down my mom, but more important, I’d seen him take down grown men. Abel never hit people with a punch; I never saw him punch another person with a closed fist. But he had this ability to hit a grown man across his face with an open hand and they’d crumple. He was that strong. I looked at his arms and I knew, Don’t be on the other end of those things. I ducked in close and he kept hitting and hitting, but I was in too tight for him to land any solid blows. Then he caught on and he stopped hitting and started trying to grapple and wrestle me. He did this thing where he grabbed the skin on my arms and pinched it between his thumb and forefinger and twisted hard. Jesus, that hurt.

It was the most terrifying moment of my life. I had never been that scared before, ever. Because there was no purpose to it—that’s what made it so terrifying. It wasn’t discipline. Nothing about it was coming from a place of love. It didn’t feel like something that would end with me learning a lesson about forging my mom’s signature. It felt like something that would end when he wanted it to end, when his rage was spent. It felt like there was something inside him that wanted to destroy me.

Abel was much bigger and stronger than me, but being in a confined space was to my advantage because he didn’t have the room to maneuver. As he grappled and punched I somehow managed to twist and wriggle my way around him and slip out the door. I was quick, but Abel was quick as well. He chased me. I ran out of the house and jumped over the gate, and I ran and I ran and I ran. The last time I turned around he was rounding the gate, coming out of the yard after me. Until I turned twenty-five years old, I had a recurring nightmare of the look on his face as he came around that corner.

The moment I saw him I put my head down and ran. I ran like the Devil was chasing me. Abel was bigger and faster, but this was my neighborhood. You couldn’t catch me in my neighborhood. I knew every alley and every street, every wall to climb over, every fence to slip through. I was ducking through traffic, cutting through yards. I have no idea when he gave up because I never looked back. I ran and ran and ran, as far as my legs would carry me. I was in Bramley, three neighborhoods away, before I stopped. I found a hiding place in some bushes and crawled inside and huddled there for what felt like hours.

You don’t have to teach me a lesson twice. From that day until the day I left home, I lived like a mouse in that house. If Abel was in a room, I was out of the room. If he was in one corner, I was in the other corner. If he walked into a room, I would get up and act like I was going to the kitchen, then when I reentered the room, I would make sure I was close to the exit. He could be in the happiest, friendliest mood. Didn’t matter. Never again did I let him come between me and a door. Maybe a couple of times after that I was sloppy and he’d land a punch or a kick before I could get away, but I never trusted him again, not for a moment.

It was different for Andrew. Andrew was Abel’s son, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. Despite being nine years younger than me, Andrew was really the eldest son in that house, Abel’s firstborn, and that accorded him a respect that I and even my mother never enjoyed. And Andrew had nothing but love for that man, despite his shortcomings. Because of that love, I think, out of all of us, Andrew was the only one who wasn’t afraid. He was the lion tamer, only he’d been raised by the lion—he couldn’t love the beast any less despite knowing what it was capable of. For me, the first glint of anger or madness from Abel and I was gone. Andrew would stay and try to talk Abel down. He’d even get between Abel and Mom. I remember one night when Abel threw a bottle of Jack Daniel’s at Andrew’s head. It just missed him and exploded on the wall. Which is to say that Andrew stayed long enough to get the bottle thrown at him. I wouldn’t have stuck around long enough for Abel to get a bead on me.

When Mighty Mechanics went under, Abel had to get his cars out. Someone was taking over the property; there were liens against his assets. It was a mess. That’s when he started running his workshop out of our yard. It’s also when my mother divorced him.

In African culture there’s legal marriage and traditional marriage. Just because you divorce someone legally doesn’t mean they are no longer your spouse. Once Abel’s debts and his terrible business decisions started impacting my mother’s credit and her ability to support her sons, she wanted out. “I don’t have debts,” she said. “I don’t have bad credit. I’m not doing these things with you.” We were still a family and they were still traditionally married, but she divorced him in order to separate their financial affairs. She also took her name back.

Because Abel had started running an unlicensed business in a residential area, one of the neighbors filed a petition to get rid of us. My mom applied for a license to be able to operate a business on the property. The workshop stayed, but Abel kept running it into the ground, drinking his money. At the same time, my mother started moving up at the real-estate company she worked for, taking on more responsibilities and earning a better salary. His workshop became like a side hobby almost. He was supposed to pay for Andrew’s school fees and groceries, but he started falling behind even on that, and soon my mom was paying for everything. She paid the electricity. She paid the mortgage. He literally contributed nothing.

That was the turning point. When my mother started making more money and getting her independence back—that’s when we saw the dragon emerge. The drinking got worse. He grew more and more violent. It wasn’t long after coming for me in the pantry that Abel hit my mom for the second time. I can’t recall the details of it, because now it’s muddled with all the other times that came after it. I do remember that the police were called. They came out to the house this time, but again it was like a boys’ club. “Hey, guys. These women, you know how they are.” No report was made. No charges were filed.

Whenever he’d hit her or come after me, my mom would find me crying afterward and take me aside. She’d give me the same talk every time.

“Pray for Abel,” she’d say. “Because he doesn’t hate us. He hates himself.”

To a kid this makes no sense. “Well, if he hates himself,” I’d say, “why doesn’t he kick himself?”

Abel was one of those drinkers where once he was gone you’d look into his eyes and you didn’t even see the same person. I remember one night he came home fuckdrunk, stumbling through the house. He stumbled into my room, muttering to himself, and I woke up to see him whip out his dick and start pissing on the floor. He thought he was in the bathroom. That’s how drunk he would get— he wouldn’t know which room in the house he was in. There were so many nights he would stumble into my room thinking it was his and kick me out of bed and pass out. I’d yell at him, but it was like talking to a zombie. I’d go sleep on the couch.

He’d get wasted with his crew in the backyard every evening after work, and many nights he’d end up fighting with one of them. Someone would say something Abel didn’t like, and he’d beat the shit out of him. The guy wouldn’t show up for work Tuesday or Wednesday, but then by Thursday he’d be back because he needed the job. Every few weeks it was the same story, like clockwork.

Abel kicked the dogs, too. Fufi, mostly. Panther was smart enough to stay away, but dumb, lovable Fufi was forever trying to be Abel’s friend. She’d cross his path or be in his way when he’d had a few, and he’d give her the boot. After that she’d go and hide somewhere for a while. Fufi getting kicked was always the warning sign that shit was about to go down. The dogs and the workers in the yard often got the first taste of his anger, and that would let the rest of us know to lie low. I’d usually go find Fufi wherever she was hiding and be with her.

The strange thing was that when Fufi got kicked she never yelped or cried. When the vet diagnosed her as deaf, he also found out she had some condition where she didn’t have a fully developed sense of touch. She didn’t feel pain. Which was why she would always start over with Abel like it was a new day. He’d kick her, she’d hide, then she’d be right back the next morning, wagging her tail. “Hey. I’m here. I’ll give you another chance.”

And he always got the second chance. The Abel who was likable and charming never went away. He had a drinking problem, but he was a nice guy. We had a family. Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It’s a strange feeling. You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that’s not how people are.

There was an undercurrent of terror that ran through the house, but the actual beatings themselves were not that frequent. I think if they had been, the situation would have ended sooner. Ironically, the good times in between were what allowed it to drag out and escalate as far as it did. He hit my mom once, then the next time was three years later, and it was just a little bit worse. Then it was two years later, and it was just a little bit worse. Then it was a year later, and it was just a little bit worse. It was sporadic enough to where you’d think it wouldn’t happen again, but it was frequent enough that you never forgot it was possible. There was a rhythm to it. I remember one time, after one terrible incident, nobody spoke to him for over a month. No words, no eye contact, no conversations, nothing. We moved through the house as strangers, at different times. Complete silent treatment. Then one morning you’re in the kitchen and there’s a nod. “Hey.” “Hey.” Then a week later it’s “Did you see the thing on the news?” “Yeah.” Then the next week there’s a joke and a laugh. Slowly, slowly, life goes back to how it was. Six months, a year later, you do it all again.

One afternoon I came home from Sandringham and my mom was very upset and worked up.

“This man is unbelievable,” she said. “What happened?”

“He bought a gun.”

“What? A gun? What do you mean, ‘He bought a gun’?”

A gun was such a ridiculous thing in my world. In my mind, only cops and criminals had guns. Abel had gone out and bought a 9mm Parabellum Smith & Wesson. Sleek and black, menacing. It didn’t look cool like guns in movies. It looked like it killed things.

“Why did he buy a gun?” I asked. “I don’t know.”

She said she’d confronted him about it, and he’d gone off on some nonsense about the world needing to learn to respect him.

“He thinks he’s the policeman of the world,” she said. “And that’s the problem with the world. We have people who cannot police themselves, so they want to police everyone else around them.”

Not long after that, I moved out. The atmosphere had become toxic for me. I’d reached the point where I was as big as Abel. Big enough to punch back. A father does not fear retribution from his son, but I was not his son. He knew that. The analogy my mom used was that there were now two male lions in the house. “Every time he looks at you he sees your father,” she’d say. “You’re a constant reminder of another man. He hates you, and you need to leave. You need to leave before you become like him.”

It was also just time for me to go. Regardless of Abel, our plan had always been for me to move out after school. My mother never wanted me to be like my uncle, one of those men, unemployed and still living at home with his mother. She helped me get my flat, and I moved out. The flat was only ten minutes away from the house, so I was always around to drop in to help with errands or have dinner once in a while. But, most important, whatever was going on with Abel, I didn’t have to be involved.

At some point my mom moved to a separate bedroom in the house, and from then on they were married in name only, not even cohabitating but coexisting. That state of affairs lasted a year, maybe two. Andrew had turned nine, and in my world I was counting down until he turned eighteen, thinking that would finally free my mom from this abusive man. Then one afternoon my mom called and asked me to come by the house. A few hours later, I popped by.

“Trevor,” she said. “I’m pregnant.” “Sorry, what?”

“I’m pregnant.”


Good Lord, I was furious. I was so angry. She herself seemed resolute, as determined as ever, but with an undertone of sadness I had never seen before, like the news had devastated her at first but she’d since reconciled herself to the reality of it.

“How could you let this happen?”

“Abel and I, we made up. I moved back into the bedroom. It was just one night, and then…I became pregnant. I don’t know how.”

She didn’t know. She was forty-four years old. She’d had her tubes tied after Andrew. Even her doctor had said, “This shouldn’t be possible. We don’t know how this happened.”

I was boiling with rage. All we had to do was wait for Andrew to grow up, and it was going to be over, and now it was like she’d re-upped on the contract.

“So you’re going to have this child with this man? You’re going to stay with this man another eighteen years? Are you crazy?”

“God spoke to me, Trevor. He told me, ‘Patricia, I don’t do anything by mistake. There is nothing I give you that you cannot handle.’ I’m pregnant for a reason. I know what kind of kids I can make. I know what kind of sons I can raise. I can raise this child. I will raise this child.”

Nine months later Isaac was born. She called him Isaac because in the Bible Sarah gets pregnant when she’s like a hundred years old and she’s not supposed to be having children and that’s what she names her son.

Isaac’s birth pushed me even further away. I visited less and less. Then I popped by one afternoon and the house was in chaos, police cars out front, the aftermath of another fight.

He’d hit her with a bicycle. Abel had been berating one of his workers in the yard, and my mom had tried to get between them. Abel was furious that she’d contradicted him in front of an employee, so he picked up Andrew’s bike and he beat her with it. Again she called the police, and the cops who showed up this time actually knew Abel. He’d fixed their cars. They were pals. No charges were filed. Nothing happened.

That time I confronted him. I was big enough now. “You can’t keep doing this,” I said. “This is not right.”

He was apologetic. He always was. He didn’t puff out his chest and get defensive or anything like that.

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. I don’t like doing these things, but you know how your mom is. She can talk a lot and she doesn’t listen. I feel like your mom doesn’t respect me sometimes. She came and disrespected me in front of my workers. I can’t have these other men looking at me like I don’t know how to control my wife.”

After the bicycle, my mom hired contractors she knew through the real-estate business to build her a separate house in the backyard, like a little servants’ quarters, and she moved in there with Isaac.

“This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen,” I told her.

“This is all I can do,” she said. “The police won’t help me. The government won’t protect me. Only my God can protect me. But what I can do is use against him the one thing that he cherishes, and that is his pride. By me living outside in a shack, everyone is going to ask him, ‘Why does your wife live in a shack outside your house?’ He’s going to have to answer that question, and no matter what he says, everyone will know that something is wrong with him. He loves to live for the world. Let the world see him for who he is. He’s a saint in the streets. He’s a devil in this house. Let him be seen for who he is.”

When my mom had decided to keep Isaac, I was so close to writing her off. I couldn’t stand the pain anymore. But seeing her hit with a bicycle, living like a prisoner in her own backyard, that was the final straw for me. I was a broken person. I was done.

“This thing?” I told her. “This dysfunctional thing? I won’t be a part of it. I can’t live this life with you. I refuse. You’ve made your decision. Good luck with your life. I’m going to live mine.”

She understood. She didn’t feel betrayed or abandoned at all.

“Honey, I know what you’re going through,” she said. “At one point, I had to disown my family to go off and live my own life, too. I understand why you need to do the same.”

So I did. I walked out. I didn’t call. I didn’t visit. Isaac came and I went, and for the life of me I could not understand why she wouldn’t do the same: leave. Just leave. Just fucking leave.

I didn’t understand what she was going through. I didn’t understand domestic violence. I didn’t understand how adult relationships worked; I’d never even had a girlfriend. I didn’t understand how she could have sex with a man she hated and feared. I didn’t know how easily sex and hatred and fear can intertwine.

I was angry with my mom. I hated him, but I blamed her. I saw Abel as a choice she’d made, a choice she was continuing to make. My whole life, telling me stories about growing up in the homelands, being abandoned by her parents, she had always said, “You cannot blame anyone else for what you do. You cannot blame your past for who you are. You are responsible for you. You make your own choices.”

She never let me see us as victims. We were victims, me and my mom, Andrew and Isaac. Victims of apartheid. Victims of abuse. But I was never allowed to think that way, and I didn’t see her life that way. Cutting my father out of our lives to pacify Abel, that was her choice. Supporting Abel’s workshop was her choice. Isaac was her choice. She had the money, not him. She wasn’t dependent. So in my mind, she was the one making the decision.

It is so easy, from the outside, to put the blame on the woman and say, “You just need to leave.” It’s not like my home was the only home where there was domestic abuse. It’s what I grew up around. I saw it in the streets of Soweto, on TV, in movies. Where does a woman go in a society where that is the norm? When the police won’t help her? When her own family won’t help her? Where does a woman go when she leaves one man who hits her and is just as likely to wind up with another man who hits her, maybe even worse than the first? Where does a woman go when she’s single with three kids and she lives in a society that makes her a pariah for being a manless woman? Where she’s seen as a whore for doing that? Where does she go? What does she do?

But I didn’t comprehend any of that at the time. I was a boy with a boy’s understanding of things. I distinctly remember the last time we argued about it, too. It was sometime after the bicycle, or when she was moving into her shack in the backyard. I was going off, begging her for the thousandth time.

“Why? Why don’t you just leave?”

She shook her head. “Oh, baby. No, no, no. I can’t leave.” “Why not?”

“Because if I leave he’ll kill us.”

She wasn’t being dramatic. She didn’t raise her voice. She said it totally calm and matter-of-fact, and I never asked her that question again.

Eventually she did leave. What prompted her to leave, what the final breaking point was, I have no idea. I was gone. I was off becoming a comedian, touring the country, playing shows in England, hosting radio shows, hosting television shows. I’d moved in with my cousin Mlungisi and made my own life separate from hers. I couldn’t invest myself anymore, because it would have broken me into too many pieces. But one day she bought another house in Highlands North, met someone new, and moved on with her life. Andrew and Isaac still saw their dad, who, by that point, was just existing in the world, still going through the same cycle of drinking and fighting, still living in a house paid for by his ex-wife.

Years passed. Life carried on.

Then one morning I was in bed around ten a.m. and my phone rang. It was on a Sunday. I know it was on a Sunday because everyone else in the family had gone to church and I, quite happily, had not. The days of endlessly schlepping back and forth to church were no longer my problem, and I was lazily sleeping in. The irony of my life is that whenever church is involved is when shit goes wrong, like getting kidnapped by violent minibus drivers. I’d always teased my mom about that, too. “This church thing of yours, all this Jesus, what good has come of it?”

I looked over at my phone. It was flashing my mom’s number, but when I answered, it was Andrew on the other end. He sounded perfectly calm.

“Hey, Trevor, it’s Andrew.” “Hey.”

“How are you?” “Good. What’s up?” “Are you busy?”

“I’m sort of sleeping. Why?” “Mom’s been shot.”

Okay, so there were two strange things about the call. First, why would he ask me if I was busy? Let’s start there. When your mom’s been shot, the first line out of your mouth should be “Mom’s been shot.” Not “How are you?” Not “Are you busy?” That confused me. The second weird thing was when he said, “Mom’s been shot,” I didn’t ask, “Who shot her?” I didn’t have to. He said, “Mom’s been shot,” and my mind automatically filled in the rest: “Abel shot mom.”

“Where are you now?” I said. “We’re at Linksfield Hospital.” “Okay, I’m on my way.”

I jumped out of bed, ran down the corridor, and banged on Mlungisi’s door. “Dude, my mom’s been shot! She’s in the hospital.” He jumped out of bed, too, and we got in the car and raced to the hospital, which luckily was only fifteen minutes away.

At that point, I was upset but not terrified. Andrew had been so calm on the phone, no crying, no panic in his voice, so I was thinking, She must be okay. It must not be that bad. I called him back from the car to find out more.

“Andrew, what happened?”

“We were on our way home from church,” he said, again totally calm. “And Dad was waiting for us at the house, and he got out of his car and started shooting.”

“But where? Where did he shoot her?” “He shot her in her leg.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, relieved.

“And then he shot her in the head.”

When he said that, my body just let go. I remember the exact traffic light I was at. For a moment there was a complete vacuum of sound, and then I cried tears like I had never cried before. I collapsed in heaving sobs and moans. I cried as if every other thing I’d cried for in my life had been a waste of crying. I cried so hard that if my present crying self could go back in time and see my other crying selves, it would slap them and say, “That shit’s not worth crying for.” My cry was not a cry of sadness. It was not catharsis. It wasn’t me feeling sorry for myself. It was an expression of raw pain that came from an inability of my body to express that pain in any other way, shape, or form. She was my mom. She was my teammate. It had always been me and her together, me and her against the world. When Andrew said, “shot her in the head,” I broke in two.

The light changed. I couldn’t even see the road, but I drove through the tears, thinking, Just get there, just get there, just get there. We pulled up to the hospital, and I jumped out of the car. There was an outdoor sitting area by the entrance to the emergency room. Andrew was standing there waiting for me, alone, his clothes smeared with blood. He still looked perfectly calm, completely stoic. Then the moment he looked up and saw me he broke down and started bawling. It was like he’d been holding it together the whole morning and then everything broke loose at once and he lost it. I ran to him and hugged him and he cried and cried. His cry was different from mine, though. My cry was one of pain and anger. His cry was one of helplessness.

I turned and ran into the emergency room. My mom was there in triage on a gurney. The doctors were stabilizing her. Her whole body was soaked in blood. There was a hole in her face, a gaping wound above her lip, part of her nose gone.

She was as calm and serene as I’d ever seen her. She could still open one eye, and she turned and looked up at me and saw the look of horror on my face.

“It’s okay, baby,” she whispered, barely able to speak with the blood in her throat.

“It’s not okay.”

“No, no, I’m okay, I’m okay. Where’s Andrew? Where’s your brother?” “He’s outside.”

“Go to Andrew.” “But Mom—”

Shh. It’s okay, baby. I’m fine.” “You’re not fine, you’re—”

Shhhhhh. I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. Go to your brother. Your brother needs you.”

The doctors kept working, and there was nothing I could do to help her. I went back outside to be with Andrew. We sat down together, and he told me the story.

They were coming home from church, a big group, my mom and Andrew and Isaac, her new husband and his children and a whole bunch of his extended family, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. They had just pulled into the driveway when Abel pulled up and got out of his car. He had his gun. He looked right at my mother.

“You’ve stolen my life,” he said. “You’ve taken everything away from me. Now I’m going to kill all of you.”

Andrew stepped in front of his father. He stepped right in front of the gun. “Don’t do this, Dad, please. You’re drunk. Just put the gun away.”

Abel looked down at his son.

“No,” he said. “I’m killing everybody, and if you don’t walk away I will shoot you first.”

Andrew stepped aside.

“His eyes were not lying,” he told me. “He had the eyes of the Devil. In that moment I could tell my father was gone.”

For all the pain I felt that day, in hindsight, I have to imagine that Andrew’s pain was far greater than mine. My mom had been shot by a man I despised. If anything, I felt vindicated; I’d been right about Abel all along. I could direct my anger and hatred toward him with no shame or guilt whatsoever. But Andrew’s mother had been shot by Andrew’s father, a father he loved. How does he reconcile his love with that situation? How does he carry on loving both sides? Both sides of himself?

Isaac was only four years old. He didn’t fully comprehend what was happening, and as Andrew stepped aside, Isaac started crying.

“Daddy, what are you doing? Daddy, what are you doing?” “Isaac, go to your brother,” Abel said.

Isaac ran over to Andrew, and Andrew held him. Then Abel raised his gun and he started shooting. My mother jumped in front of the gun to protect everyone, and that’s when she took the first bullet, not in her leg but in her butt cheek. She collapsed, and as she fell to the ground she screamed.


Abel kept shooting and everyone ran. They scattered. My mom was struggling to get back to her feet when Abel walked up and stood over her. He pointed the gun at her head point-blank, execution-style. Then he pulled the trigger. Nothing. The gun misfired. Click! He pulled the trigger again, same thing. Then again and again. Click! Click! Click! Click! Four times he pulled the trigger, and four times the gun misfired. Bullets were popping out of the ejection port, falling out of the gun, falling down on my mom and clattering to the ground.

Abel stopped to see what was wrong with the gun. My mother jumped up in a panic. She shoved him aside, ran for the car, jumped into the driver’s seat.

Andrew ran behind and jumped into the passenger seat next to her. Just as she turned the ignition, Andrew heard one last gunshot, and the windshield went red. Abel had fired from behind the car. The bullet went into the back of her head and exited through the front of her face, and blood sprayed everywhere. Her body slumped over the steering wheel. Andrew, reacting without thinking, pulled my mom to the passenger side, flipped over her, jumped into the driver’s seat, slammed the car into gear, and raced to the hospital in Linksfield.

I asked Andrew what happened to Abel. He didn’t know. I was filled with rage, but there was nothing I could do. I felt completely impotent, but I still felt I had to do something. So I took out my phone and I called him—I called the man who’d just shot my mom, and he actually picked up.


“You killed my mom.” “Yes, I did.”

“You killed my mom!”

“Yes. And if I could find you, I would kill you as well.”

Then he hung up. It was the most chilling moment. It was terrifying. Whatever nerve I’d worked up to call him I immediately lost. To this day I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know what I expected to happen. I was just enraged.

I kept asking Andrew questions, trying to get more details. Then, as we were talking, a nurse came outside looking for me.

“Are you the family?” she asked. “Yes.”

“Sir, there’s a problem. Your mother was speaking a bit at first. She’s stopped now, but from what we’ve gathered she doesn’t have health insurance.”

“What? No, no. That can’t be true. I know my mom has health insurance.”

She didn’t. As it turned out, a few months prior, she’d decided, “This health insurance is a scam. I never get sick. I’m going to cancel it.” So now she had no health insurance.

“We can’t treat your mother here,” the nurse said. “If she doesn’t have insurance we have to send her to a state hospital.”

State hospital?! What—no! You can’t. My mom’s been shot in the head. You’re going to put her back on a gurney? Send her out in an ambulance? She’ll die. You need to treat her right now.”

“Sir, we can’t. We need a form of payment.” “I’m your form of payment. I’ll pay.”

“Yes, people say that, but without a guarantee—” I pulled out my credit card.

“Here,” I said. “Take this. I’ll pay. I’ll pay for everything.” “Sir, hospital can be very expensive.”

“I don’t care.”

“Sir, I don’t think you understand. Hospital can be really expensive.” “Lady, I have money. I’ll pay anything. Just help us.”

“Sir, you don’t understand. We have to do so many tests. One test alone could cost two, three thousand rand.”

“Three thousan—what? Lady, this is my mother’s life we’re talking about. I’ll pay.”

“Sir, you don’t understand. Your mother has been shot. In her brain. She’ll be in ICU. One night in ICU could cost you fifteen, twenty thousand rand.”

“Lady, are you not listening to me? This is my mother’s life. This is her life. Take the money. Take all of it. I don’t care.”

Sir! You don’t understand. I’ve seen this happen. Your mother could be in the ICU for weeks. This could cost you five hundred thousand, six hundred thousand. Maybe even millions. You’ll be in debt for the rest of your life.”

I’m not going to lie to you: I paused. I paused hard. In that moment, what I heard the nurse saying was, “All of your money will be gone,” and then I started to think, Well…what is she, fifty? That’s pretty good, right? She’s lived a good life.

I genuinely did not know what to do. I stared at the nurse as the shock of what she’d said sunk in. My mind raced through a dozen different scenarios. What if I spend that money and then she dies anyway? Do I get a refund? I actually imagined my mother, as frugal as she was, waking up from a coma and saying, “You spent how much? You idiot. You should have saved that money to look after your brothers.” And what about my brothers? They would be my responsibility now. I would have to raise the family, which I couldn’t do if I was millions in debt, and it was always my mother’s solemn vow that raising my brothers was the one thing I would never have to do. Even as my career took off, she’d refused any help I offered. “I don’t want you paying for your mother the same way I had to pay for mine,” she’d say. “I don’t want you raising your brothers the same way Abel had to raise his.”

My mother’s greatest fear was that I would end up paying the black tax, that I would get trapped by the cycle of poverty and violence that came before me. She had always promised me that I would be the one to break that cycle. I would be the one to move forward and not back. And as I looked at that nurse outside the emergency room, I was petrified that the moment I handed her my credit card, the cycle would just continue and I’d get sucked right back in.

People say all the time that they’d do anything for the people they love. But would you really? Would you do anything? Would you give everything? I don’t know that a child knows that kind of selfless love. A mother, yes. A mother will clutch her children and jump from a moving car to keep them from harm. She will do it without thinking. But I don’t think the child knows how to do that, not instinctively. It’s something the child has to learn.

I pressed my credit card into the nurse’s hand.

“Do whatever you have to do. Just please help my mom.”

We spent the rest of the day in limbo, waiting, not knowing, pacing around the hospital, family members stopping by. Several hours later, the doctor finally came out of the emergency room to give us an update.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“Your mother is stable,” he said. “She’s out of surgery.”

“Is she going to be okay?”

He thought for a moment about what he was going to say.

“I don’t like to use this word,” he said, “because I’m a man of science and I don’t believe in it. But what happened to your mother today was a miracle. I never say that, because I hate it when people say it, but I don’t have any other way to explain this.”

The bullet that hit my mother in the butt, he said, was a through-and-through. It went in, came out, and didn’t do any real damage. The other bullet went through the back of her head, entering below the skull at the top of her neck. It missed the spinal cord by a hair, missed the medulla oblongata, and traveled through her head just underneath the brain, missing every major vein, artery, and nerve. With the trajectory the bullet was on, it was headed straight for her left eye socket and would have blown out her eye, but at the last second it slowed down, hit her cheekbone instead, shattered her cheekbone, ricocheted off, and came out through her left nostril. On the gurney in the emergency room, the blood had made the wound look much worse than it was. The bullet took off only a tiny flap of skin on the side of her nostril, and it came out clean, with no bullet fragments left inside. She didn’t even need surgery. They stopped the bleeding, stitched her up in back, stitched her up in front, and let her heal.

“There was nothing we can do, because there’s nothing we need to do,” the doctor said.

My mother was out of the hospital in four days. She was back at work in seven.

The doctors kept her sedated the rest of that day and night to rest. They told all of us to go home. “She’s stable,” they said. “There’s nothing you can do here. Go home and sleep.” So we did.

I went back first thing the next morning to be with my mother in her room and wait for her to wake up. When I walked in she was still asleep. The back of her head was bandaged. She had stitches in her face and gauze covering her nose and her left eye. She looked frail and weak, tired, one of the few times in my life I’d ever seen her look that way.

I sat close by her bed, holding her hand, waiting and watching her breathe, a flood of thoughts going through my mind. I was still afraid I was going to lose her. I was angry at myself for not being there, angry at the police for all the times they didn’t arrest Abel. I told myself I should have killed him years ago, which was ridiculous to think because I’m not capable of killing anyone, but I thought it anyway. I was angry at the world, angry at God. Because all my mom does is pray. If there’s a fan club for Jesus, my mom is definitely in the top 100, and this is what she gets?

After an hour or so of waiting, she opened her unbandaged eye. The second she did, I lost it. I started bawling. She asked for some water and I gave her a cup, and she leaned forward a bit to sip through the straw. I kept bawling and bawling and bawling. I couldn’t control myself.

“Shh,” she said. “Don’t cry, baby. Shhhhh. Don’t cry.” “How can I not cry, Mom? You almost died.”

“No, I wasn’t going to die. I wasn’t going to die. It’s okay. I wasn’t going to die.”

“But I thought you were dead.” I kept bawling and bawling. “I thought I’d lost you.”

“No, baby. Baby, don’t cry. Trevor. Trevor, listen. Listen to me. Listen.” “What?” I said, tears streaming down my face.

“My child, you must look on the bright side.”

What? What are you talking about, ‘the bright side’? Mom, you were shot in the face. There is no bright side.”

“Of course there is. Now you’re officially the best-looking person in the family.”

She broke out in a huge smile and started laughing. Through my tears, I started laughing, too. I was bawling my eyes out and laughing hysterically at the same time. We sat there and she squeezed my hand and we cracked each other up the way we always did, mother and son, laughing together through the pain in an intensive-care recovery room on a bright and sunny and beautiful day.

When my mother was shot, so much happened so quickly. We were only able to piece the whole story together after the fact, as we collected all the different accounts from everyone who was there. Waiting around at the hospital that day, we had so many unanswered questions, like, What happened to Isaac? Where was Isaac? We only found out after we found him and he told us.

When Andrew sped off with my mom, leaving the four-year-old alone on the front lawn, Abel walked over to his youngest, picked him up, put the boy in his car, and drove away. As they drove, Isaac turned to his dad.

“Dad, why did you kill Mom?” he asked, at that point assuming, as we all did, that my mom was dead.

“Because I’m very unhappy,” Abel replied. “Because I’m very sad.” “Yeah, but you shouldn’t kill Mom. Where are we going now?” “I’m going to drop you off at your uncle’s house.”

“And where are you going?” “I’m going to kill myself.” “But don’t kill yourself, Dad.” “No, I’m going to kill myself.”

The uncle Abel was talking about was not a real uncle but a friend. He dropped Isaac off with this friend and then he drove off. He spent that day and went to everyone, relatives and friends, and said his goodbyes. He even told people what he had done. “This is what I’ve done. I’ve killed her, and I’m now on the way to kill myself. Goodbye.” He spent the whole day on this strange farewell tour, until finally one of his cousins called him out.

“You need to man up,” the cousin said. “This is the coward’s way. You need to turn yourself in. If you were man enough to do this, you have to be man enough to face the consequences.”

Abel broke down and handed his gun over to the cousin, the cousin drove him to the police station, and Abel turned himself in.

He spent a couple of weeks in jail, waiting for a bail hearing. We filed a motion opposing bail because he’d shown that he was a threat. Since Andrew and Isaac were still minors, social workers started getting involved. We felt like the case was open-and-shut, but then one day, after a month or so, we got a call that he’d made bail. The great irony was that he got bail because he told the judge that if he was in jail, he couldn’t earn money to support his kids. But he wasn’t supporting his kids—my mom was supporting the kids.

So Abel was out. The case slowly ground its way through the legal system, and everything went against us. Because of my mother’s miraculous recovery, the charge was only attempted murder. And because no domestic violence charges had ever been filed in all the times my mother had called the police to report him, Abel had no criminal record. He got a good lawyer, who continued to lean on the court about the fact that he had children at home who needed him. The case never went to trial. Abel pled guilty to attempted murder. He was given three years’ probation. He didn’t serve a single day in prison. He kept joint custody of his sons. He’s walking around Johannesburg today, completely free. The last I heard he still lives somewhere around Highlands North, not too far from my mom.

The final piece of the story came from my mom, who could only tell us her side after she woke up. She remembered Abel pulling up and pointing the gun at Andrew. She remembered falling to the ground after getting shot in the ass. Then Abel came and stood over her and pointed his gun at her head. She looked up and looked at him straight down the barrel of the gun. Then she started to pray, and that’s when the gun misfired. Then it misfired again. Then it misfired again, and again. She jumped up, shoved him away, and ran for the car. Andrew leapt in beside her and she turned the ignition and then her memory went blank.

To this day, nobody can explain what happened. Even the police didn’t understand. Because it wasn’t like the gun didn’t work. It fired, and then it didn’t fire, and then it fired again for the final shot. Anyone who knows anything about firearms will tell you that a 9mm handgun cannot misfire in the way that gun did. But at the crime scene the police had drawn little chalk circles all over the driveway, all with spent shell casings from the shots Abel fired, and then these four bullets, intact, from when he was standing over my mom—nobody knows why.

My mom’s total hospital bill came to 50,000 rand. I paid it the day we left. For four days we’d been in the hospital, family members visiting, talking and hanging out, laughing and crying. As we packed up her things to leave, I was going on about how insane the whole week had been.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” I told her. “I still can’t believe you didn’t have any health insurance.”

“Oh but I do have insurance,” she said. “You do?”

“Yes. Jesus.” “Jesus?” “Jesus.”

“Jesus is your health insurance?”

“If God is with me, who can be against me?” “Okay, Mom.”

“Trevor, I prayed. I told you I prayed. I don’t pray for nothing.”

“You know,” I said, “for once I cannot argue with you. The gun, the bullets—I can’t explain any of it. So I’ll give you that much.” Then I couldn’t resist teasing her with one last little jab. “But where was your Jesus to pay your hospital bill, hmm? I know for a fact that He didn’t pay that.”

She smiled and said, “You’re right. He didn’t. But He blessed me with the son who did.”

For my mother. My first fan. Thank you for making me a man.


For nurturing my career these past years and steering me down the road that led to this book, I owe many thanks to Norm Aladjem, Derek Van Pelt, Sanaz Yamin, Rachel Rusch, Matt Blake, Jeff Endlich, and Jill Fritzo.

For making this book deal happen and keeping it on track during a very tight and hectic time, I would like to thank Peter McGuigan and his team at Foundry Literary + Media, including Kirsten Neuhaus, Sara DeNobrega, and Claire Harris. Also, many thanks to Tanner Colby for helping me put my story on the page.

For seeing the potential in this book and making it a reality, I would like to thank everyone at Random House and Spiegel & Grau, including my editor Chris Jackson, publishers Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel, Tom Perry, Greg Mollica, Susan Turner, Andrea DeWerd, Leigh Marchant, Barbara Fillon, Dhara Parikh, Rebecca Berlant, Kelly Chian, Nicole Counts, and Gina Centrello.

For bringing this book home to South Africa and making sure it is published with the utmost care, I would like to thank everyone at Pan Macmillan South Africa, including Sean Fraser, Sandile Khumalo, Andrea Nattrass, Rhulani Netshivhera, Sandile Nkosi, Nkateko Traore, Katlego Tapala, Wesley Thompson, and Mia van Heerden.

For reading this manuscript in its early stages and sharing thoughts and ideas to make it the finished product you hold in your hands, I owe my deepest gratitude to Khaya Dlanga, David Kibuuka, Anele Mdoda, Ryan Harduth, Sizwe Dhlomo, and Xolisa Dyeshana.

And, finally, for bringing me into this world and making me the man I am today, I owe the greatest debt, a debt I can never repay, to my mother.


TREVOR NOAH is a comedian from South Africa.​Official TrevorNoah

Twitter: @Trevornoah

Instagram: @trevornoah

DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33