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South Africa: new US ambassador could smooth relations

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 15:16

Marks met Trump in the White House last week to discuss her diplomatic mission. Instagram/lanamarkshandbags

Margaret Thatcher's handbag was once described as her "secret weapon". Could luxury bag designer Lana Marks prove to be the same for Donald Trump in South Africa?

The US Senate confirmed Lana Marks’s nomination for the diplomatic posting to Pretoria last month, almost a year after President Donald Trump named her as his choice.

Marks, a successful entrepreneur based in Florida, where she is known for her eponymous brand of handbags, was born in the coastal city of East London, Eastern Cape.

The position has been vacant for 34 months, since the departure of predecessor Patrick Gaspard in January 2017.

No gravitas, no problem

Trump’s unveiling of Marks raised eyebrows because of her lack of a political profile. However, this might work in her advantage, says Professor Gilbert Khadiagala, director of Wits University’s African Centre for the Study of the United States.

“It is correct, she has no gravitas, zero experience and has no political background. She got this position because she gave money to the Trump campaign. It is as simple as that. It happens in the US,” says the political analyst.

“It’s not a negative point because […] ambassadors are appointed on that basis. These are political appointees, as opposed to the regular ambassadors who are professionals. There are many of those professionals at the US embassy in Pretoria and at the consul in Johannesburg,” Khadiagala says.

Charm offensive

According to Khadiagala, there is no need to underestimate Marks’s credentials. Her biggest selling point is that she is from South Africa. Secondly, her lack of experience will likely result in her seeking consensus through broad consultation.

“I think she is a daughter of the soil. Maybe she will create good chemistry with [President Cyril] Ramaphosa or [international relations minister] Naledi Pandor, you never know. Things could change, we could be headed for a rosier relationship [between South Africa and the US]. That is my reading,” explains Khadiagala.

Pressure points

Should Marks go for the conciliatory approach, that might help calm some of the irritants that have characterised diplomatic relations between the two countries in recent times. These include:

  • The threat of South Africa’s exclusion from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) because of its restrictions on US poultry imports;
  • The US imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports;
  • South Africa voting against the US at the UN Security Council;
  • The ongoing saga of former Mozambican finance minister Manuel Chang’s extradition.

The poultry issue was the most dangerous for South Africa. But the country lobbied quickly to avert its exclusion from the AGOA framework.

In the main, trade relations remain normal.

The steel and aluminium tariff represents the broader agenda of Trump’s “America First” administration.

South Africa sticks to its principles

In the early days of the Trump administration, there was a threat to impose sanctions on countries that did not vote with the US at the UN. Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN, warned that the Trump administration was going to be punitive.

That created an irritation for South Africa. The country has traditionally taken independent positions at the UN Security Council, dating back to the Mandela days. South Africa and the US have disagreed on motions involving Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, among others.

“The issue of UN [voting] is not going away,” says Khadiagala.

“The good news is that, with the foreign policy establishment in the US in disarray, there is an opening and an opportunity for South Africa to maintain its principled positions.

“We are beginning to see Trump vacillating on some of the key foreign policy issues. He is also under attack domestically,” he points out.

Chang’s future in the balance

The Mozambican minister Chang was arrested by South Africa on a US warrant in December 2018. Michael Masutha, who served as justice minister under former president Jacob Zuma, had directed that Chang be extradited to Mozambique.

Current justice minister Ronald Lamola, a Ramaphosa appointee, has challenged his predecessor’s decision in the courts.

“Under Zuma, the decision was taken because of the ANC-Frelimo fraternity relations. The pullback from the current justice minister is going to annoy the Mozambicans. They do not want Chang in the US because of the kinds of things he is going to reveal, [which] are going to be damaging to the current administration in Maputo,” says Khadiagala.

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