News that Trevor Noah has purchased a Manhattan apartment for a cool R130 million made headlines this week.
The local comedian turned host of the "Daily Show" in the US has enjoyed fantasy-like amounts of success: the sort of thing a more modest sort wouldn't even dream for themselves. He's known for his formidable work ethic but he clearly has a level of drive and ambition that has taken him very far, very fast.
But the breath-taking speed of his success, as evinced in this enormous purchase, has left some South Africans feeling dizzy. Reaction on social media ranged from wishing him happiness to those who begrudged or even policed Noah's wealth, wondering why he wasn't giving back to South Africans instead. (As Huffington Post South Africa asked on Twitter, how do we know he doesn't?)
It's a startling amount of money to comprehend for those of us just trying to pay off our student loans or get by. But whatever one's views on capitalism and inequality are, it's difficult to begrudge the success of someone who grew up in a garage, sleeping in cars.
That's right. A car. In his book, Born A Crime, Noah recounts stories of his childhood that at times reveal the poverty he grew up in.
The book, published in November 2016, tells anecdote after anecdote of Noah's coming-of-age in a predominantly black family growing up in and around Johannesburg in the last days of apartheid. While the stories are, in typical Noah fashion, often laugh-out-loud funny, they reveal in parts the often dire poverty and difficult circumstances his mother in particular faced while raising him.
When Trevor Noah was 11 years old his mother helped his stepfather Abel buy the mechanic business where he worked, when the owner decided to retire. However they did not realise they would inherit all the business's debts and ended up moving the entire family, Noah included, into the garage to try to keep it afloat. At 11 Noah was sleeping in cars and performing minor services on cars.
Ironically, considering Noah's plush Manhattan pad, he contrasted the garage to a hipster hangout in his book.
It was a warehouse, basically, and not the fancy, romantic sort of warehouse hipsters might one day turn into lofts. No, no. It was a cold, empty space. Gray concrete floors stained with oil and grease, old junk cars and car parts everywhere. Near the front, next to the roller door that opened onto the street, there was a tiny office built out of drywall for doing paperwork and such. In the back was a kitchenette, just a sink, a portable hot plate, and some cabinets. To bathe, there was only an open wash basin, like a janitor's sink, with a showerhead rigged up above. Abel and my mom slept with Andrew in the office on a thin mattress they'd roll out on the floor. I slept in the cars.
Noah also detailed how his school work suffered thanks to the new living arrangement.
Since Mighty Mechanics was now a family business, and I was family, I also had to work. There was no more time for play. There wasn't even time for homework. I'd walk home, the school uniform would come off, the overalls would go on, and I'd get under the hood of some sedan. I got to a point where I could do a basic service on a car by myself, and often I did. Abel would say, "That Honda. Minor service." And I'd get under the hood. Day in and day out. Points, plugs, condensers, oil filters, air filters. Install new seats, change tires, swap headlights, fix taillights. Go to the parts shop, buy the parts, back to the workshop. Eleven years old, and that was my life. I was falling behind in school. I wasn't getting anything done. My teachers used to come down on me. "Why aren't you doing your homework?"
"I can't do my homework. I have work, at home." We worked and worked and worked, but no matter how many hours we put in, the business kept losing money. We lost everything.
Things got so bad financially the family eventually survived by eating morogo and mopane worms alone.
We couldn't even afford real food. There was one month I'll never forget, the worst month of my life. We were so broke that for weeks we ate nothing but bowls of marogo, a kind of wild spinach, cooked with caterpillars. Mopane worms, they're called. Mopane worms are literally the cheapest thing that only the poorest of poor people eat. I grew up poor, but there's poor and then there's "Wait, I'm eating worms."
He confesses it was the hardest time of his life. Thankfully his mother made a plan eventually, got a job and a house and put an end to that period of their life. But Noah still remembers it in vivid detail.
That was the period of my life I hated the most — work all night, sleep in some car, wake up, wash up in a janitor's sink, brush my teeth in a little metal basin, brush my hair in the rearview mirror of a Toyota, then try to get dressed without getting oil and grease all over my school clothes so the kids at school won't know I live in a garage. Oh, I hated it so much. I hated cars. I hated sleeping in cars. I hated working on cars. I hated getting my hands dirty. I hated eating worms. I hated it all.
In an ironic twist, last year Noah's mother was accused of being a slumlord.
Let's hope he doesn't burn the new apartment down. At age seven Noah earned a reputation as something of pyromaniac after an incident that saw a white family's house in Orange Grove burn down. Noah's step-father Abel worked for the family and lived in a converted garage. Noah, who was visiting, was playing with the domestic worker's son during a time when he had a particular fascination with fire and, in a freak accident, managed to burn the entire property down.
The white family came home and stood on the street, staring at the ruins of their house. They asked the maid what happened and she asked her son and the kid totally snitched. "Trevor had matches," he said. The family said nothing to me. I don't think they knew what to say. They were completely dumbfounded. They didn't call the police, didn't threaten to sue. What were they going to do, arrest a seven-year-old for arson? And we were so poor you couldn't actually sue us for anything. Plus they had insurance, so that was the end of it. They kicked Abel out of the garage, which I thought was hilarious because the garage, which was freestanding, was the only piece of the property left unscathed.
We wonder if that family remembers today that it was Noah who burned down their house? Perhaps they can get special visiting rights to his Manhattan pad.