‘Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood’ by Tevor Noah

born a crime

Being from the UK all I really knew about Trevor Noah was that he was a comedian from South Africa who did some stuff for one of those late night talk shows in the US and then took over it after the main host left (I’m playing a little dumb, I know it was ‘The Daily Show’). All I ever really saw of him was the occasional YouTube clip which I always enjoyed, finding him very funny in an intellectual and progressive way.

I’ll start with my relatively minor disappointment from the book, which in all honesty is probably more my fault that Trevor’s. I was hoping to hear how a (as I found out he was) a poor, ‘coloured’ boy from South Africa became one of the leading late night show hosts in the world. This book doesn’t talk about any of that, in fact it only passingly mentions that he was a comedian right towards the very end. No how he found his way into comedy, no how he found his way across the world from where he started. I started this book expecting a tale of ‘rags to riches’ and that’s where the disappointment ends, because what this book is, and what it more likely sets out to do, is an education about what life really was like in South Africa towards the end and in the aftermath of the apartheid. For clarity, my “disappointment” in this book is drastically overshaddowed by my enjoyment of it, I only give it credence because what I was hoping would be talked about, wasn’t. However, what Trevor delievered instead was a far deeper and compelling education, as I will explain below.

I learned so much in this book that I had never even considered before such as how black, and coloured, South African’s have a completely different perspective on major events such as World War 2, even going as far as ‘Hitler’ being a not so uncommon name in many parts of the country. The part of the book which gave me most pause for thought was a section where Trevor (although he never actually admits to having this belief himself) explains how ‘The Holocaust’ may not be in fact the worst, most inhumane, crime against humanity ever committed. He points out that there have been a myriad of things that have happened not only in South Africa, but throughout the continent before, and possibly even more importantly, since ‘The Holocaust’ which should be considered for that title. The only difference between those atrocities and ‘The Holocaust’ is that the latter is fully documented, that all the facts and figures are known as proof of the evil, whereas the others are only vague numbers at best, therefore far easier to dismiss.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, the book is filled with a variety of funny and clever stories. My particular favourites were the stories about how blind racial prejudice allowed him to get away with shoplifting, and the tales of his DJ and dance crew which included his friend ‘Hitler’. These stories are woven in, out, and through the darker tales, the escalating stories of his violent step-father, and his near miss with actual prison time. In fact it is because of these tales and memories, both good and bad, that this book is so effective in its delivery and education of what life was truly like. Unlike the disconnected ‘real educational’ books, Trevor’s retelling of how he grew up gives all the issues a face and therefore a much greater impact than just the vagueness of other accounts.

Overall I very much enjoyed this book and came out of it feeling like I had a far greater appreciation for what life must have been like for people like Trevor in South Africa at that time. Trevor’s natural charm and charisma which is clearly evident throughout and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject, whether they’ve ever heard of him or not.