Trevor Noah’s Father Robert: Once Estranged, Finally Back Together

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Born a Crime" by Trevor Noah. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who is Trevor Noah’s father? How did they lose touch? And what impact did he have on the comedian’s life?

Trevor Noah’s father is Robert Noah, a German who opened one of the first integrated restaurants in Johannesburg during apartheid.

Learn how Trevor Noah’s parents met, how Trevor lost touch with his father, and how they reunited through Trevor’s valiant efforts.

Trevor Noah’s Parents Meet

In Johannesburg, Trevor Noah’s mom, Patricia, and Trevor Noah’s dad, Robert, met.

Patricia’s apartment was in a culturally active, artistic community called Hillbrow. This location was relatively liberal and home to whites who disapproved of or didn’t care about apartheid. One of these people was a Swiss-German named Robert. 

Black women were not supposed to live in Johannesburg. The threat of police was always close in this neighborhood. Neighbors were encouraged to spy on one another. At any point, Patricia could have been turned in to the police or suspected of being a spy, which had other consequences. Her ability to trust the people was small, but Robert lived on her floor and seemed trustworthy. He was quiet, reserved, and uninterested in the laws of apartheid. 

Robert was almost twice Patricia’s age, and their relationship was more friendship than lovers. Still, one night, she propositioned him about having a child. Not only was having Robert’s baby a form of resistance for Patricia, it was also advantageous. She wanted a baby, not a marriage, and Robert said he didn’t want a child. Also, because it was illegal, he could have no legal claim to the baby. He said no many times before finally conceding. 

On February 20, 1984, Patricia gave birth to Noah. She told the doctors the father was from a different country to explain Noah’s complexion.

Trevor Noah’s Father and Mother Conceal Their Crime

Before Noah was born, Patricia found a new apartment in an adjacent neighborhood. She thought this would ensure her freedom from Robert’s involvement. She didn’t want Trevor Noah’s father to be involved. But when Robert saw her afterward and Noah wasn’t with her, he realized he couldn’t have a child and not be involved. The period that followed would become one of dire secrecy for both Patricia and Robert. 

Because Robert couldn’t be seen with Noah in public—a white man with a mixed son would raise too many questions—Patricia would take Noah to a park, and Trevor Noah’s dad would join them at a safe distance. This worked most of the time, but once, Noah noticed his father and ran toward him, yelling “Daddy! Daddy!” Other people started to look, and Robert tried to run away. Noah chased him, thinking it was a game of tag. 

Soon, Noah could only visit Robert at his home, which was safest for everyone.

Robert Noah’s Past

There is so much Noah doesn’t know about his father, even now. He doesn’t know anything about Robert’s extended family or what his life was like before Patricia. What he does know is that his father was a chef in Canada and New York, then opened some bars and restaurants in South Africa, but that’s it. But thanks to Patricia’s insistence, he’s been able to learn a little about Robert as a person. 

Noah attributes his father’s private nature to his parents’ ability to get away with a mixed child during apartheid. Where Patricia was feisty, Robert was reserved. Noah believes he is the confluence of both.

Trevor Noah’s dad hated racism and homogeneity of any kind. This feeling wasn’t one of moral superiority, but rather a lack of understanding about why apartheid existed. Robert couldn’t rationalize why white people would come to Africa if they didn’t like black people. Therefore, because the laws were illogical, he never lived by them

Robert opened the first integrated restaurants in Johannesburg during apartheid through a special license to serve black people. The licenses were distributed by the government out of necessity. Visiting black dignitaries and tourists from other countries were not subject to the laws of apartheid, so they had to make special cases to accommodate them. Black South Africans with money exploited this loophole by frequenting establishments with licenses.

The restaurant was a success. White people were curious about black people, and black people were curious about what the white people were curious about. This common intrigue outweighed the boundaries they were supposed to uphold. But some white people didn’t like these subversive establishments, and they petitioned to have Robert’s restaurant shut down

At first, the inspectors tried to shut down the restaurant for health violations, but Robert, like most Swiss-Germans, was anything but unclean. Then, they mandated he have a separate toilet for each race of patron. This was an impossible task, and Robert wouldn’t comply. Eventually, he chose to close the restaurant, rather than pander to the government

Robert’s Freedom To Be a Father

When apartheid ended, Robert moved to a newly segregated and eclectic area called Yeoville. No longer fearing prison, he could now take Noah to play in the nearby park with kids from various races. He and Noah would meet every Sunday afternoon at his house, which was great news for Noah, who got to skip black church.

Noah would celebrate his birthday with Robert each year, and Christmas as well. Noah loved Christmas with Robert because it was European Christmas, with a tree, fake snow, stockings, and presents from Santa Claus. On the contrary, African Christmas was only church, then a nice meal. A present in African Christmas was always just clothes and never from Santa. No African was going to give Santa credit for a present bought with hard-earned money. 

When Noah visited, Robert would cook his favorite meal: a German dish called Rösti, a potato pancake with gravy. Trevor Noah’s dad was a quiet person, and many afternoons were spent without talking. But he was a good father, always attentive, affectionate, and generous.

Noah likens his time with his father to a web series. A bit of information would be doled out a few minutes each time, and he’d have to wait until the next week to find out more. 

Trevor and His Dad Lose Touch

When Noah was 13, he lost his connection to Robert. Distance had already grown in their relationship for a couple of reasons: one, Noah was a typical teenager who didn’t want to spend time with his parents, and two, Abel, Patricia’s then-husband, didn’t approve of her being in touch with her ex. Abel’s temper was enough to keep them home.  

Noah’s visits with Robert slowed to every other week, then once a month, then to whenever Patricia and Noah could secretly slip away. The sneaking around during apartheid was back, but this time the oppressive ruler was her abusive husband. 

Robert eventually moved to Cape Town. There’d been a white flight from Yeoville when other races started moving in, and many of Robert’s close friends were among those who fled. Noah didn’t think much about Robert’s move. He never thought it would end their relationship. 

Noah became preoccupied with school, shenanigans, learning how to be an adult, and then starting his career as a comedian. But thoughts of his father lived in his subconscious. He wondered where Robert was, how he was, whether he thought about Noah or knew anything about who he’d become. 

Without any contact, it became easy for Noah to come to his own conclusions. He assumed Robert didn’t care about him and had moved on with his own life. Only Patricia’s constant kind words about Robert kept those thoughts at bay. She always reminded Noah that Robert chose to be in his life when it was safer for him not to be. 

Trevor Noah’s Father Returns to His Life

When Noah was 24, Patricia encouraged him to find Robert. Noah hadn’t seen him for 10 years and never thought he would again. Noah didn’t see the big deal. He’d grown up, started his career, and was happy. But she said it was important for Noah to show Robert who he’d become and learn about him. She didn’t want Noah going through life believing his father didn’t care about him, something that may not be true. 

Searching for Answers

When Noah tried to find Robert after Patricia’s encouragement, he didn’t have much to go on. Robert was so private, there was almost no information about him. 

Noah wrote to the Swiss embassy, but they wouldn’t help him because Robert was not listed on his birth certificate as Trevor Noah’s father. He finally convinced the embassy to send Robert a letter from him. After a few months, Noah received a letter back. He made a plan to go to Cape Town.

The visit with Robert after so long was awkward. Noah felt like he was meeting a man he knew but didn’t really know. He had vague memories of Robert and could recall few details about his mannerisms and voice. But after arriving, they were back into their old routine. 

Robert had all of Noah’s favorite foods from the last time he saw him, when Noah was 13. He also brought out a photo album containing every clip from Noah’s career right up to that very week. He’d been following Noah’s career and was proud of him. 

At that moment, Noah felt the gap between them disappear. He knew Robert had always been his father, even if when wasn’t there. Noah felt proud, chosen, and wanted.

Noah wanted to make up for all the time that had passed. On his next visit, he started asking Robert question after question, like an interview. But he realized a list of questions was not the way to forge an emotional bond. Apartheid had stolen years of their being together, and only time together could make up for it. 

The two had dinner and talked about the news, watched TV, and listened to Elvis Presley records in the yard. Robert asked Noah if he’d learned anything new about him, to which Noah responded he’d learned how secretive Robert was. Robert smiled and said Noah was getting to know him already. Trevor Noah’s father was a stranger no longer.

Trevor Noah’s Father Robert: Once Estranged, Finally Back Together

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  • How Trevor ultimately broke out and achieved success
Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

5 thoughts on “Trevor Noah’s Father Robert: Once Estranged, Finally Back Together

  • Avatar
    March 4, 2020 at 4:50 am
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    Trevor Noah’s father was not German, but Swiss German. This means he was Swiss and had grown up in the Swiss German speaking part of Switzerland.
    (There are four national languages in Switzerland. So his mother tongue could have been French, Italian or Romansh as well.)

    Reply
    • Avatar
      October 24, 2020 at 8:27 am
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      Exactly. And Rösti is NOT a German dish, as claimed in this article. German is Robert’s language. Swiss is his nationality. The author of this article seems to have misunderstood this.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    May 19, 2020 at 4:48 am
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    U are truly remarkable Trevor. Well done on all your achievement. I watch all your shows whenever I can afford data. Well done once again. You are great. You are filled with wisdom. I use to follow all your shows. Great job. Any mother would be proud to have u has a son.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    July 7, 2020 at 9:56 pm
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    Robert Noah is not German. He is Swiss! As well as Rösti is a typical Swiss dish and has nothing to do with Germany…

    Reply
    • Avatar
      December 3, 2020 at 5:43 am
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      Whatever!

      Swiss or German! Rosti or sauerkraut, I love them all smartie!! Much love!

      Reply

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