The nomination of South African-born United States citizen Lana Marks as the US ambassador to Pretoria after more than 12 months of the post being vacant is a clear indication of a shift in US foreign policy towards South Africa.
Factors reflecting this change rest on two points. First, the calibre of the individual selected as US ambassador stands in sharp contrast to her predecessors — Patrick Gaspard, Donald Gips, Eric M Bost, Jendayi Elizabeth Frazer and Cameron R Hume — all of whom had a rich repertoire of experience in academia, politics or international relations. Each brought a unique set of skills and experience relevant to the maturity of the bilateral relationship between South Africa and the US.
Although it might seem woefully elitist to assume that ambassador-elect Marks would not be able to carry out her responsibilities diligently, one cannot simply brush aside her appointment without interrogating the possible reasons behind President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint her.
It is important to make a clear distinction between how the current US administration views South Africa in contrast to how previous administrations viewed it.
Historically, South Africa has been seen as a strategic partner for countries outside the African continent, specifically the US. This was expressed by former secretary of state John Kerry, who stated: “South Africa is playing an increasingly important global role, a very important leadership role on the continent of Africa, and, we are pleased to say, an important co-operative role together with the United States.”
This sentiment was amplified by former assistant secretary of state for the bureau of African affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who said: “As one of our strategic partners in Africa, South Africa’s leaders continue to show tremendous creativity and co-operation in promoting regional peace and security … It lends a significant voice to the international community as a member of the Brics [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa bloc of] nations.”
Perhaps the best way to view the relationship between the US and South Africa is through the prism of the current trade war between China and the US. The trade war, reminiscent of the Cold War era, has polarised the world into those who support the US, under Trump, and those who support China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping.
Historically, South Africa’s membership and participation in Brics, as stated by Thomas-Greenfield, was seen as “lending a significant voice to the international community”. But, with the backdrop of the trade war, South Africa’s participation in Brics, and its co-chairing of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac) this year, has, in the minds of many in the US, placed South Africa firmly in Xi’s camp.
The second factor reflecting a change in US foreign policy towards South Africa is that, for more than 12 months, the US did not appoint an ambassador to South Africa. It is assumed that, if South Africa was seen as a strategic ally, as has been the case with previous US administrations, an ambassador would have been appointed within six months of Trump’s election to office.
An illustrative point to make here is to highlight the ripple effects the lack of the appointment of an ambassador has had, the most relevant example being Trump’s tweet relating to a supposed “white genocide” and the issue of “land grabs”.
The source of his information seemed to be Fox News, which presented a biased and uninformed insert about the ANC’s decision to amend the Constitution to enable it to expropriate land without compensation. The subsequent critique levelled at the Trump administration by the South African government was centred on the need to address such issues through official diplomatic channels rather than through social media.
Moreover, had the Trump administration had an ambassador in South Africa at that time, reliable and factual information about the land situation in the country could have been relayed.
Of course, the mere presence of a US ambassador in the country does not guarantee that there will be no more ill-advised Trump tweets. But it does strengthen the use of official diplomatic channels to express concerns, deal with misunderstandings and foster a greater bilateral understanding.
It is reasonable to assume that US foreign policy towards South Africa has changed, that South Africa is no longer seen as a strategic ally, that its proximity to China through multilateral forums such as Brics and Focac is seen as a problem and that the decision by South Africa’s ruling party to embark on the process of land expropriation without compensation is viewed as too left of centre, and, as such, too interventionist.
Fazlin Fransman is a senior researcher at Moja Research Institute, an independent, not-for-profit think-tank that serves as a hub for critical thought in media, development and global governance