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South Africa

The moment I finished reading the last line of the final chapter in Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, it felt like I was left sitting in a cinema after a really good film has played. You know those moments, when the credits are rolling, the lights are slowly coming back up, people are scurrying out to leave, but you can’t move just yet because you’re still thinking about everything you just saw. Only in this case, it’s what was just read. And instead of a cinema, I was in an Upper East Side coffee shop, Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing coming back into ear-shot over the speakers, a woman across from me looking at me with that mix of should-care-but-don’t-want-to-get-involved New York attitude. I realised it’s because I had a couple of tears rolling down my cheek. Tears I didn’t expect to shed reading a book about South Africa’s biggest comic star.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the scene with which Trevor ends the book is one anyone who knows his back-story will familiar with – the story of how his mother was shot by his stepfather, twice. Once in the head. But, if we stay with the film analogy, consider that the trailer stacked with the most dramatic part of the film’s action, intended to hook those with a passing interest. The full story, the way Trevor builds up to this moment through his collection of stories, give that moment its real meaning and significance in the life of The Daily Show host.
Born a Crime is dubbed as a collection of stories about growing up in South Africa on the brink of Apartheid’s end, but it amounts to an autobiography, detailing Trevor’s life as a kid with a with a white Swiss father and black Xhosa mother. His life reflects some of the peculiarities of the country at the time, from living in township to a suburb.
More than that, it essentially is about his mother – the source of his comedy. Trevor’s often said in interviews his mom is the one who gave him his comedic outlook on life, and he explores that in the book, in between moments of great sadness and shame and empathy and, yes, entertainment (Toffee apples and fake Adidas shoes, nogal).
It’s a personal and honest account – Trevor shares stories of being so poor and hungry at one time he ate Mopane worms and not for the exotic culinary delight of it. But through it all, there’s the humour. Even with the embarrassing moments that arose out of his being an outsider, not just racially but geographically, and how he struggled to make friends, to the point that he would look in on other houses to see what they were doing: “I was like a Peeping Tom, but only for friendship.” From his days as a tuck-shop hustler to a stint in jail, his experience with hair relaxer and a Matric Farewell date gone wrong, he relays them all. Some parts lend themselves to humour much easier than others. But somehow, he – or his mother – would find it.
He himself admits time has given him the benefit of hindsight. He writes with an empathetic voice, and I found it made me willing to reconsider some of those who may have injured me in the past. And while it’s written for an American audience as well, some of the explanations will be useful to South Africans too. I am ashamed to admit I didn’t know the origin of the word “cheese-boy” even though I had sung it as a lyric in kwaito songs over and over.
There are some really poignant moments, particularly when he talks about what his relationship with his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, taught him:
“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…”
Oh, but did this part get to me! Especially as he goes into detail about what led to the realisation. I’m a fan of Trevor’s comedy, yes, but after reading this book I’m rooting for him even more. In tracing his life, and his comedy, backwards, he, in a sense, sets up his future: a life that can only go forward. It’s a great example for anyone to be inspired by.

I keep a R5 coin in my wallet. I have since I left South Africa 3 years ago to base myself here in New York City. It’s one of those special limited edition ones issued after the presidential election in 1994 – the 20th anniversary of which, our country recently celebrated.

Last Wednesday, as I made my way to the South African Consulate General in Midtown, my fingers brushed past the coin, when I was looking for money to buy yet another umbrella to fight the rainy, blustery weather conditions New York likes to throw at its inhabitants. 

It was really one of those horrid weather days when you’d do anything to stay indoors. Yet, it wasn’t a turn-off for the South Africans who are living in New York, or visiting on holiday, who had come to cast their ballots for the upcoming General Elections. 

Living overseas, it’s easy to feel very far away from home – even in the age of social media – when you stop commemorating Worker’s Day, and start celebrating Cinco De Mayo; when you’re forced to think in Fahrenheit and miles, and not Celsius and kms; when you live in Dollars and not in Rands. The US Consulate General, with its portraits of Jacob Zuma and Protea bouquets, is one of those places where you can go to feel like you’re stepped into a little piece of Pretoria for the day. 

Last Wednesday morning, as various South African accents filled the lift of the business building in which the Consulate General is housed, I felt a little bit closer to home. 

I interviewed voters about their experiences: Did they know about the voting process abroad? Had they filled out the required VEC10 form? Was their decision on who to vote for an easy or difficult one, being overseas? There were some who said the Consulate misinformed them when it came to the VEC10 form, and so they were disappointed they couldn’t vote because they hadn’t filled it out. 

Sadly, one of those who wasn’t able to vote was the legendary playwright Athol Fugard, who has created prize-winning protest theatre that’s as much a valuable contribution to the struggle as any. 

As I was leaving the Consulate General, I barely spotted him, in a nondescript beanie, half wet from the rain. He didn’t have two forms of ID on him – his green ID book was at home in South Africa. “This is a critical election,” he said to me, the disappointment very clear in his voice. “With South Africa on tenterhooks at the moment, every vote counts, and I’m only sorry that I won’t be able to add my voice – even if all it is, is a mark on a piece of paper.”

The 81-year-old writer isn’t certain he’ll be around for the next elections, and while I understand rules are rules, I felt like saying to the presiding officer that they should go and have a look at his picture hanging up in a Broadway theatre if they really wanted double proof of who he is.

For the most part, there were a lot of South Africans who were happy and proud to have voted. A couple, here visiting family, told me: “There are a lot of people who aren’t voting at home, but if we can do it here, then they can.” A man originally from Joburg who’s been living here for 4 years said: “I’m living here for now, yes, but I still feel very invested in South Africa. I’m going to home at some point. And the previous generation fought very hard to give people the right to vote.”

I especially liked what one man, who’d flown in from Boston and made a work trip out of the occasion said: “Moving abroad doesn’t mean you’re not a citizen anymore. It’s like moving out of your parents house – you’re still their kid. I feel it’s important to keep a connection with the home where you grew up and the home you love.” 

For me, his words were a great response to something Simphiwe Dana had tweeted earlier that day: I’m of the mind that if you don’t live in SA you shouldn’t make decisions on how it’s run. #ExpatVote. Just because we’re here, for now, doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned South Africa. I don’t need reminding of this, but that R5 in my wallet is there nonetheless. No matter how many pennies or quarters fill up my wallet, I always know the R5 coin is in there, amongst them.