By Lynsey Chutel
If a businessman and reality show host can run a country, why can’t a handbag designer be an ambassador?
Diplomacy is just one of the areas that Donald Trump’s presidency has turned on its head, seemingly moved by personal whims and friendly connections rather than strategic decisions.
In Africa, he’s impressed the wrong kind of leaders and his policies are openly driven by a rivalry with China. From gaffes like “shithole” and “Nambia” it’s clear that Africa is not a priority. He does, however, see it as a region with “tremendous business potential,” which is perhaps why he chose a businesswoman as his main representative to Africa’s most advanced economy.
Or, it could be her membership to his Mar-a-Lago club. In November last year, the White House announced Lana Marks would be appointed as ambassador to South Africa. Immediately, Marks’ track record—or lack thereof—raised eyebrows. The founder and creator of a designer handbag line that bears her name, she has no diplomatic background or geopolitical experience.
Instead, it seems Marks’ membership of Mar-a-Lago and her ability to pull off a wedding with perfect pyrotechnics is what endeared the 65-year-old Marks to Trump. A lengthy profile published in the New Yorker this week revealed this and some of Trump’s thinking, but also how difficult it is to verify just who Marks is.
Her handbags, ranging from $2655 for an ostrich-skinned purse to a $19,890 for an alligator tote, have been carried by Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon, Angelina Jolie. Her friendship with the late Princess Diana brought her some tabloid fame, and she named a bag after her. Marks was also a professional tennis player, but just how good she was is disputed (to which Marks responded by posting images of herself on the court). She’s also embroiled in several lawsuits, including one with her siblings over her mother’s estate.
Marks’ years in 1980s Bermuda are murkier, where she was involved in an immigration scandal over her South African nanny and accused the government of anti-semitism. She also represented Bermuda in Israel’s Maccabiah Games, allegedly without Bermuda’s knowledge. Among Bermuda’s small Jewish community, the Marks’ are described as a “controversial couple,” according to a profile in Haaretz.
The Business Day newspaper in South Africa unearthed a 2006 interview they did with Marks about her success abroad. It was clear then that Marks had a knack for self-promotion akin to her new boss. What’s more, it quickly becomes clear that Marks is firmly ensconced in the One Percent.
Ambassadors are hardly required to be working class—after all, this is a job that comes with a complimentary mansion and requires regular cocktail parties—but Marks is entering one of the most unequal societies in the world. It doesn’t help that her predecessor, Patrick Gaspard, was popular and remains outspoken about South Africa, now as president of the Open Society Foundation.
Ambassadors represent the cultural and diplomatic relationship between two countries, and with Marks it’s clear that South Africa and the United States are disconnected, despite her South African roots. The daughter of a wealthy property developer, Marks was born in South Africa. In the Business Day article, her childhood in South Africa’s small coastal of East London was one of “fine schools” and “ballet with the Royal Academy.” She left South Africa after marrying British psychiatrist Neville Marks and moved to Bermuda and then Florida. Her life in the US also seems a world away from the average South African experience.
“It’s the most exclusive part of the US. It’s a small enclave, an island north of Miami,” she told the Business Day. “One-third of the world’s wealth passes through Palm Beach in season. The crème de la crème of the world lives there.”
While she speaks Afrikaans and learned Xhosa from a nanny, it may not be enough to ease tense communication between the US and South Africa after Trump’s inaccurate comments on South Africa’s land process. Still, Marks seems optimistic and has said understands South Africa’s political landscape.
“I think this is a very fortunate time because I am coming in not with Jacob Zuma but with Ramaphosa,” she told New Yorker.
Marks’ own tenure though, will likely be overshadowed by her own president.
Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox
Enjoy this content in the new Quartz app