She may not be in the political heavyweight league of predecessors Patrick Gaspard, Bill Swing, Princeton Layman, James Joseph or Edward Perkins, but United States ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks has a lot to say about politics and international relations. Marks, who has had a distinguished business career in clothes and fashion, is ironically no mere trendily dressed pretty face who shies away from responding on any questions fired her way – including responding to decisions taken by her controversial boss, US President Donald Trump. If you assumed that business acumen, good looks and a fashion statement do not...
She may not be in the political heavyweight league of predecessors Patrick Gaspard, Bill Swing, Princeton Layman, James Joseph or Edward Perkins, but United States ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks has a lot to say about politics and international relations.
Marks, who has had a distinguished business career in clothes and fashion, is ironically no mere trendily dressed pretty face who shies away from responding on any questions fired her way – including responding to decisions taken by her controversial boss, US President Donald Trump.
If you assumed that business acumen, good looks and a fashion statement do not mix with politics, think again. These and many other qualities compelled Trump to appoint Marks as ambassador to one of Africa's most strategic countries.
Before her appointment last October as US diplomat to South Africa, Marks served as chief executive officer (CEO) of Lana Marks fashion brand, which she founded in 1987.
Over the course of 30 years, she developed the label into an international brand – opening stores and boutiques across the world.
A member of the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America, in 2001 Marks was one of 50 American CEOs and the sole fashion representative invited to the White House for the Women Business Leaders' Forum, during the George W Bush presidency.
A long-time advocate of women's empowerment, Marks has served on Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government's women's leadership board and as a distinguished speaker at Georgetown University's Women's Leadership Initiative.
She twice represented the US for the Women Business Leadership Summit in Helsinki and is a supporting member of the Council of Women World Leaders.
In 2002, the Star Group selected her as one of 40 businesswomen to be honoured as a leading woman entrepreneur of the world. She joined up with dozens of charities, with a focus on advancing breast cancer research and supporting underprivileged children and the arts.
Born in the Eastern Cape town of East London, where she learnt isiXhosa and Afrikaans before later attending Wits University, Marks' friendship with Trump spans 20 years.
"I have been an acquaintance of President Trump for two decades.
"I was very honoured when he asked me to represent the United States as ambassador to South Africa.
"He recognised the skills that would serve me well here as ambassador, taking into account that I was born here and grew up in East London.
"This gave me a unique footing and an advantage in my current diplomatic role," says Marks.
A common thread between Trump and Marks is that they both emerged from having distinguished themselves as business leaders in the private sector before entering politics.
Says Marks: "I have over 30 years' experience in the private sector, having started my own business, which I built into an international brand.
"I have been constantly humbled by the spectacular diversity of this land.
"Although I was born and grew up here, it is only in the capacity as ambassador that I have been able to see the true scope of this beautiful land.
"My role is not just about cutting ribbons and attending meetings, but about rolling up my sleeves and making a difference in the lives of South African communities.
"Accompanied by the US marines last year before the outbreak of Covid-19, I have been involved in outreach programmes in such areas as Soshanguve and Laudium outside Pretoria; as well as in KwaZulu-Natal – engaging with leaders of non-governmental organisations in such areas as healthcare and gender-based violence."
With President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledging the American support in the fight against Covid-19, the US government's material, financial and technical support in SA has included:
A donation of 1,000 ventilators;
Monetary US government response in fighting the virus, amounting to R410 million.
The US President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief's (Pepfar) efforts in the development of lab and clinic systems, modelling and surveillance, and health worker training.
"We are committed to helping the state to expand its capacity to treat patients who require hospitalisation during Covid-19," says Marks.
The US commitment, says Marks, "has been built over decades of the US government leadership as the world's most generous provider of bilateral assistance in global health".
"We stood side-by-side with South Africa for 17 years in the campaign to control the spread and treatment of HIV/Aids epidemic through Pepfar, having invested more than R80 billion in a long-term effort to help in developing systems and healthcare training."
Despite the US government's Covid-19 assistance, Trump has suspended millions in funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – a decision Marks believes is justified.
"He has legitimate grievances regarding WHO, which commended China for their handling of the pandemic, when they had no facts on hand," she says.
Is Africa of strategic importance to the Trump Administration?
Responds Marks with an emphatic: "A hundred percent, yeah!
"The US is deeply committed to engaging our partners throughout Africa."
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