Trump’s ambassador to SA under fire for nepotism allegations

The United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs has raised alarm bells about allegations of nepotism and other management issues at the US embassy in Pretoria.

But according to a letter obtained by Foreign Policy, the committee’s investigation into the US ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, has been frustrated by the US State Department for nearly three months.

According to the letter — signed by committee chair Eliot Engel and ranking member Michael McCaul — the committee raised concerns in November 2019 after Marks referred to her son, Martin Marks, as her “chief of staff” in a now deleted tweet.

Many of the committee’s queries to the State Department about the younger Marks’s role at the embassy, as well as any US government resources afforded to him, were left unanswered, the letter reads.

Marks was nominated as the ambassador by US President Donald Trump in 2018 and was sworn into office in October 2019. She is a South African-born fashion designer with no prior diplomatic experience.

In an interview with the Daily Maverick last year, Marks said she has had a “nice acquaintance” with Trump and his family for more than 23 years.

According to Foreign Policy, Marks’s ties to Trump come from her membership of his private Mar-a-Lago club.

An earlier report by Foreign Policy revealed that tensions had risen over allegations that Marks has pushed for her son to take an elevated role at embassy, which is the largest in Africa. 

According to the article, last month Marks “forced out” her second in command, David Young. Young’s departure from his post came in the wake of several other officials being pushed out of the embassy, the article reads.

Marks reportedly told Foreign Policy that Young had a “quite different” management style from hers and she felt it appropriate for him to take a new position.

Ambassadors have full authority to remove their deputy chiefs of mission. But according to Foreign Policy current and former diplomats say it is happening with increasing frequency in the Trump administration.

Although allegations of bullying and mismanagement predate Marks’s arrival, some have blamed the new ambassador for low morale and management issues at the US embassy in Pretoria.

In their letter, Engel and McCaul demand briefings with Young and other embassy employees “dismissed or curtailed” in the period of Marks’s tenure.

The embassy declined to comment.

But a senior embassy official, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on the condition of anonymity, denied the nepotism claims, saying that Martin Marks has never been employed by the US State Department.

This article has been updated to include comment from a senior embassy official.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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