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United States Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks departs Pretoria

Acting Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa John Groarke. (Photo: Twitter / @USAID_Pakistan) | Former US Ambassador to SA Lana Marks. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Marks had been in Pretoria only since November 2019, her arrival delayed by Trump’s failure to nominate an ambassador, and then a protracted Senate confirmation process.

As Donald Trump begrudgingly abandoned the political stage in Washington on Wednesday, heading home to Florida, so did his short-lived ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, vacate her post in Pretoria. 

Marks, an East London-born manufacturer of high-end fashion handbags, who had met Trump in Florida after she emigrated to the US in the 1970s, was replaced by an interim charge d’affaires – an acting ambassador – John Groarke, head of the US development aid agency, USAID in South Africa.

A dedicated charge d’affaires – and then hopefully, before too long, a permanent ambassador – will be on their way.

Marks had been in Pretoria only since November 2019, her arrival delayed by Trump’s failure to nominate an ambassador, and then a protracted Senate confirmation process. 

Her legacy will nonetheless be much better than that of her friend and boss – though some might call that damning with faint praise.

Before she arrived at the embassy, many South Africans feared she would reflect Trump’s controversial and offensive positions, including his recent endorsement on Twitter of the fears of conservative whites about land seizures and farm murders.

But Marks proved instead to be unideological and devoted to forging strong relations with the South African government and getting as much as possible done practically during her brief 14-month term.

Among the long list of accomplishments that she posted on the embassy’s website this week – with just a whiff of Trumpian hyperbole – were mobilising more resources to help South Africa achieve HIV epidemic control by 2021 and persuading her superiors to donate 1,000 ventilators as well as considerable other equipment and skilled personnel to fight Covid-19.

One of her potentially most significant accomplishments is not widely known – a letter of intent signed by the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) – which guarantees selected US foreign investments – and NuScale, a US nuclear energy technology firm, to develop 2,500MW of nuclear energy in South Africa with its small modular reactors.

US President Joe Biden looks up into the crowd during his presidential inauguration in Washington, DC.(Photo: EPA-EFE / JONATHAN ERNST / POOL)

If this deal went through, it would become the first US nuclear energy independent power producer on the continent, the DFC says on its website.

Diane Hughes, vice-president, marketing and communications at NuScale Power, said although the potential project was in its early stages, the company was excited to work with the DFC “to explore the applications of our groundbreaking technology to provide clean, cost-effective energy to South Africa”.

More broadly, what does the shift from Trump to Biden mean for South Africa and Africa? International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said this week, at a Chatham House webinar, what the continent seeks from the new US administration, at least, is “respect and global cooperation”.

“And so we are now hopeful that we now have a decent person in the White House who will engage with the continent on the basis of seeking collaboration and partnership and not in any way being arrogant due to America’s economic power,” she added in an interview with Newzroom Afrika on Thursday.

Not such a tall order, one would think. Just don’t call us “shithole” countries. And please discuss with us your plans and intentions for Africa.

Biden will surely offer Africa such respect, cooperation and consultation. He committed to restore multilateralism as a cornerstone of US foreign policy at his inauguration. And Washington insiders say he plans to engage much more with Africans, possibly at a summit of African government leaders quite soon. And maybe by creating a forum for consulting with the African diaspora in Washington.

But apart from the optics and atmospherics, will there be much concrete change?

Pandor didn’t want to be drawn too deeply into her specific expectations, apart from saying she hoped that Biden would reverse Trump’s recent decision to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Morocco claims it as a province, but the Polisario insists it should be an independent state – the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. (SADR) Both South Africa and the African Union recognise the independent SADR state, though it exists largely only in name.

Biden does seem more likely than not to reverse Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty, on the grounds that that decision is still officially subject to the outcome of a UN-supervised referendum among the people of Western Sahara/SADR.

Pandor expressed another implicit expectation from the Biden administration, in the Newzroom Afrika interview, that the US should channel its efforts to improve democracy and good governance in Africa – which she welcomed in principle – through the African Union.

She said that at times the US had interfered in the sovereignty of African countries while trying to advance democracy. She suggested the US should instead support the AU’s efforts to push democracy on the continent – as South Africa did.

The obvious problem with going through the AU, though – and the Biden administration is sure to feel that – is that the AU too rarely takes any action itself to advance democracy.

US President Joe Biden heads to the White House after being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States in Washington, DC. (Photo: EPA-EFE / SAMUEL CORUM)

In this context, Pretoria and other African states are likely to expect the Biden administration to lift targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe and other countries and leaders who abuse their people. It seems unlikely that Biden will do so, as sanctions have been a tool of both Democratic and Republican administrations in the past.

There also seems a good chance that Biden will reverse Trump’s blocking of former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment as the head of the World Trade Organisation(WTO). Trump’s objection to her seemed to be part of his ideological opposition to the WTO per se – and to multilateralism – and his insistence on a more pliable South Korean candidate.

But trade is a hot-button political and economic issue in the US and one cannot be absolutely sure that Biden will feel he has political wiggle-room to relinquish so much control. Likewise, some Africans fear that the US-Kenya free trade agreement negotiations which began last year could falter under Biden.

There seems no reason to fear that the Biden administration would drop them in principle, but they are fraught with potential deal-breakers anyway, on issues like Kenya’s insistence on taxing digital services and on opposing genetically-modified organisms.

This would become the first bilateral US free trade agreement with a sub-Saharan country and is therefore being seen as a model for others, particularly as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) expires in 2025. It could be renewed, but many in the US especially believe it is time that it is replaced with conventional reciprocal free trade and so a Kenya deal could lead the way. It seems unlikely, as some speculate, that the US would drop such bilateral free trade deals and rather negotiate a deal with all of Africa via the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which officially began trading on January 1 this year. This could be seen as a bridge too far.

The Biden administration will also confront some thorny security decisions, such as how to improve the fight against terrorism and violent extremism in the Sahel and in Somalia. US Africa Command (Africom), which is spearheading US efforts to help Africans in this fight, is seen by some as neo-imperialist and also not very successful in meeting its objectives.

It is hard to see a Biden administration walking away from this task. But perhaps greater coordination with other countries helping Africa fight terrorism – especially France – would be in order.

On that score, the Biden team should and perhaps will drop the US veto on the UN financing African peacekeeping operations such as Amisom in Somalia – and divert some of Africom’s resources to the AU. This, however, would depend on the US trusting the AU enough to allow it greater operational independence in fighting the likes of the very deadly Al-Shabaab.

And the Biden administration may also have to conceptualise the US’s relationship with China in Africa. The Trump administration officially defined China – and Russia – as the US’s two greatest global security threats.

That thwarted any possibility of cooperation with China in Africa, where it’s a major player in infrastructure development. It’s not clear if Biden would – or could – change that.

The shape of the team that Biden will lean on to pursue his Africa policy has begun to emerge. Dana Banks, until recently the deputy political counsellor in the US embassy in Pretoria, will head the Africa Department in the National Security Council.

Washington insiders say Robert Godec, a former deputy ambassador in Pretoria who went on to become ambassador in Tunisia and Kenya and is described as “a solid Africanist and good under pressure” is likely to become acting assistant secretary of state for Africa, replacing Tibor Nagy.

The DC rumour mill is also punting Akunna Cook – also with Pretoria as well as Chinese and Iraqi diplomatic experience – as Godec’s deputy. 

Some Africanists in Washington are a little unsure that this team reflects sufficient commitment to Africa. A professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington wondered whether appointing a mid-level career foreign service officer – Dana Banks – to head Africa in the National Security Council, would make for an uphill battle in getting the NSC to focus on Africa.

“But of course, having Linda Thomas Greenfield, an experienced Africanist (and former assistant secretary of state for Africa) as US ambassador to the UN could elevate Africa within the Biden Administration,” he added. DM

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