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US ambassador’s ambition: Lift SA into top 20 of US trade partners

US ambassador’s ambition: Lift SA into top 20 of US trade partners
Us Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks confirmed that the US was ready to divert some of its existing support to South Africa for fighting HIV/AIDS to fighting the coronavirus. (Photo: Alon Skuy)

Newly installed US ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks describes herself as a ‘firefighter’ who ‘walks’ and ‘gets things done’.

Like her boss and good friend President Donald Trump, America’s new ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, has boundless energy, optimism, enthusiasm, self-confidence, a tendency to speak in superlatives – and huge ambition. She’s been in her post barely 60 days and was only formally accredited as ambassador on Tuesday, when she handed over her credential letters from Trump to President Ramaphosa. 

But already she’s made good progress in resolving all of the snags in relations between the two countries, she says. And has gone beyond those to address “every major problem of South Africa… significantly, on behalf of the United States wherever the South African government wants American help. May I say that humbly.”

She “hit the ground running” when she arrived in South Africa in November 2019 because she was almost three years late to her post, through no fault of her own. That’s how long the US had been without an ambassador in Pretoria. And so she told Daily Maverick that she’s been working 24/7, 6am to 2am ever since to catch up, including meeting lots of people who have all been “incredibly positive in every respect and it’s rather heartening”.

“I think it’s a pivotal time in our relationship with South Africa and it’s so positive, it’s extraordinary… So we have much going on between the United States and South Africa. It couldn’t be more positive. And I’m very, very heartened by what I’ve been able to achieve which is very extensive…. in a very short time towards my goals and towards our foreign policy, the United States’ goals towards South Africa. But mine personally as well.

“Without giving you details, I have personally been addressing some of South Africa’s most challenging issues or problems with the fantastic access that I have to all of the United States exceptional institutions and corporations. And I’ve had fantastic co-operation all round. I’ve been able to achieve terrific results early on.”

The problems in US-South Africa relations she is grappling with – and is prepared to talk about – include another threatened termination of South Africa’s tariff-free entry into the lucrative US market; increasing efficiency to help South Africa attain epidemic control of HIV/Aids by the end of 2020; Trump’s provocative tweets two years ago about land expropriation and farm murders; as well as the need to boost US investor confidence.

When she met President Cyril Ramaphosa at the credential ceremony, Marks explained two new major US initiatives – she asked him, after he had become chair of the African Union next month, to invite all of Africa’s leaders to a US-Africa investment summit in Washington which Ramaphosa and Trump would co-host, probably in May; and she told him the Trump administration had decided to lift South Africa into the top 20 of US trade partners. 

Marks told Daily Maverick that the investment summit could “make a significant difference to Africa and the economies of Africa”. She said Trump and Ramaphosa had met several times, “and they’ve just hit it off”. Ramaphosa’s office confirmed at least four meetings at global summits.

Marks said Ramaphosa was unable to respond to the investment summit proposal at the ceremony on Tuesday but had received her very positively and the two governments would follow up the proposal. Ramaphosa’s office, though, suggested the US should rather go through the African Union Commission.

Marks acknowledged that lifting SA into the top 20 of US trading partners – from its current position of 39th – would be an enormous undertaking, requiring at least tripling the volume of two-way trade which was already “decent”.  Her team and the South African team were already working on the framework for doing so, she said. 

This would include skills training programmes, encouraging new categories of US investment to South Africa such as advanced manufacturing and services, both of which “South Africa is outstanding at and under-utilised” she added, saying she saw South Africa’s high unemployment as a “tremendous manpower opportunity”.

But what’s different? Governments always vow to boost trade and investment.  

“I’m not a government person. I don’t have a government background. I come from the private sector. I’m not a civil servant by background. That’s why President Trump put me in this position, because I’m a person who wants results. In my prior career, I sometimes called myself ‘the firefighter’. All the problems used to come to me to overcome in global business. I’m not somebody who talks, I’m somebody who walks. And I’m about getting things done.”

Marks was born in South Africa and emigrated to the US in the 1970s where she created a successful global business designing business making very expensive fashion handbags. She and her family met Trump in Florida and he asked her to become ambassador to SA. And so she is a political appointment to the embassy in Pretoria, with no professional diplomatic experience. But she clearly sees that as a plus. 

Even so, can even a can-do “firefighter” boost trade and investment by so much?

“I have the right people on board. I have the right people in the United States on board, in the right agencies. I have the people who can make this happen, in the US. Very, very significant people on board, to make this happen. It’s a lot of work to make this happen. It’s tripling trade. But I have the support of the people I need.”

But surely regular Eskom load shedding, South African Airways and other SoEs tanking and a looming credit rating agency downgrade, among other economic ills here, would put that trade target beyond reach and also make it impossible to persuade many more US investors to come here, we asked her. 

“I’m working on all of the problems of South Africa to ensure there’s a very positive investment climate going forward. So many of the things you mention, I’m working on very hard,” she replied, rather enigmatically, with an air of “watch this space”.

Another major potential impediment to the ambitious goal of tripling trade is a looming threat to South Africa’s duty-free access to the US market under America’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), its largest trade preference programme for developing countries. On Thursday the US Trade Representative began public hearings in Washington to review South Africa’s participation in GSP based on a complaint from the International Intellectual Property Alliance, a private-sector group that represents 3,200 US companies including the makers and distributors of books, films, music and video games that alleges South Africa’s Copyright Amendment Bill and Performers’ Protection Amendment Bill fail to “provide adequate and effective protection of US copyrights”, according to Bloomberg. 

If South Africa loses its GSP access it would also automatically lose additional duty-free access to the US market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The Bloomberg report said that South African officials intended to caution the US government this week that the GSP review could imperil as much as $2.4-billion of South African exports and was potentially damaging to both countries. Total trade in goods and services between South Africa and the US was $18.9-billion in 2018, with almost $2.4-billion of South African exports entering the US duty-free under the GSP and AGOA, according to US government data.

Bloomberg reported the senior South African trade officials would also tell Washington that the USTR’s review of South Africa’s GSP access was premature as the two bills were not yet in effect and Ramaphosa was reviewing both of them. 

This last point may be what Marks had in mind when she said that Washington was very pleased with the way South Africa was responding to the problem. “South Africa is taking it very seriously and co-operating very positively and sending very top people to DC. And that’s very positively perceived by Washington,” she said. 

Asked if she believed South Africa would change the two laws to meet US concerns, she said the laws “must be within every aspect of the Constitution of South Africa”.

The implication seems to be that Ramaphosa is vetting the bills to see if they pass constitutional muster and that the US doesn’t think they do. 

Another direct threat to AGOA may be looming if the SA government again sharply increases import tariffs on US poultry, as some industry sources say it might. In 2015 Pretoria agreed to give US poultry producers an annual quota of 65,000 tons a year of frozen chicken at reduced import tariffs in exchange for SA retaining its AGOA access.  

But Marks is confident that South Africa is not going to lose either its GSP or its AGOA access, directly or indirectly. 

“It’s not going to happen,” she says, firmly. 

Yet another issue on her busy To-Do list is land reform. Trump infamously tweeted two years ago that he had instructed his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to investigate “land and farm seizures” and “killing of farmers”, which delighted conservative South African whites but infuriated Pretoria. But now those same conservatives are circulating a petition demanding Trump recall Marks because she publicly praised Ramaphosa and his government recently. 

Marks insisted to us that she hadn’t abandoned white farmers or anyone else and that she was hard at work addressing the land issue just as she was “addressing all aspects of everything”. Farm murders, like all murders, were unacceptable, she stressed. 

She reiterated that “Ramaphosa is a great guy with a great cabinet – the core”. And that she believed, from conversations she had had, that he would continue to deal with land reform “within the confines of the law. .. I’m optimistic about that proceeding in the right direction.”

Asked how she was dealing with the land issue, she said she was “having conversations with the right people”. Did that mean using US influence? “No. Just asking how South Africa intends to proceed. Obviously I’m the US ambassador. So… I’m asking from the position of wanting to absolutely ensure that the investment climate in South Africa stays in a manner in which we can bring in enormous investment and trade to South Africa, that there’s an excellent investment climate going forward. However, it has been a historically fraught issue and I acknowledge that.”

She declines to say if land reform could become another issue jeopardising South Africa’s duty-free access to the lucrative US market. She merely notes that at this “pivotal time” with everyone in the US, including every government institution, so positive to South Africa and Ramaphosa in particular, it was important to ensure the investment climate remained attractive. 

Even Trump’s controversial tweets on land, if interpreted correctly – and she says she knows him well enough to do that – meant; “Don’t be silly, don’t change anything. Don’t change the investment climate. He’s saying ‘South Africa, be cautious. Stay on track. We love you, we want to bring huge investment here. Don’t mess up.’ That’s what he’s really saying.”

Another fire to be extinguished is the increased tariffs on South African aluminium and steel imports which the Trump administration imposed in 2018, along with those from many other countries. About 53% of South African aluminium and steel exporters to the US have already been granted exemptions from the import duties and the rest have been urged to apply for exemption, Marks said. 

She says South Africa was never the intended target of these import duties but just got caught in the crossfire and didn’t have enough heft at the time, in effect, to get a nationwide exemption to them. You mean we had no “quid pro quo” to offer, we ask (innocently). 

“I’ve never heard that word before! I don’t know what it means,” she quipped, in an oblique reference to Trump’s impeachment trial, currently under way, where the Latin expression is pivotal. 

“You know going forward, things are going to change with South Africa because of trade deals, big… everything’s going to change in the future, positively.”

And then there is America’s major aid programme to South Africa; the immense Pepfar – the global President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief  – which has been already spent more than R80-billion of US taxpayers’ money since the start in 2004 to curb HIV/Aids in South Africa – it’s largest national programme.  The US and South Africa recently agreed to a “surge” of funding to try to achieve “epidemic control” of HIV/Aids by the end of 2020. (South Africa defines epidemic control as 90% of those infected knowing their status; 90% of those in turn seeking and remaining on treatment; and 90% of those being virally suppressed.)  The US Congress “generously agreed to the surge” Marks, said. It approved US$678 million for South Africa’s 2018 Country Operational Plan (COP18) and then US$752-million for COP2019 which ends in September this year, as the second tranche of the surge. 

Marks told Daily Maverick the US$752-million had just arrived last week. “I’ve been very involved in this and I think what has helped is my background in private industry in getting things done, addressing practical problems and accountability.” She commends Health Minister Zweli Mkhize for agreeing personally to attend their upcoming final COP20 meetings to agree on the programme to run from September 2020 to September 2021. “That will be a first.”  

Marks said “if we do get a very good result this year then Congress will also be motivated to assist with other health problems in South Africa. Because I’ve been asked the question; ‘what about the other health problems?’. But this administration wants results.”

Given her personal friendship with Trump, it’s hardly surprising that though most South Africans seemed annoyed or embarrassed by South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe’s recent effusive praise for Trump, she was delighted by it. Motsepe told Trump at a dinner in the US; “Africa loves America. Africa loves you. It’s very, very important. We want America to do well. We want you to do well. The success of America is the success of the rest of the world.” 

Marks said she knew Motsepe “quite well and he is a remarkable gentleman, remarkable. So enthusiastic about everything South African.  And he obviously loves America personally. As America personally loves the whole of South Africa. So I just think what he said was outstanding and was perceived very positively by the United States and by our President. I think he was just being very enthusiastic and quite wonderful and was so spontaneous. Wonderful.” 

Marks said she did not take the flood of criticism of Motsepe on social media as a measure of South Africa’s feelings about Trump. Nevertheless, she suggested that South Africans would get to like Trump better when they learnt about how he really thinks and feels about South Africa.

For Trump, she insisted, “actions speak louder than words. .. He is a very rare individual. He is a man of his word. If he gives his word on something, he never waivers as do many politicians. And he could not be more positive about South Africa and about Africa.  Number one he’s told me personally how beautiful [South Africa is].”

But how does Trump’s supposed affection for South Africa and Africa square with his notorious dismissal of several African nations as “shithole countries” two years ago?.  Marks explains firstly that he made the remark in a private meeting in Congress. And then she adds that he was really just “addressing some of the poverty… and there are horrible situations in Africa. 

“Maybe he said it in a blue collar way. He’s a blue collar billionaire from construction sites in New York. The man is fabulous. He’s got language of the blue collar billionaire… he loves the construction worker and that’s why America loves him. He’s got the language of the construction worker. 

“It’s because there are some bad circumstances in Africa. Horrible situations. And even here in South Africa, some of the townships and that. However, he’s the person who’s going to help enormously. He’s going to help South Africa in a way that’s never been done before. And he’s going to help Africa in a way that’s never been done before. And it’s rather sad that what he said has been misinterpreted politically, taken out of context.”

Trump’s actions that would speak louder than words were his decision to triple trade with South Africa and to co-host a US-Africa Investment summit with Ramaphosa. “The might of American industry will be behind South Africa and Africa to show that President Trump and the United States really care,”  she vowed. DM



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