By Trevor Noah
My mom’s secret flat was in a neighborhood called Hillbrow. She lived in number 203. Down the corridor was a tall, brown-haired, brown-eyed Swiss/German expat named Robert. He lived in 206. As a former trading colony, South Africa has always had a large expatriate community. People find their way here. Tons of Germans. Lots of Dutch. Hillbrow at the time was the Greenwich Village of South Africa. It was a thriving scene, cosmopolitan and liberal. There were galleries and underground theatres where artists and performers dared to speak up and criticize the government in front of integrated crowds. There were restaurants and nightclubs, a lot of them foreign-owned, that served a mixed clientele, black people who hated the status quo and white people who simply thought it ridiculous. These people would have secret get-togethers, too, usually in someone’s flat or in empty basements that had been converted into clubs. Integration by its nature was a political act, but the get-togethers themselves weren’t political at all. People would meet up and hang out, have parties.
My mom threw herself into that scene. She was always out at some club, some party, dancing, meeting people. She was a regular at the Hillbrow Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Africa at that time. It had a nightclub with a rotating dance floor on the top floor. It was an exhilarating time but still dangerous. Sometimes the restaurants and clubs would get shut down, sometimes not. Sometimes the performers and patrons would get arrested, sometimes not. It was a roll of the dice. My mother never knew whom to trust, who might turn her in to the police. Neighbours would report on one another. The girlfriends of the white men in my mom’s block of flats had every reason to report a black woman— a prostitute, no doubt— living among them. And you must remember that black people worked for the government as well. As far as her white neighbours knew, my mom could have been a spy posing as a prostitute posing as a maid, sent into Hillbrow to inform on whites who were breaking the law. That’s how a police state works— everyone thinks everyone else is the police.
Living alone in the city, not being trusted and not being able to trust, my mother started spending more and more time in the company of someone with whom she felt safe: the tall Swiss man down the corridor in 206. He was forty-six. She was twenty-four. He was quiet and reserved; she was wild and free. She would stop by his flat to chat; they’d go to underground get-togethers, go dancing at the nightclub with the rotating dance floor. Something clicked.
I want a child of my own, and I want it from you. You will be able to see it as much as you like, but you will have no obligations. You don’t have to talk to it. You don’t have to pay for it. Just make this child for me
I know that there was a genuine bond and a love between my parents. I saw it. But how romantic their relationship was, to what extent they were just friends, I can’t say. These are things a child doesn’t ask. All I do know is that one day she made her proposal.
“I want to have a kid,” she told him.
“I don’t want kids,” he said.
“I didn’t ask you to have a kid. I asked you to help me to have my kid. I just want the sperm from you.’’
I’m Catholic,” he said. “We don’t do such things.”
“You do know,” she replied, “that I could sleep with you and go away and you would never know if you had a child or not. But I don’t want that. Honour me with your yes so that I can live peacefully. I want a child of my own, and I want it from you. You will be able to see it as much as you like, but you will have no obligations. You don’t have to talk to it. You don’t have to pay for it. Just make this child for me.” For my mother’s part, the fact that this man didn’t particularly want a family with her, was prevented by law from having a family with her, was part of the attraction. She wanted a child, not a man stepping in to run her life. For my father’s part, I know that for a long time he kept saying no. Eventually he said yes. Why he said yes is a question I will never have the answer to.
Nine months after that yes, on February 20, 1984, my mother checked into Hillbrow Hospital for a scheduled C-section delivery. Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations— I was born a crime.
Excerpted from Born A Crime, an autobiography by Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, an American satirical news programme on Comedy Central. Published by Spiegel & Grau
Nov 15, 2016.