Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is a memoir by Trevor Noah about his upbringing in South Africa and how he became a popular comedian in America as host of The Daily Show


Noah was born into apartheid in 1984 and raised by a very opinionated but supportive single mother named Patricia who refused to let her race (Black) keep her or her children from living in fear. Noah’s father was white, so racial identity was tricky for Noah living in a segregated country. Many people of color considered him white and the enemy, while white people wondered if he was Black or just colored, as they refer to in the book. Each of these identities held different treatment by authorities and others. At the end of the day and throughout his memoir, Noah said he chose to be categorized as part of the Black community because he felt most comfortable and at home among the people he was raised with and by. 


Apartheid (pronounced a-par-tied) was a system of institutional racism in South Africa that segregated the country for decades from 1948 until Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and presidency in the early 1990s. Mandela is known for restoring freedom to people of color in South Africa and ending apartheid. The end of apartheid was a new beginning not only for Trevor Noah, but for all people of color in South Africa. 


Noah explains apartheid here: 

The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all. (3)


When apartheid was dismantled, Trevor had the freedom to explore his identity and hold his own opinions and values highly to direct the rest of his life. This eventually led him to move to America to pursue his comedy career, drawing from the stories and past he writes about in this book. Many countries have harmful systems in place to disallow autonomy in its individuals. Understanding this worldly perspective helps grow an appreciation for others when you’re tempted to judge them or speak without knowledge about them. 


In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust. Not just the facts of it but the how and the why and the gravity of it—what it means. As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. “Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?” In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, the history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.” It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.” Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension. It was as if the teachers, many of whom were white, had been given a mandate. “Whatever you do, don’t make the kids angry.” (183)

Mini Lesson

  • We learn a little about apartheid from the passages above, but that only scratches the surface about the discrimination and violence it perpetuated in South Africa. Group students in partners or in groups of three to four. 

  • Using a search engine, have each group explore the many ins and outs of apartheid and its impact on people of color. Below are a few starting places, if needed. These could also be assigned to each group member as a jigsaw. 
Google Topics (examples)
    • Apartheid in South Africa.
    • Segregation maps of South Africa.
    • Trevor Noah’s childhood in apartheid.
    • Nelson Mandela’s presidency.

  • Have students take notes on apartheid, covering the 5 Ws and H (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How).

  • As a group, have students compare notes and highlight the most important facts or findings.

  • Finally, as a group, discuss and come up with a description of what happened after Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. What was life like after apartheid? 

  • Create a PowerPoint presentation answering the 5Ws and H and life after apartheid, including visuals, and sharing roles of creating slides and presentation.

Download the pdf to easily print or save!



Jennifer Epping is a high school English and journalism teacher in Des Moines, Iowa. She has a passion for reading, writing, and making lame jokes to her students just to see them laugh or roll their eyes. She just concluded her ninth year teaching. Epping graduated from Iowa State University with a BS in journalism and mass communication (2010) and BA in English Education (2013). She attended New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute (2010), and spent some time in children’s book publishing in New York.