If you want to gauge where we stand in President Donald Trump’s universe, it’s written large in his choice of the new US ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, a Florida handbag designer.
That the position has been vacant for two years is another telling indication. That the mission has been headed in the interim by a mere chargé d’affaires (CDA) is another.
In the US diplomatic hierarchy, an ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary is the foreign service equivalent of a four-star general.
A chargé d’affaires? Not so much. 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, speaks volumes. It’s big a statement of the host country’s insignificance.
Marks is a diplomatic neophyte. Her experience in this arena is limited to talking nicely with fellow social butterflies over canapés at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where she is a member.
This is not to be sneered at. The Foreign Service Institute might be the training ground of conventional diplomats, but to catch Trump’s eye it is a better investment to pay the annual $100,000 (R1.4 million) fees of Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic is a member. Two other members were nominated as ambassadors to Austria and Ireland, but declined.
While it 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 Barack Obama’s first term.
Both are US immigrants. 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” – while she was born in the Eastern Cape and says she attended “very fine” schools.
From the interviews, Marks comes across as a preening, but slightly insecure snob. She burbles about living in the “most exclusive part of the United States … The crème de la crème of the world lives there”.
Marks also claims to have played at Wimbledon, as well as the French and the South African Opens. Wimbledon reports that they can find no record of her.
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” 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. South Africa has had a long and intimate, albeit sometimes fractious, diplomatic history with the US.
Marks is simply a measure of Trump’s narrow focus. His greatest post-1945 ally, Europe, doesn’t much feature in his worldview. 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 South Africa 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.