Free meals? Or opportunities to learn?

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

What makes a nation great? Is it the number of people who laid down their lives to fight for freedom? Is it the number of Nobel Peace Prize winners produced? Is it in the amount of free meals provided at schools? Is it the number of pregnant children receiving child support grants? Is it the amount of anti-retrovirals that get dished out to those who are unemployed or not on medical aid?

Or is it more simply the ability to allow any of its children to achieve whatever they may set their heart upon irrespective of their race or gender?

I’ve been asking myself these questions because, for some weeks now, I have been paying close attention to the emerging phenomenon that is Nikki Haley.

Most of you will not have heard of Nikki Haley. That’s not your fault. Neither had I until I came across an article written by Nikki Haley in the Wall Street Journal berating US President Barack Obama for not speaking his mind on a looming battle between Boeing and its labour unions. The article was well-written and its views resonated with mine.

So let me give you some background. Nikki Haley is the governor of the state of South Carolina, elected to that office in last year’s general election and assuming office on 12 January 2011. In so doing, she became, at age 39, the youngest governor in the country, the first woman to be elected governor of that state, and the first non-white to be elected governor of that state.

Now you might wonder why I say “non-white” instead of “black” or “Hispanic” which would be the normal alternatives in the American south. The answer is that she is neither. Haley was born Nimrata Randhawa. Her parents, Dr Ajit Singh and Raj Kaur Randhawa, are immigrants from Punjab, India.

She said in an interview: “My parents came here from Amritsar, India — my father with a Ph.D. and my mother with a law degree — to travel the country and see the United States. They made the decision to leave a great life in India and start over here, because they saw the opportunities that would be available to their children.

“We learned the value of hard work and the meaning of self discipline, working in the store. We learned that rewards don't come without sacrifices, and that if you do a job, you do it right or you don't do it at all.”

Haley was elected on a Republican ticket with endorsement from the conservative Tea Party movement. Since taking office, she has bulldozed government expenditure and turned down offers of financial assistance from national government, insisting that the state needs to live within its means.

She also signed into law a bill clamping down on illegal immigration: “As the proud daughter of immigrants, who taught us everyday how blessed we are to live here, I want to say that South Carolina welcomes people, and we love the fact that this state is made up of many different types of people. But we also appreciate that those people, like my parents, put in their time and came here the right way — they came here legally.”

But here’s the kicker: before Haley’s election, the youngest governor in the US was the governor of Louisiana who was born seven months before Haley. His name is Piyush Jindal, more commonly known as Bobby Jindal. And he too, is the child of Indian immigrants.

And that, to my mind, is what makes the United States a great country — it’s the fact that Barack Obama, Nikki Haley, and Bobby Jindal, with parents born outside the country, still have the ability to reach extraordinary heights.

So I find myself asking here in South Africa, the land of my birth, whether it would be possible for a child of immigrants to transcend being viewed as an outsider and aspire to the highest offices of the land? And if not, can we call ourselves a great nation?

Watch Nikki Haley carefully. If she doesn’t crash spectacularly from trying to do too much too soon, she could become the US’s first woman president.