Authors: Trevor Noah
After work was when business started to pick up. Minibus drivers picking up one last order, men coming home from work. The men weren’t looking for soap and Corn Flakes. They wanted the gear—DVD players, CD players, PlayStation games. More guys would come through selling stuff, too, because they’d been out hustling and stealing all day. There’d be a guy selling a cellphone, a guy selling some leather jackets, a guy selling shoes. There was this one dude who looked like a black version of Mr. Burns from
. He’d always come by at the end of his shift with the most random useless crap, like an electric toothbrush without the charger. One time he brought us an electric razor.
“What the hell is this?”
“It’s an electric razor?”
“An electric razor? We’re black. Do you know what these things do to our skin? Do you see anyone around here who can use an electric razor?”
We never knew where he was getting this stuff from. Because you don’t ask. Eventually we pieced it together, though: He worked at the airport. It was all crap he was boosting from people’s luggage.
Slowly the rush would start to taper off and we’d wind down. We’d make our last collections, go over our CD stock, balance our accounts. If there was a party to DJ that night we’d start getting ready for that. Otherwise, we’d buy a few beers and sit around and drink, talk about the day, listen to the gunshots in the distance. Gunshots went off every night, and we’d always try to guess what kind of gun it was. “That’s a nine-millimeter.” Usually there’d be a police chase, cop cars flying through after some guy with a stolen car. Then everyone would go home for dinner with their families. I’d take my computer, get back in a minibus, ride home, sleep, and then come back and do it all again the next day.
A year passed. Then two. I had stopped planning for school, and was no closer to having the money to enroll.
The tricky thing about the hood is that you’re always working, working, working, and you feel like something’s happening, but really nothing’s happening at all. I was out there every day from seven a.m. to seven p.m., and every day it was: How do we turn ten rand into twenty? How do we turn twenty into fifty? How do I turn fifty into a hundred? At the end of the day we’d spend it on food and maybe some beers, and then we’d go home and come back and it was: How do we turn ten into twenty? How do we turn twenty into fifty? It was a whole day’s work to flip that money. You had to be walking, be moving, be thinking. You had to get to a guy, find a guy, meet a guy. There were many days we’d end up back at zero, but I always felt like I’d been very productive.
Hustling is to work what surfing the Internet is to reading. If you add up how much you read in a year on the Internet—tweets, Facebook posts, lists—you’ve read the equivalent of a shit ton of books, but in fact you’ve read no books in a year. When I look back on it, that’s what hustling was. It’s maximal effort put into minimal gain. It’s a hamster wheel. If I’d put all that energy into studying I’d have earned an MBA. Instead I was majoring in hustling, something no university would give me a degree for.
When I first went into Alex, I was drawn by the electricity and the excitement of it, but more important, I was accepted there, more so than I’d been in high school or anywhere else. When I first showed up, a couple of people raised an eyebrow. “Who’s this colored kid?” But the hood doesn’t judge. If you want to be there, you can be there. Because I didn’t live in the hood I was technically an outsider in the hood, but for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like one.
The hood is also a low-stress, comfortable life. All your mental energy goes into getting by, so you don’t have to ask yourself any of the big questions. Who am I? Who am I supposed to be? Am I doing enough? In the hood you can be a forty-year-old man living in your mom’s house asking people for money and it’s not looked down on. You never feel like a failure in the hood, because someone’s always worse off than you, and you don’t feel like you need to do more, because the biggest success isn’t that much higher than you, either. It allows you to exist in a state of suspended animation.
The hood has a wonderful sense of community to it as well. Everyone knows everyone, from the crackhead all the way through to the policeman. People take care of one another. The way it works in the hood is that if any mom asks you to do something, you have to say yes. “Can I send you?” is the phrase. It’s like everyone’s your mom, and you’re everyone’s kid.
“Can I send you?”
“Yeah, whaddya need?”
“I need you to go buy milk and bread.”
Then she gives you some money and you go buy milk and bread. As long as you aren’t busy and it doesn’t cost you anything, you don’t say no.
The biggest thing in the hood is that you have to share. You can’t get rich on your own. You have money? Why aren’t you helping people? The old lady on the block needs help, everyone pitches in. You’re buying beer, you buy beer for everyone. You spread it around. Everyone must know that your success benefits the community in one way or another, or you become a target.
The township polices itself as well. If someone’s caught stealing, the township deals with them. If someone’s caught breaking into a house, the township deals with them. If you’re caught raping a woman, pray to God the police find you before the township does. If a woman is being hit, people don’t get involved. There are too many questions with a beating. What’s the fight about? Who’s responsible? Who started it? But rape is rape. Theft is theft. You’ve desecrated the community.
The hood was strangely comforting, but comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling. In our crew, our friend G was like the rest of us, unemployed, hanging out. Then he got a job at a nice clothing store. Every morning he went to work, and the guys would tease him about going to work. We’d see him headed out all dressed up, and everyone would be laughing at him. “Oh, G, look at you in your fancy clothes!” “Oh, G, going to go see the white man today, huh?” “Oh, G, don’t forget to bring some books back from the library!”
One morning, after a month of G working at the place, we were hanging out on the wall, and G came out in his slippers and his socks. He wasn’t dressed for work.
“Yo, G, what’s going on? What’s up with the job?”
“Oh, I don’t work there anymore.”
“They accused me of stealing something and I got fired.”
And I’ll never forget thinking to myself that it felt like he did it on purpose. He sabotaged himself so that he’d get accepted back into the group again.
The hood has a gravitational pull. It never leaves you behind, but it also never lets you leave. Because by making the choice to leave, you’re insulting the place that raised you and made you and never turned you away. And that place fights you back.
As soon as things start going well for you in the hood, it’s time to go. Because the hood will drag you back in. It will find a way. There will be a guy who steals a thing and puts it in your car and the cops find it— something. You can’t stay. You think you can. You’ll start doing better and you’ll bring your hood friends out to a nice club, and the next thing you know somebody starts a fight and one of your friends pulls a gun and somebody’s getting shot and you’re left standing around going, “What just happened?”
The hood happened.
One night I was DJ’ing a party, not in Alex but right outside Alex in Lombardy East, a nicer, middle-class black neighborhood. The police were called about the noise. They came busting in wearing riot gear and pointing machine guns. That’s how our police roll. We don’t have small and then big. What Americans call SWAT is just our regular police. They came looking for the source of the music, and the music was coming from me. This one cop came over to where I was with my computer and pulled this massive assault rifle on me.
“You gotta shut this down right now.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’m shutting it down.”
But I was running Windows 95. Windows 95 took
to shut down. I was closing windows, shutting down programs. I had one of those fat Seagate drives that damaged easily, and I didn’t want to cut the power and possibly damage the drive. This cop clearly didn’t give a fuck about any of that.
“Shut it down! Shut it down!”
“I am! I’m shutting it down! I have to close the programs!”
The crowd was getting angry, and the cop was getting nervous. He turned his gun away from me and shot the computer. Only he clearly didn’t know anything about computers because he shot the monitor. The monitor exploded but the music kept playing. Now there was chaos—music blaring and everyone running and panicking because of the gunshot. I yanked the power cord out of the tower to shut the thing down. Then the cops started firing tear gas into the crowd.
The tear gas had nothing to do with me or the music. Tear gas is just what the police use to shut down parties in black neighborhoods, like the club turning on the lights to tell everyone to go home.
I lost the hard drive. Even though the cop shot the monitor the explosion somehow fried the thing. The computer would still boot up, but it couldn’t read the drive. My music library was gone. Even if I’d had the money for a new hard drive, it had taken me years to amass the music collection. There was no way to replace it. The DJ’ing business was over. The CD-selling business was done. All of a sudden our crew lost its main revenue stream. All we had left was the hustle, and we hustled even harder, taking the bit of cash we had on hand and trying to double it, buying this to flip it for that. We started eating into our savings, and in less than a month we were running on dust.
Then, one evening after work, our friend from the airport, the black Mr. Burns, came by.
“Hey, look what I found,” he said.
“What’ve you got?”
I’ll never forget that camera. It was a digital camera. We bought it from him, and I took it and turned it on. It was full of pictures of a nice white family on vacation, and I felt like shit. The other things we’d bought had never mattered to me. Nikes, electric toothbrushes, electric razors. Who cares? Yeah, some guy might get fired because of the pallet of Corn Flakes that went missing from the supermarket, but that’s degrees removed. You don’t think about it. But this camera had a face. I went through those pictures, knowing how much my family pictures meant to me, and I thought,
I haven’t stolen a camera.
I’ve stolen someone’s memories. I’ve stolen part of someone’s life.
It’s such a strange thing, but in two years of hustling I never once thought of it as a crime. I honestly didn’t think it was bad.
It’s just stuff people found.
White people have insurance.
Whatever rationalization was handy. In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don’t live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another’s pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place.
As much as we needed the money, I never sold the camera. I felt too guilty, like it would be bad karma, which I know sounds stupid and it didn’t get the family their camera back, but I just couldn’t do it. That camera made me confront the fact that there were people on the other end of this thing I was doing, and what I was doing was wrong.
One night our crew got invited to dance in Soweto against another crew. Hitler was going to compete with their best dancer, Hector, who was one of the best dancers in South Africa at the time. This invitation was a huge deal. We were going over there repping our hood. Alex and Soweto have always had a huge rivalry. Soweto was seen as the snobbish township and Alexandra was seen as the gritty and dirty township. Hector was from Diepkloof, which was the nice, well-off part of Soweto. Diepkloof was where the first million-rand houses were built after democracy. “Hey, we’re not a township anymore. We’re building nice things now.” That was the attitude. That’s who we were up against. Hitler practiced a whole week.
We took a minibus over to Diepkloof the night of the dance, me and Bongani, Mzi and Bheki and G, and Hitler. Hector won the competition. Then G was caught kissing one of their girls, and it turned into a fight and everything broke down. On our way back to Alex, around one in the morning, as we were pulling out of Diepkloof to get on the freeway, some cops pulled our minibus over. They made everyone get out and they searched it. We were standing outside, lined up alongside the car, when one of the cops came back.
“We’ve found a gun,” he said. “Whose gun is it?”
We all shrugged.
“We don’t know,” we said.
“Nope, somebody knows. It’s somebody’s gun.”
“Officer, we really don’t know,” Bongani said.
He slapped Bongani hard across the face.
“You’re bullshitting me!”
Then he went down the line, slapping each of us across the face, berating us about the gun. We couldn’t do anything but stand there and take it.
“You guys are trash,” the cop said. “Where are you from?”
“Ohhhhh, okay, I see. Dogs from Alex. You come here and you rob people and you rape women and you hijack cars. Bunch of fucking hoodlums.”
“No, we’re dancers. We don’t know—”
“I don’t care. You’re all going to jail until we figure out whose gun this is.”
At a certain point we realized what was going on. This cop was shaking us down for a bribe. “Spot fine” is the euphemism everyone uses. You go through this elaborate dance with the cop where you say the thing without saying the thing.