Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah

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Chapters 1–2 Summary and Analysis

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Chapter 1

Trevor Noah begins Born A Crime’s first chapter with a startling anecdote—he is nine years old, and his mother has thrown him out of a moving car.

To explain the story further, the author offers some background context about both his family and the social environment in South Africa at the time. His mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is a deeply religious woman. Unlike Trevor’s grandmother, who practices a somewhat blended form of faith drawn both from their family’s Xhosa traditions and western colonial Christianity, Patricia has wholeheartedly embraced Christianity. Church is a huge part of Trevor’s life growing up—on Sundays, he and his mother spend the day at three separate churches.

Each church, Patricia insists, has something unique to offer that the other two don’t. The first is a megachurch with a charismatic pastor who leads a large mixed-race congregation in dynamic, jubilant services. The second, a white church in a wealthy neighborhood, offers a deep, studious analysis of biblical scripture and Sunday school for Trevor. The third, an all-Black church in a segregated township, is a cathartic and passionate hours-long service in the hot sun. The third or fourth hour, the author recalls, is when the pastor starts casting demons out of people.

Their church route is so important to Patricia that when the family car breaks down, she insists they take unregulated minibuses to complete their all-day circuit. When the time comes to wait for their final bus home after an evening service, it’s already nine o’clock at night and dangerous to be outside. When no bus comes, they decide to hitchhike instead, but it quickly goes awry—moments after they get into a passing car, a minibus swerves in front of them and cuts the driver off. Infuriated, the minibus driver gets out and threatens the car’s driver with a large Zulu war club called an iwisa. The car driver is stealing his customers, the minibus driver insists.

Patricia interjects, trying to calm the angry minibus driver, and she, Trevor, and Trevor’s baby half brother Andrew all get into the minibus in the hopes of avoiding further conflict. It doesn’t work—the minibus driver’s ire transfers to the family, and he speeds away angrily with them in the vehicle. As he drives recklessly through town, he berates Patricia for being a disgusting, promiscuous Xhosa woman with a mixed-race child.

Patricia quietly unlocks the door and whispers to Trevor that she wants them to jump when the driver slows at the next intersection. He’s asleep and doesn’t hear her, so she is forced to act for both of them—she pushes him out of the car, jolting him awake. She clutches baby Andrew, and the family runs until they reach a petrol station and can call for help.

Chapter 2

In this chapter, the author goes into further detail about his mother’s quiet rebellion against apartheid in the years prior to his birth.

Patricia defies the laws and conventions of the time in more ways than one. Unhappy staying with her own mother in Soweto, the black township where she is required to live, she ingratiates herself to sex workers who live secretly in the restricted part of Johannesburg. They teach her their tricks to surviving in the city undetected: dressing like maids so they look like domestic workers and renting flats from expatriate European property owners willing to ignore racial restrictions on tenancy.

Patricia rents a flat in a building in the Hillbrow neighborhood, and she quickly begins a relationship with a fellow tenant. Robert, who will become Trevor’s father, is a stoic and sensible Swiss-German man who is twenty-two years her senior. He has no intention of becoming a father himself, but he eventually agrees to Patricia’s request—that he father a child for her to raise on her own.

When Trevor is born, Robert has a change of heart. If he has a son, he contends, he would like to know him, but the laws of apartheid make a traditional family arrangement impossible. Trevor spends his childhood living with Patricia, and the two visit Robert in secret whenever possible.

Because Trevor is mixed-race and his skin color is notably different from both his mother’s and his father’s, a further problem arises—he’s neither dark-skinned enough to convincingly live as Black nor light-skinned enough to convincingly live as white. To conceal her illegal relationship with Robert, Patricia is thus forced to raise him as “colored,” the racial designation given by the government to those whose parents, grandparents, or ancestors had children across racial lines before the current laws were in place. This puts Trevor in a very difficult position—in public, he has to pretend his mother is a stranger to him. In Soweto, the all-Black township where his grandmother still lives, he has to hide inside while the other kids play so nobody sees him.


In the book’s first two chapters, Trevor provides important context for two of his memoir's major subjects: the South African system of apartheid and his mother, Patricia.

The minibus anecdote, in particular, tells the reader a great deal about both subjects. In Patricia's case, the story is a very flattering one: it portrays her as pious and also intelligent, dedicated to her faith, her family, and her community. Undeterred by logistical obstacles, she is tenacious and quick-thinking, able to solve problems on the fly, no matter how scary they may seem to her son.

The story reflects less favorably on the difficult circumstances of life in apartheid-era South Africa. They attend three different churches, the congregations of which are divided across racialized lines. Just getting there is an obstacle—when their own car fails, as happens frequently, the civic infrastructure is ailing enough that they have to rely on an unregulated minibus industry that can be scary and violent.

These early chapters also offer an uncomfortable piece of foreshadowing. In a paragraph about the car’s breaking down yet again, the author mentions that the consequences turn out to be dire—the mechanic they take it to will, one day, shoot his mother in the head. This is left unexplained, facilitating a sense of tension and anxiety as the reader proceeds.

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Chapters 3–4 Summary and Analysis