If you haven’t read Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born a Crime,” you’re missing out. The smart, witty comedian who took over Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” has lived a life few Americans his age can imagine.
Noah was born and raised in Soweto, a township of Johannesburg, South Africa, during the era of apartheid. The son of a black mother and white father, he was literally born a crime, since it was illegal for black people and white people to have sex in South Africa at that time. His book is filled with incredible stories of his upbringing, his fiercely determined mother, his experiences in “black church” and “white church,” and harrowing examples of what it meant to live under a blatantly racist system of government.
Some of the stories in his book include his grandmother, who played a big role in helping to raise him. Recently, Noah traveled to Johannesburg and took some time to chat with her and brought his camera crew with him.
“First things first,” Noah said, as he walked up to his grandmother’s house in Soweto. “Whenever you come into an African person’s house, you greet.” Then he called through the doorway, using a Zulu term for grandmother. “Gogo! Gogo! Hello, Gogo!”
She invited Noah and the crew in, and the two sat down to chat. Their conversation veered from her exact age (91 years and 9 months) to Nelson Mandela (“Madiba!”) to the Flying Squads of white police officers who enforced South Africa’s racist laws.
“For young people,” said Noah, “it’s very hard to understand how scary it was to be a black person living in South Africa during that time. But everybody was scared of the police.”
His grandmother said they’d get a knock at the door at 3:00am with police telling them, “Dress up, let’s go!” just like that.
Noah pointed out that some people say since life is hard and some people don’t have jobs in South Africa that it would be better to go back to the way it was, to which his grandmother responded with a quick “No! No thank you. It wouldn’t be better . . . ”
Whistling and shaking her head, she said that back then black people had to work on farms with no pay. Then she explained that if you were picking potatoes and one of the people picking potatoes beside you died of exhaustion, you’d have to dig a hole, bury the deceased, and then keep on picking potatoes.
No, not better.
Gogo tells Noah that he didn’t know about apartheid growing up because he was just a kid. “You were born a crime,” she told him. “How could you fight apartheid?”
“But I told them that I was an apartheid hero, Gogo,” Noah quipped. “I wasn’t?”
She giggled, then talked about how naughty Noah had been as a child. “When you were here, oh Trevor, you gave me a tough time,” she said. When asked why, she answered, “Because you wanted to play in the street! And I knew the Flying Squad was going to take you.”
She also said kids would run away from Noah because they thought he was “white.” They had never seen a white man before—Noah’s mixed skin was the lightest skin they’d ever seen.
“I feel so special now, Gogo,” Noah joked. “To know that there was a time that I was white.” Noah then tried to get his gran to say he was a good-looking kid, to which she whistled and said, “Energetic and really naughty.”
“But mostly good-looking,” prompted Noah.
“Like hell,” she responded. “Those big bumps,” she said, pointing to her own backside, “they know my slippers.”
Looking around his grandmother’s kitchen, it’s clear that she lives a modest life. Some have suggested after seeing the clip that Noah should do more to make life better for his family in South Africa, but he pointed out in his book that his grandmother has refused offers of financial assistance.
She told him in the video, “It’s a pity because I don’t even wish to see where you stay. Flying over the sea, like this? No, not for me.”
When he asked her if she’s ever watched his show, she said the electricity goes out too often. And also that the cable isn’t reliable.
Noah said he must get her a generator, and a fitter for the generator, and something done about the cable for her to watch his show. “I feel like I’ve been tricked into doing a lot of things for you to watch my TV show, Gogo,” he laughed. She laughed along with him.
Watch the segment here:
(P.S. The full episode has more of Noah’s visit to South Africa and is definitely worth watching.)