Book Review: Life During Apartheid

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Trevor Noah is a well-known comedian from South Africa, he shares his story chronologically from his traumatic childhood. As Noah goes into detail from his childhood struggle in the New York Times Bestseller, “Born a Crime,” he goes into depth from the period of apartheid in South Africa. Noah was born into apartheid, which is a system that segregates on the basis of race. He faced trials at a young age just because of the way he looked. Noah’s religious mother is a main character in this book and plays a huge factor in his life. As the author unleashes his testimony through a dark childhood, I begin feel like I was front row witnessing every traumatic event he experienced.

This book is filled with many different events that are not only tragic but also very important to the lives and history of the people who lived during apartheid. As a young adult, I have now begun to compare the system of “apartheid” to whatever knowledge comes to my mind about segregating people. I begin to envision what people of color face in today’s world, but also recognize the terrible attitude of discrimination in Noah’s time and my own life. In my opinion, this book was an informative read because of the traumatic real-life experiences, the description of a cruel discriminating policy, and an opportunity to compare your own experience of discrimination to Noah’s. The amount of perseverance that was practiced through his life is a valuable insight that I took personally from this book.

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After reading this book, I began to feel the conviction of being a privileged, modern day white male. It began to influence my train of thought that I could compare what Noah went through to a friend of mine’s father. He shared a story of how he was treated years ago just because of his skin color. I instantly began to try to comprehend the unworthiness feeling of something you cannot control such as your skin. As Noah goes into detail of how much white males hold power in South Africa, it began to register how cruel of times he experienced. Not only knowing the amount of pressure he would have felt mentally of being born a crime, but the amount stress it would put on a child not being able to walk with his parents across town. “Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality” (Noah 27).

Throughout this book, I learned that the importance of spirituality is a factor in South Africa. Whether it was inherited from ancestors or adopted by colonizers, it was important to their way of life. “In South Africa faith in the Holy Trinity exists quite comfortably alongside belief in witchcraft, in casting spells and putting curses on one’s enemies” (Noah 33). When I first read about “witchcraft,” I was completely stunned. I never knew that witchcraft was even a real, yet alone that people practiced it. Noah mentions the people of South Africa will visit witch doctors to receive healing rather than seek care from doctors in the western hemisphere. People in South Africa have been known to always have belief in a higher being, whether it is Christianity or another religion.

The second thing I learned about South African people is the overwhelming prevalence of gender inequality. Women in South Africa do not receive equal treatment on any levels in society. Noah’s mother plays a major role in his life, and she raised him through a cruel time in history. Patricia Noah is revealed to the audience as a strong, religious, and caring mother character who would do anything to keep her loved ones in good hands. Not only did skin color place a stronghold for South African people, but being a woman was even more a burden. She managed to be a secretary downtown as her occupation, which was illegal for black women to hold that type of position during apartheid. The white man was quite stern with the native:

You need to pray to Jesus,” he said. “Jesus will save you.” To which the native replied, “Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot” (Noah 6).

Throughout the book, Noah does such a good job of portraying the emotions that him and his mother experienced, that I even I could feel the struggle of being a mother raising an illegal child, while working to provide the best she could. While I was reading, I felt the power of love his mother had for him. The women that surrounded Noah during his childhood were all strong, spiritual, and independent. Living in that period and culture, strength was a requirement for these women to be able to survive in South Africa and face the amount of disrespect the country had for them on a daily basis.

During the time it took me to read this book it was hard to not compare the life Noah lived in South Africa to my own American childhood. There are many differences that are present between the two. The most obvious one that stood out to me was the policy of apartheid. This racism was not abolished hundreds of years ago like in the United States but within recent years. One big factor was South Africa was heavily patrolled to separate races, this quote from the book gave me insight on the strictness of discrimination, “…was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under control” (Noah 19). Noah describes the police as violent and suited with military gear ready to act. In America, I feel like the majority is raised to respect authority and to look up to the police, and for the police to protect the people. Noah was taught as he grew up to stay away from the police, and to be fearful of them, “if the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you” (Noah 243).

The second aspect that differs significantly is the amount of control the government has on its own people. The South African government does everything possible to restrict non-whites of being successful in life, including being financially stable. The system of apartheid leaves older black people to have limited education, so that the government can keep them from learning anything other than how to count and work on farms. Even if a black family ends up having success, they are struck with a “black tax.” This ideology of government is nowhere near like the United States. It’s hard to try to comprehend the struggle a black person went through during apartheid. Even though America went through her own racial struggles, the hardships of being an uneducated person in many aspects of life because of your skin color is hard to swallow. Poverty, extreme racism, and limited education is three defining descriptions of the way of life in South Africa during apartheid.

While reading this book, I found two ways that the book relates to topics we have discussed in class. The first being, the type of party system that exists in South Africa. In class, we defined a dominant-party-system as when multiple parties exist but only one wins the majority year after year. Before apartheid fell, those in power remained there because of the institutionalized inequality. Since, the abolishment of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has been the only political party to hold power. Noah addresses this early in the book: “Apartheid fell, Mandela walked free, and black South Africa went to war with itself” (Noah 4). Nelson Mandela was a leading figure in the fight against apartheid as well as a leading figure of the ANC. Therefore, while multiple parties exist in South Africa, a dominant-party-system has been created as voters only feel they can trust the ANC with governing them.

The second way I applied this to my introduction to political science class is by evaluating the four different forms of resource allocation. We were introduced to egalitarianism, utilitarian, merit-based, and need-based as ways a government can distribute resources to its citizens. I feel that under apartheid they were distributing resources in a merit-based form. However, this merit-based form was rooted in racism and inequality. In the eyes of those in power, citizens of color were not performing anything “well,” so they did not think that they deserved any government funded resources.

In my personal life, I would not have chosen to read this book. As a student athlete, my schedule is consumed with assignments, class, workouts and practice. However, I am thankful that I found the time to read Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. This was a very educational experience and I feel that I can apply Noah’s experiences to the rest of my life. Instead of viewing everything from my previous, sheltered lens, I can now view the world with more open mindfulness. I will have a greater awareness of how to look for inequalities and how to advocate against them.

Works Cited

  1. Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime. Random House USA, 2016.     


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