New United States ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks will have left her detractors scratching their heads at her remarkably upbeat message – but, in risking misstating what’s really going on in the country, she does no one any favours.
Marks probably did not expect a rapturous welcome. That she was an appointee of President Donald Trump – the bête noir of ‘woke’ opinion, and leader of a country that many within the South African government and political society detest irrespective of its incumbent president – would have been enough. But that she was a South African émigré and a ‘handbag designer’ was seen as proof of her inconsequentiality and patent unsuitability for the role.
In keeping with this, an editorial a year ago in Business Day described her nomination as a ‘middle finger’ to the country. On her arrival, a sarcastic piece by columnist Tom Eaton emphasised that she had ‘no experience in the diplomatic service or qualifications for the post.’
The impression seemed to be that South Africa had been saddled with a favoured incompetent, distinguished in nothing but triviality, here to do the bidding of an ignorant master. And on the latter, President Trump ignited particular ire in South Africa with a comment on Twitter in August last year that he had ‘asked Secretary of State to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers’.
Actually, having neither experience nor qualifications is not uncommon for ambassadors, not least in South Africa. Managing the relations of one state to another is a unique responsibility. There may be little that prepares a fashion entrepreneur for this role, but that could be said of a political activist, a legislator, or a human rights lawyer. (Politics, governance and business are related to diplomacy, not synonymous with it.)
Yet some of those who dreaded her arrival might be scratching their heads. Rather than repeating Trump’s sentiments on the matter, she put a remarkably upbeat face on South Africa and on the perspectives of the American government.
Highlighting the importance of commercial ties between the two countries, she said: ‘We believe that this is a very exciting, pivotal time to greatly increase trade and investment of the US in SA, and I just see it accelerating at a very fast pace together, and I am thrilled to be here personally to be this conduit between Pretoria and Washington. We are just going to greatly increase our trade and investment with SA, it is just hugely positive.’
She added that President Trump and the US Congress ‘totally’ believe in President Cyril Ramaphosa.
And on the vexed issue of land politics, her response would probably have raised some eyebrows among her would-be critics: ‘Nothing has happened at this time like land seizures or anything of that kind that we are aware of. We are very pleased that discussions around land are being held in a transparent manner.’
Perhaps, however, this is a case of rather too much diplomacy.
Land seizures have in fact happened in South Africa. Two widely publicised cases in the Johannesburg area – at Protea Glen in 2018 and in Lenasia South earlier this year – attracted especial media attention. In May this year, Cato Manor in Durban was hit by similar action.
Invasions of farming property are emerging as a major strategic threat to the sector. A key element in the recent legal case brought by Limpopo farmer David Rakgase against the government to compel it to honour an agreement to sell him the land he was working was that part of this property had been invaded. He and his family felt threatened by this, and he was unable legally to evict his unwanted neighbours, as he was not the owner of the property. The government dithered.
And at the time that Ambassador Marks was settling into South Africa, a pastor close to former President Jacob Zuma, Bishop Timothy Ngcobo, appeared in court for allegedly being involved in a series of land invasions on the northern coast of KwaZulu-Natal.
Indeed, we at the Institute of Race Relations have investigated a number of such cases. In April this year, we reported on the case of the Emerald Dale Farm in Donnybrook in KwaZulu-Natal, which had suffered a virtual siege. We had previously published an account of the tragic expulsion of the community of Ekuthuleni farm – also in KwaZulu-Natal – in 2014, apparently at the behest of a traditional authority in cahoots with mining interests.
One hastens to add that these are not taking place at the behest of the state – at least not the one headquartered in the Union Buildings – but they invariably demonstrate a common failure of that state to protect people’s property rights.
In the Ekuthuleni case, the targeted community, which had lived on the land for generations, was offered police protection – to be escorted off their land, leaving it open to looting and vandalism. Of his situation, David Rakgase lamented: ‘The government won’t protect me. Their officials are the reason my land was invaded in the first place.’
This is not uncommon, and the government’s pledge not to tolerate land seizures rings distinctly hollow.
The question for the immediate future is of course, whether the government will want to get in on the action. It is, after all, committed to expanding the latitude of the state to intrude into the property rights of people and businesses. This is intrinsic to the proposed policy of Expropriation without Compensation, whether it takes the form of direct confiscation, a ‘custodial’ taking of all land or just more intrusive regulatory control.
Unfortunately, the fact that we have no clear idea of what the endgame is illustrates that this is a process marked more by opacity than by transparency. Indeed, it is of great concern that the drive towards the first amendment of South Africa’s Bill of Rights was based on the outcome of a consultation process which showed every sign of having been pro forma and predetermined. It is of equal concern that the process determining the actual amendment – a matter of enormous import – seems primed to be equally deficient.
The ramifications of this will in all likelihood be felt well beyond land and farming. This is about property rights. One issue that seems bound to land on Lana Marks’ desk in short order is the question of South Africa’s copyright legislation, something that has come under attack from interest groups in her own country (and in South Africa, for that matter). Intellectual property in other words. It has already been noted in her capital that this could compromise South Africa’s trading ties to the US, and an investigation on the matter is underway.
Ambassador Marks has an unenviable mission – and she is likely to have less to worry about from condescending commentators than from the policies of South Africa’s government. Whether she will make a success of her time here remains to be seen. Though she does no favours to herself, to her country or to South Africa by misstating what is underway.
Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).