Trump isn't interested in SA

William Saunderson-Meyer says the US President's choice of ambassador is a useful gauge


New ambassador to Pretoria signals Trump’s disinterest

If you want to gauge where South Africa stands in President Donald Trump’s universe, it’s written large in his choice of the new United States ambassador to this country. Lana Marks, a Florida socialite and handbag designer.

Mind you, these are not ordinary handbags. These are luxury items, made from the hides of exotic animals and favoured by the likes of Kate Winslet.

The White House announcement was last week, but her appointment has been rumoured for a while. It’s about time, too.

That the position has been vacant for two years, is another telling indication of the lack or importance Trump attaches to one of Africa’s most powerful nations. That the mission has been headed in the interim by a mere Chargé d’Affaires is another. 

In the US diplomatic hierarchy, an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, to give the job its full title, is the foreign service equivalent of a four-star general. 

A Chargé d’Affaires? Not so much. The literal translation from French is “the person in charge of business matters”. Think of the CDA as the flunky who keeps the four-star general’s tent looking spick and span while they are out conquering the world. 

For the past two years to have an interim, nogal, CDA running the US mission in SA — housed in that hideously ugly concrete bunker, apparently spirited directly from the blasted heath of a World War One battlefield into the bucolic Pretoria suburb of Arcadia — speaks volumes. It’s about as big a statement of the host country’s insignificance as is possible, aside from not having any diplomatic relations at all.

Marks is a diplomatic neophyte, Her experience in this arena is limited to talking nicely with her fellow social butterflies over canapés at Tump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where she is a member.

This is not to be sneered at. The Foreign Service Institute at Arlington might be the training ground of conventional diplomats, but to catch Trump’s eye it is a better investment to pay the $100,000 a year in fees that Mar-a-Lago costs.

Trump’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic is a member. Two other members were nominated as ambassadors to Austria and Ireland, but declined.

While is true that the previous US ambassador to Pretoria, Patrick Gaspard, was also not a career diplomat, there the comparison ends. He had a lifetime of experience as a union and political organiser, as well as a long stint in the White House during President Barack Obama’s first term.

They do, however, share one thing: both are US immigrants. Where Marks has the edge is that while Gaspard was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo — a failing state that truly qualifies to be one of Trump’s despised “shitholes of Africa” — she was born in the Eastern Cape and says she attended “very fine” East London schools.

To be a successful purveyor of luxury goods is an admirable achievement. It’s a highly competitive market and undoubtedly demands commercial savvy. But it is not an occupation usually associated with an interest in or knowledge of a political world.

On the face of it, from the interviews so far, Marks comes across as just another preening but slightly insecure snob. In a Business Day interview, she burbles about living in Palm Beach the “most exclusive part of the United States … The crème de la crème of the world lives there”.

Marks claims also to have played at Wimbledon, the French and the South African Opens. Upon my enquiry, Wimbledon reported that they could find no record of her, neither under the name Lana Marks nor Lana Banks, her maiden name. 

One of her great strengths, she says, is her good taste. Her greatest achievement is the $400,000 Lana Marks Cleopatra Clutch, a dyed crocodile skin and diamond encrusted handbag, “inspired by Elizabeth Taylor” — as well as, dare one assume? the Queen of the Nile, the unrivalled diplomat of her era — and which is “seen on the Red Carpet more than any other”. 

Ambassadorial appointments, even when dished out as presidential rewards to cronies, have symbolic significance. SA has had a long and intimate, albeit sometimes fractious, diplomatic history with the US.

The US bolstered the apartheid regime during the Cold War years, using it as a military surrogate in Angola. The US also helped pull the plug on that same regime with the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which in 1986 triggered massive disinvestment and drove the National Party to negotiations with the liberation movements.

So the Marks appointment is simply a measure of Trump’s narrow focus. His greatest post-1945 ally, Europe, doesn’t much feature in his world view. Why would we?

It could, of course, be that she got the job not because she wines and dines with the Trumpians. She got it because she was the only one in the Mar-a-Lago Diplomatic Academy who could find SA on the map.

It’s that bottom bit sticking into the ocean, pointing towards that big ice blob. Right next to Trump's favourite African country, Nambia.

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