Zulu & Xhosa Rivalry—How It Almost Killed Trevor Noah

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 are the Zulu and Xhosa? What is the history of the tension between the two communities?

When comedian Trevor Noah was growing up in South Africa, the Zulu and Xhosa rivalry was strong and potentially deadly. We’ll briefly cover the history of the Zulu-Xhosa feud and look at how it affected Noah’s childhood.

Zulu and Xhosa: Tensions Within the Black Community

Apartheid was used to breed separation within the black community. These efforts kept the black population, almost five times larger than the white population, in a state of disunity to create a contentious environment. 

Before apartheid, blacks lived within different tribes, each with their own language; the two largest tribes were the Zulu and Xhosa. The pre-apartheid history of these tribes was volatile. When the Dutch came, the Zulu, known as fighters, engaged in savage battles, whereas the Xhosa, known to be more rational, tried to embrace the change and find an intellectual solution. Neither the Zulu nor the Xhosa tribe was successful, and each blamed the other’s tactics for hindering their success. 

During apartheid, these sentiments remained, but there was a common enemy in the white oppressors. However, when apartheid ended, that common enemy disappeared. The deeply ingrained rage and resentment were then turned toward each other. Both the Zulu and Xhosa, as well as other tribes, fought for supremacy in the new democracy. The result was further separation, creating an environment of violence, rather than one of unity and rebuilding. 

The ending of apartheid signaled the beginning of what became known as the Bloodless Revolution. The streets ran heavy with the blood of black South Africans, but almost no white blood was shed. In their fight for supremacy, an uprising of the Zulu and Xhosa, under the guise of official party organizations, created a war. There were riots and fighting in the streets. Thousands died, and bodies blanketed the ground. 

Trevor Noah: Caught in the Crossfires of War

One Sunday when Trevor Noah was young, Noah, his mother Patricia, and his infant brother got onto a minibus to take them home from church. Minibuses had become popular during apartheid as a homemade solution to the lack of government-provided public transportation for blacks. Different tribes operated the minibuses, which created turf wars for business.

The bus Noah and his family took home that night was driven by a Zulu man, the natural enemy to his mother’s Xhosa heritage. It is worth noting that within the Zulu tribe, Xhosa women were stereotyped as being promiscuous and wild. The driver, recognizing Patricia as Xhosa, became verbally aggressive, lecturing her about having children by different fathers (Andrew’s father was black, Noah’s white, and their different skin tones made it apparent).

Patricia argued with the driver, telling him to mind his own business. In response, the driver decided to teach her a lesson. He hit the accelerator and took off, refusing to stop—essentially kidnapping them. Patricia tried to reason with the driver, but she knew it was futile. The tensions between the Zulu and Xhosa tribes were too significant. Violence was likely and could include assault or even death. 

Patricia told Noah to get ready to jump at the next intersection, when the driver was forced to slow down. Noah, being exhausted from the day of traipsing from church to church, had fallen asleep. So, when the next stop came and he didn’t react, Patricia opened the door and threw him out, following behind with Andrew wrapped tightly against her chest. 

Noah awoke with the pain of hitting the pavement, and Patricia landed in a way that shielded Andrew from the impact. She jumped up and yelled for them to run, and they ran until they were safe. Noah was incredulous that she’d thrown him out of a moving vehicle. But he came to realize how close they’d come to being casualties of the tribal war between the Zulu and Xhosa. Patricia’s strength and bravery had saved his life. 

This is the world in which Trevor Noah grew up.

Zulu and Xhosa Languages

Another way apartheid created discord in the black community was through language. There were many tribes and languages spoken in Soweto. During apartheid, members of certain tribes were only allowed to learn that tribe’s language. Zulu kids learned Zulu, Xhosa kids Xhosa, and so on. Therefore, different groups of blacks believed they were different because they spoke different languages.

Speaking a different language than someone makes you an outsider. In contrast, speaking the same language makes them see you as being “one of us.” Therefore, in a world where skin color is meant to separate people, language can be used to bring people together. 

Noah understood that language signified identity and community. As he grew older and realized the color of his skin would always make him different, Noah saw language as his only avenue for fitting in. He eventually learned about 8 languages as a means of connecting with others in a country divided by rivalries like that between the Zulu and Xhosa.

Zulu & Xhosa Rivalry—How It Almost Killed Trevor Noah

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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.

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