Every evening as the host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah provides a unique viewpoint to the study of American politics and pop culture, having been born and raised in a country where the legal system segregated individuals based on the color of their skin for more than 50 years.
Noah was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1984. With a Black mother and white Swiss father, he was, as he writes in his popular 2016 autobiography, born a criminal. Under apartheid regulations, which formally governed South Africa from 1948 and 1994, race was the country’s defining cultural and legal component. The Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 barred marriage between white people and people of color, while other rules adopted early in the dictatorship prohibited people of various races from even living near one another.
Noah's mother had to appear to be a stranger to her kid when they were out in public
While apartheid’s political grasp was steadily eroding by the mid-1980s, Noah’s childhood was still defined by the legal and cultural dominance it held over the country. His very existence was criminal, which meant that he spent his early years always in some type of hiding, whether literal or in plain sight.
“My grandmother kept me locked in the house when I was staying with the family in Soweto,” he told NPR in 2016, alluding to the area where he grew up, which to this day has a 99 percent Black population. “If the police did show up ... it was a constant game of hide-and-seek."
Even out in public, Noah’s experience was founded on lying. When they went around Soweto, his mother, Patricia, would often pretend to be a stranger, or at least someone other than his mother. As he told Parade, this was generally the only way for them to walk outdoors together without the authorities bothering his mother and arresting her for having a mixed child.
It didn’t help that his neighbors and other people in the community were often accomplices in the police state’s monitoring and stringent enforcement of racial hatred and segregation.
“People were encouraged to snitch,” he remembered. "It might be your neighbor if you lived in a white region, if you lived in a Black area, that might be your neighbor. A number of Black folks worked as snitches with the cops. They had unique privileges, the police would pay them, but you never knew who informed you."
Noah's Trevor in 2019
Photo: SeriousFun Children's Newtwork, Inc. Mike Coppola/Getty Images.
Apartheid ended when Noah was 10, but cultural views needed more time to adapt
While Noah's parents lived separated, his mother sometimes visited his father in a white neighborhood in his apartment complex. She would often get caught doing this, leading to her being taken to jail for weeks at a time. The administration did not bother to notify its family of those prison stages, leading to a life of even more terror and paranoia.
In 1994 the South African apartheid state collapsed thanks to the work of Nelson Mandela and generations of freedom fighters. At that time Noah was ten years old and eager to embrace a new type of independence.
However, attitudes took longer to shift for all the legal doors that opened the end of apartheid, and the economic inequalities built by the over 50 years of secrecy (and hundreds of colonialism before) ensured that his efforts persisted.
Most of his teenage years and early adulthood have been spent in alexandra's streets, a place he calls 'the hood' in his memoirs. He had no money for college classes, so he stirred for the income he could obtain – Noah DJ'd sold falsified CDs, transferred stolen things quite possibly and continued on the treadmill of disaffection in an era of domestic transition.
"The tough thing on the hood is that you always work, work and feel like something is happening, but nothing truly is happening," he wrote in his memoir.
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