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Trevor Noah: Your History is a Joke

The problem with this phenomenon, however, is that comedians work by describing events in sweeping statements, wielding broad generalisations in their depiction of people and events. Subtly and nuanced readings of the political and social environment are lacking, as they glibly patter off their observations. However, if you could slow down the flow of their commentary, which is usually delivered in rapid fire, you may often discover glaring and sometimes deeply divisive factual errors. Nowhere is this more evident than in Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, in which he blithely trots off a twisted account of South African history which fails to stand up to scrutiny. Whereas many of these misrepresentations would wash over an audience when they are spoken in a comedy routine, when they are committed to print the reader is able to question the veracity of the assumptions and claims.
At the outset, it is important to note that Born a Crime is an autobiographical work, which is meant to be read as the personal reflections of the author on his own lived experience. The problem arises, however, in the parts of the text in which Noah attempts to sketch the historical background. His renderings of the historical context are often faulty, and tend to perpetuate stereotypical and frequently misleading accounts of the South African experience.
The misconceptions which he propagates are too numerous to address fully in an article of this scope, so the focus will be on just a few of the more glaring generalisations and distortions through which he perpetuates or constructs misleading narratives about South Africa’s past.
Oversimplification and stereotypical depictions of the various cultural groups in South Africa abound. Noah, for example, contrasts the “the Zulu man (who) is known as the warrior’” with the Xhosas who “pride themselves on being the thinkers”. In Noah’s account Xhosas offered less resistance to European settlement and chose the route of strategic negotiation. This caricature of the two nations does neither of them justice. It disregards the long tradition of intellectual and cultural expression by Zulu figures including Pixley Ka Isaka Seme, a founding father of the ANC who helped to build its philosophical foundations, Chief Albert Luthuli, a Noble laureate and Credo Mutwa, famed philosopher and writer, to name but a few famous Zulu intellectuals.
Similarly, this casual generalisation, which would go unremarked in the patter of a stand-up comedy routine, does the Xhosa nation a grave injustice. In fairness to Noah, he observes that the Xhosa’s ‘waged a long war’ but this is eclipsed by his account of their skilful political manoeuvring. History, however, tells a different story. The Xhosa nation gave rise to some of Africa’s most heroic resistance fighters. The frontier or border wars between the Cape Colony and Xhosa territories raged periodically for over a century from 1779 to 1879. In this time, the Xhosa warriors took a great toll on the white settlers and held back their advance through fierce resistance. Some of the heroes of this struggle are still celebrated figures in Xhosa culture: Chief Maqana Nxele, who laid siege to Grahamstown and remained defiant even after his capture and imprisonment on Robben Island; Hintsa Ka Khawuta, who chose to die at the hands of his captors rather than surrender the wealth of his nation to the British; and Chief Maqoma who led the Xhosa forces in several wars against the European occupiers and died a prisoner on Robben Island.
Noah uses the same binary construction of Zulu versus Xhosa in his description of the violence that characterised politics in the 1990s. The narrative he constructs is one of violent conflict between Zulu and Xhosa through the ‘proxies’ of the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Nationalist Zulu movement, and the ANC which was primarily led by Xhosas at the time. This again is an unnuanced account which provides an incomplete and unsubtle version of events. In urban areas, the conflict was largely between hostel dwellers, who were often migrant labourers from Kwazulu-Natal, and the township residents who were a cultural mix of working class and middle-class people from a variety of ethnic groups.
There is no evidence that this violence was specifically a Zulu versus Xhosa conflict, but rather a conflict based on competing ideologies – a conservative nationalist movement fighting a mass populist movement that promoted multiculturalism. The conflict in the Kwazulu Natal, while it often involved skirmishes between IFP loyalists and ANC supporters, took place within Zulu communities. It was often characterised by intergenerational conflict with the old guard defending Zulu nationalism while the younger generation embraced the multiculturalism of the ANC. Added to this volatile mix was what became known as a ‘third force’, members of the secret police and military from the National Party regime, who aided and abetted combatants in an effort to fuel the discord. So, when Noah writes of the violence of the 1990s that ‘the simplest way to understand it is as a proxy war between Zulu and Xhosa’, he is not merely simplifying events, he is misleading the reader.
These are just a few of many historical distortions in Noah’s autobiography. Among the other more dangerous assertions is the following: ‘The British abolished slavery in name but kept it in practice’. Slavery has a very specific meaning:
“The condition in which one person is owned as property by another and is under the owner’s control, especially in involuntary servitude.”
While the Britain were indeed a cruel and exploitative imperial power, the practice of slavery was formerly abolished in 1833. It is true that there were white farmers who abused the apprenticeship or inboekseling system to keep black labourers in servitude for periods far exceeding their contracted time, but these abuses were not a matter of policy. What the British did, which was in many respects just as heinous, was to dispossess African people of their lands and confine them to native reserves that were economically underdeveloped and unsustainable, in order to create ‘reservoirs of labour’ for the mining and farming sectors. This gave rise to a pernicious system of labour migrancy which shattered the family lives of many black South Africans and fractured the social structure of communities. Noah, therefore, in his broad gloss of almost 160 years of history fails to show the true iniquity and subtly of the systematic oppression that black South Africans endured.
Another myth which Noah perpetuates is that of Afrikaans at the language of oppression. It is a comforting notion for many white, English-speaking South Africans who have long maintained their liberal posturing, but Afrikaner Nationalism could not have retained its ascendancy for almost half a century if it had not been for the complicity of most white citizens, from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Apartheid served the economic interests of white capitalists, providing them with access to cheap labour, while the middle classes, whether progressive or conservative, enjoyed the comfort that came with having affordable domestic labour.
Furthermore, the myth of Afrikaans as an instrument of subjugation negates the fact that 13.5% of South Africans, of all races and cultures, speak Afrikaans as their mother tongue. In dismissing Afrikaans as the ‘language of the oppressor’ Noah effectively negates the identity of a large portion of contemporary South Africa.
Noah did not set out to write a history textbook and Born a Crime is meant to be his personal story. Noah, however, has a powerful voice with a following of millions, and he therefore has an obligation to get the historical facts, that serve as the backdrop to his narrative, right.

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