Ever since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, there has been a fairly constant refrain heard in the United States. Americans, who once thought their country invulnerable, their culture beyond reproach and their global image impeccable, are asking, “Why do they hate us?” Human emotion being what it is, there is no single or simple answer to that question. They hate us for a number of reasons, some illogical, but some very understandable. And, while hatred is never productive, never defensible, its causes should never be ignored because its consequences can be catastrophic.
One of the things I hear Americans say they hate about us is our freedom. I would have to agree. There are those in the rest of the world who are as offended by our freedoms as are we by their despotism. They hate the fact that we have freedom of religion, that we have freedom of speech, that our women are becoming increasingly free to determine their own destinies. They believe that all these freedoms are an offense against all that is decent and holy.
I believe they are wrong. It is because of our freedom that I am able to write what I write, however controversial, however offensive to some. It is because of our freedom that my family moved to the United States in 1960. We left South Africa when the white government there was stripping the people, both white and black, of their freedom to speak out against injustice, to live wherever and with whom ever they chose. We left because it was life threatening to question the government’s policy of apartheid.
Of course, some of them hate us because they are simply jealous of our privileges, our freedoms, our wealth. They envy us these things, and they want what we have. That, surely, is understandable, in light of the conditions under which so many of the people across the world live. However, many Americans, perhaps most, do not have any idea what these conditions are. And here, perhaps, we are coming to the crux of why they hate us. Many of us, in this country of free public education, of free press, of wealth and privilege, of immense (but not inexhaustible) natural resources, are abysmally ignorant about the rest of the world, and too many are willfully, smugly, intractably, even belligerently so.
What has inspired this diatribe is a 60 Minutes TV newsmagazine segment I watched recently. It included information about American dealings with South Africa. The report actually began by describing the shortage of nurses in the United States, and the reasons for the shortage. It described the conditions that have reduced the numbers of nurses, forcing those who are still in the profession to work long, grueling hours. American nurses, simply put, are underpaid and undervalued. Their wages have not even increased with the cost of living. The nurses who are still on the job are getting older, and because of the lack of incentives to enter the field, young people are not going into nursing. We have a desperate shortage, and it will only get worse.
But measures are being taken to remedy the situation. Corporations have formed for the sole purpose of recruiting qualified nurses from other English speaking countries around the world. And guess which country is one of these? South Africa. Apparently South African nurses, both black and white, are among the best trained, most experienced nurses in the world. But they are working in a country that is struggling to overcome the terrible social problems created by apartheid now that it (apartheid) has been abolished. Most of these nurses make only $5,000 a year, not enough for them to feed their families. What America has to offer them must seem like vast wealth, especially when free plane fare, guaranteed green cards for themselves and their families, housing assistance, and insurance benefits are part of the package. Many of these nurses are inevitably leaving South Africa.
And why shouldn’t they? Do they not deserve opportunities? Well, as one of the interviewees on 60 Minutes said, while it is understandable that these nurses would come to the United States, and while they do deserve opportunities, the practice of recruiting them is simply unethical. I would add it is an example of why they hate us. It is an example of our American belief that we are entitled to anything we can buy, simply because we have the resources to do so.
There is, of course, a history here that leads me to this conclusion. America, God bless her, imposed sanctions on South Africa in order to bring the white government there to its knees and to force its members to abolish apartheid. What was wrong with that? Well, on the surface, nothing. It was, however, typical of our rather half-assed, poorly thought-through tactics. The sanctions did have their effect. In 1983, when my family and I visited South Africa, the average white person drove a Mercedes or a BMW or an Alpha-Romeo.
The disparity in wealth between white and black was glaring. In 1990, when my husband and I visited again, there had been a dramatic change. But, rather than the wealth having been spread around so that conditions for blacks had improved, conditions for them had become increasingly desperate. Whites, too, had been affected, but only to the extent that they had been forced to substitute Mazdas for Mercedes. Many white professionals, in fact, had left the country, taking their money with them. In other words, the people who were most hurt by the sanctions were the blacks, not the whites. As I said, God bless America and some of her bloody liberals.
Finally, the sanctions did help to topple apartheid, but, as F. W. De Klerk, the white South African Prime Minister whose statesmanship, along with that of Nelson Mandela’s, made the transition a smoother and less bloody one than any other in Africa, said, America imposed sanctions, forced the country to change, and then simply walked away, giving no thought to what was to happen next, giving no financial aid to a country that needed (and still needs) help to rebuild itself.
One of the consequences of apartheid was an uneducated black population, almost completely unprepared to assume the reins of government. Because of the sanctions, professional white people, the very people who had the means to rebuild the country, had left, taking their wealth and expertise with them. They were leaving, almost literally, in droves. (At one point, 2,000 professionals a month were leaving the country.)
Where there is economic despair, of course, there is crime, and not just crime, but angry crime, violent crime. There is an epidemic of violent crime in South Africa, not simply black on white crime, but black on black crime. It is brutal, it is mindless, it is horrifying, and there is no way of knowing how or when it will end.
Where there is lack of education, there is ignorance, and one of the consequences of this ignorance in Africa is AIDS. South Africa has not been spared. It is as much of an epidemic there as it is elsewhere on the continent. (My cousin and her husband both work and the University of Port Elizabeth; at that university, 50% of the students are either HIV positive or have AIDS.)
Is the United States helping South Africa economically or in any other way? Of course not. The country is now on its own, left to work its problems out alone. This is why recruiting nurses there is unethical. This is why they hate us. This is a perfect example of our greed, our sense of entitlement, our complete disregard for the consequences of our imperialism and our shallow thinking. Not only do we not help a country like South Africa to rebuild, we steal their brightest and best, leaving them to their chaos and suffering. And we do it simply because we can. We have the power, we have the wealth, and we believe we deserve to do it.
It is no different than what we have done to encourage sweatshops in Asia and South America. We cannot induce our own people to work for slave wages, so we go to countries where people are so desperate that they will work for almost nothing, and we exploit their desperation. We support corrupt regimes around the world simply because they can provide us with goods and services we need; we pay no attention to how these regimes treat their people, how these regimes exploit their countries and their own people (as long as these regimes are not communist). We will not pay our nurses decently, and because our young people will not buy into our system, we steal nurses who are desperately needed in their own countries and bring them here because it’s cheaper than doing the right thing – giving economic aid to a country that needs it and paying our own nurses decent wages. We did the same thing with teachers: we could not find teachers to teach in our inner cities because American teachers, too, are underpaid and undervalued, so where did we go to find teachers? South Africa.
Meanwhile, we build our Disney Lands and Disney Worlds; we buy our “cool” cars; we use up our natural resources and those of the rest of the world; we drink our Starbucks coffee in our air-conditioned cafes; we live in gated communities or flee our inner cities to escape from urban crime and desperation, and we say “Why not? We deserve it. We earned it.” Well, we didn’t. We are simply incredibly lucky to have been born (or to have been able to move to) a country that hasn’t been used up yet. Too many of us are completely ignorant of and indifferent to the plight of our own poor and the poor and desperate in other in other parts of the world, many of whom have been devastatingly impacted by our shortsightedness, our greed, our imperialism.
And we are an empire. Call us what you like, we are an empire. We would do well to remember that empires such as ours never survive. None of the great empires of the world, from the Roman to the British, survived. They all crumbled under the weight of their self-satisfaction, their arrogance, their sense of entitlement, their greed, their corruption. One way or another, they were toppled, either from within because of the hatred of those who had been marginalized, or from without because of the hatred of those who had been exploited and discarded.
The trouble is, of course, that we, in our infinite wisdom, have now created the where-with-all for them to not only destroy us and each other, but the entire planet. Ours may be the last empire because ours was the one that initiated the nuclear age. There may never again be an “us and them,” and it will be our own fault. We have had the lessons of history to examine; we have the material security that makes it possible for people to become reflective because they are not simply struggling to survive. The answers are all there as to why they hate us, why they want to destroy us, but we are lost in our self-pity, our rhetoric of revenge against “evil-doers,” and, worst of all, our militant denial of our sins.
By the end of the day on September 11, I thought to myself, “If you have, and you do not share, if you have because you have stolen from others, if you have and you do not care that others do not, eventually those you have hurt will either take what you have from you, or they will destroy you, even if, in the process, they destroy themselves.” I pray I am wrong.