Authors: Trevor Noah
hen I was twenty-four years old, one day out of the blue my mother said to me, “You need to find your father.”
“Why?” I asked. At that point I hadn’t seen him in over ten years and didn’t think I’d ever see him again.
“Because he’s a piece of you,” she said, “and if you don’t find him you won’t find yourself.”
“I don’t need him for that,” I said. “I know who I am.”
“It’s not about knowing who you are. It’s about him knowing who you are, and you knowing who he is. Too many men grow up without their fathers, so they spend their lives with a false impression of who their father is and what a father should be. You need to find your father. You need to show him what you’ve become. You need to finish that story.”
My father is a complete mystery. There are so many questions about his life that I still cannot even begin to answer.
Where’d he grow up? Somewhere in Switzerland.
Where’d he go to university? I don’t know if he did.
How’d he end up in South Africa? I haven’t a clue.
I’ve never met my Swiss grandparents. I don’t know their names or anything about them. I do know my dad has an older sister, but I’ve never met her, either. I know that he worked as a chef in Montreal and New York for a while before moving to South Africa in the late 1970s. I know that he worked for an industrial food-service company and that he opened a couple of bars and restaurants here and there. That’s about it.
I never called my dad “Dad.” I never addressed him “Daddy” or “Father,” either. I couldn’t. I was instructed not to. If we were out in public or anywhere people might overhear us and I called him “Dad,” someone might have asked questions or called the police. So for as long as I can remember I always called him Robert.
While I know nothing of my dad’s life before me, thanks to my mom and just from the time I have been able to spend with him, I do have a sense of who he is as a person. He’s very Swiss, clean and particular and precise. He’s the only person I know who checks into a hotel room and leaves it cleaner than when he arrived. He doesn’t like anyone waiting on him. No servants, no housekeepers. He cleans up after himself. He likes his space. He lives in his own world and does his own everything.
I know that he never married. He used to say that most people marry because they want to control another person, and he never wanted to be controlled. I know that he loves traveling, loves entertaining, having people over. But at the same time his privacy is everything to him. Wherever he lives he’s never listed in the phone book. I’m sure my parents would have been caught in their time together if he hadn’t been as private as he is. My mom was wild and impulsive. My father was reserved and rational. She was fire, he was ice. They were opposites that attracted, and I am a mix of them both.
One thing I do know about my dad is that he hates racism and homogeneity more than anything, and not because of any feelings of self-righteousness or moral superiority. He just never understood how white people could be racist in South Africa. “Africa is full of black people,” he would say. “So why would you come all the way to Africa if you hate black people? If you hate black people so much, why did you move into their house?” To him it was insane.
Because racism never made sense to my father, he never subscribed to any of the rules of apartheid. In the early eighties, before I was born, he opened one of the first integrated restaurants in Johannesburg, a steakhouse. He applied for a special license that allowed businesses to serve both black and white patrons. These licenses existed because hotels and restaurants needed them to serve black travelers and diplomats from other countries, who in theory weren’t subject to the same restrictions as black South Africans; black South Africans with money in turn exploited that loophole to frequent those hotels and restaurants.
My dad’s restaurant was an instant, booming success. Black people came because there were few upscale establishments where they could eat, and they wanted to come and sit in a nice restaurant and see what that was like. White people came because they wanted to see what it was like to sit with black people. The white people would sit and watch the black people eat, and the black people would sit and eat and watch the white people watching them eat. The curiosity of being together overwhelmed the animosity keeping people apart. The place had a great vibe.
The restaurant closed only because a few people in the neighborhood took it upon themselves to complain. They filed petitions, and the government started looking for ways to shut my dad down. At first the inspectors came and tried to get him on cleanliness and health-code violations. Clearly they had never heard of the Swiss. That failed dismally. Then they decided to go after him by imposing additional and arbitrary restrictions.
“Since you’ve got the license you can keep the restaurant open,” they said, “but you’ll need to have separate toilets for every racial category. You’ll need white toilets, black toilets, colored toilets, and Indian toilets.”
“But then it will be a whole restaurant of nothing but toilets.”
“Well, if you don’t want to do that, your other option is to make it a normal restaurant and only serve whites.”
He closed the restaurant.
After apartheid fell, my father moved from Hillbrow to Yeoville, a formerly quiet, residential neighborhood that had transformed into this vibrant melting pot of black and white and every other hue. Immigrants were pouring in from Nigeria and Ghana and all over the continent, bringing different food and exciting music. Rockey Street was the main strip, and its sidewalks were filled with street vendors and restaurants and bars. It was an explosion of culture.
My dad lived two blocks over from Rockey, on Yeo Street, right next to this incredible park where I loved to go because kids of all races and different countries were running around and playing there. My dad’s house was simple. Nice, but nothing fancy. I feel like my dad had enough money to be comfortable and travel, but he never spent lavishly on things. He’s extremely frugal, the kind of guy who drives the same car for twenty years.
My father and I lived on a schedule. I visited him every Sunday afternoon. Even though apartheid had ended, my mom had made her decision: She didn’t want to get married. So we had our house, and he had his. I’d made a deal with my mom that if I went with her to mixed church and white church in the morning, after that I’d get to skip black church and go to my dad’s, where we’d watch Formula 1 racing instead of casting out demons.
I celebrated my birthday with my dad every year, and we spent Christmas with him as well. I loved Christmas with my dad because my dad celebrated European Christmas. European Christmas was the best Christmas ever. My dad went all out. He had Christmas lights and a Christmas tree. He had fake snow and snow globes and stockings hung by the fireplace and lots of wrapped presents from Santa Claus. African Christmas was a lot more practical. We’d go to church, come home, have a nice meal with good meat and lots of custard and jelly. But there was no tree. You’d get a present, but it was usually just clothes, a new outfit. You might get a toy, but it wasn’t wrapped and it was never from Santa Claus. The whole issue of Santa Claus is a rather contentious one when it comes to African Christmas, a matter of pride. When an African dad buys his kid a present, the last thing he’s going to do is give some fat white man credit for it. African Dad will tell you straight up, “No, no, no.
bought you that.”
Outside of birthdays and special occasions, all we had were our Sunday afternoons. He would cook for me. He’d ask me what I wanted, and I’d always request the exact same meal, a German dish called
which is basically a pancake made out of potatoes and some sort of meat with a gravy. I’d have that and a bottle of Sprite, and for dessert a plastic container of custard with caramel on top.
A good chunk of those afternoons would pass in silence. My dad didn’t talk much. He was caring and devoted, attentive to detail, always a card on my birthday, always my favorite food and toys when I came for a visit. But at the same time he was a closed book. We’d talk about the food he was making, talk about the F1 racing we’d watched. Every now and then he’d drop a tidbit of information, about a place he’d visited or his steakhouse. But that was it. Being with my dad was like watching a web series. I’d get a few minutes of information a few minutes at a time, then I’d have to wait a week for the next installment.
When I was thirteen my dad moved to Cape Town, and we lost touch. We’d been losing touch for a while, for a couple of reasons. I was a teenager. I had a whole other world I was dealing with now. Videogames and computers meant more to me than spending time with my parents. Also, my mom had married Abel. He was incensed by the idea of my mom being in contact with her previous love, and she decided it was safer for everyone involved not to test his anger. I went from seeing my dad every Sunday to seeing him every other Sunday, maybe once a month, whenever my mom could sneak me over, same as she’d done back in Hillbrow. We’d gone from living under apartheid to living under another kind of tyranny, that of an abusive, alcoholic man.
At the same time, Yeoville had started to suffer from white flight, neglect, general decline. Most of my dad’s German friends had left for Cape Town. If he wasn’t seeing me, he had no reason to stay, so he left. His leaving wasn’t anything traumatic, because it never registered that we might lose touch and never see each other again. In my mind it was just
Dad’s moving to Cape Town for a bit. Whatever.
Then he was gone. I stayed busy living my life, surviving high school, surviving my early twenties, becoming a comedian. My career took off quickly. I got a radio DJ gig and hosted a kids’ adventure reality show on television. I was headlining at clubs all over the country. But even as my life was moving forward, the questions about my dad were always there in the back of my mind, bubbling up to the surface now and then. “I wonder where he is. Does he think about me? Does he know what I’m doing? Is he proud of me?” When a parent is absent, you’re left in the lurch of not knowing, and it’s so easy to fill that space with negative thoughts. “They don’t care.” “They’re selfish.” My one saving grace was that my mom never spoke ill of him. She would always compliment him. “You’re good with your money. You get that from your dad.” “You have your dad’s smile.” “You’re clean and tidy like your father.” I never turned to bitterness, because she made sure I knew his absence was because of circumstance and not a lack of love. She always told me the story of her coming home from the hospital and my dad saying, “Where’s my kid? I want that kid in my life.” She’d say to me, “Don’t ever forget: He chose you.” And, ultimately, when I turned twenty-four, it was my mom who made me track him down.
Because my father is so private, finding him was hard work. We didn’t have an address. He wasn’t in the phone book. I started by reaching out to some of his old connections, German expats in Johannesburg, a woman who used to date one of his friends who knew somebody who knew the last place he stayed. I got nowhere. Finally my mom suggested the Swiss embassy. “They have to know where he is,” she said, “because he has to be in touch with them.”
I wrote to the Swiss embassy asking them where my father was, but because my father is not on my birth certificate I had no proof that my father is my father. The embassy wrote back and said they couldn’t give me any information, because they didn’t know who I was. I tried calling them, and I got the runaround there as well. “Look, kid,” they said. “We can’t help you. We’re the
embassy. Do you know nothing about the Swiss? Discretion is kind of our thing. That’s what we do. Tough luck.” I kept pestering them and finally they said, “Okay, we’ll take your letter and, if a man such as you’re describing exists, we might forward your letter to him. If he doesn’t, maybe we won’t. Let’s see what happens.”
A few months later, a letter came back in the post: “Great to hear from you. How are you? Love, Dad.” He gave me his address in Cape Town, in a neighborhood called Camps Bay, and a few months later I went down to visit.
I’ll never forget that day. It was probably one of the weirdest days of my life, going to meet a person I knew and yet did not know at all. My memories of him felt just out of reach. I was trying to remember how he spoke, how he laughed, what his manner was. I parked on his street and started looking for his address. Camps Bay is full of older, semiretired white people, and as I walked down the road all these old white men were walking toward me and past me. My father was pushing seventy by that point, and I was so afraid I’d forgotten what he looked like. I was looking in the face of every old white man who passed me, like,
Basically it looked like I was cruising old white dudes in a beachfront retirement community. Then finally I got to the address I’d been given and rang the bell, and the second he opened the door I recognized him.
Hey! It’s you,
Of course it’s you. You’re the guy. I know you.