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SA-born businesswoman bags US ambassadorial post

  • LanaMarks (2)
Lana Marks, the East London-born American handbag designer and close friend of United States President Donald Trump, will soon grace our shores when she takes up her position as US ambassador to South Africa.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Oct 10, 2019

Marks was nominated by Trump in November last year, and was unanimously confirmed by the US senate on 26 September. She appeared before a US senate committee hearing on foreign relations to motivate for her nomination to the position.

In one of her first tweets since her nomination, Marks said on 28 September, “I am deeply honoured to have been confirmed by the senate, and to serve as the next US ambassador to the Republic of South Africa. There are deep, long-standing, and genuine ties of affection that bind Americans and South Africans. I will work tirelessly to further cultivate the already robust relationship that our people enjoy.”

She followed this with a Rosh Hashanah photograph of her and her husband, British-born psychiatrist Neville Marks, smartly dressed, sitting together with a beautiful Yom Tov table bedecked with green apples in glass vases in the background. Her message said, “Wishing everyone a happy&healthy new year.”

Marks, previously Lana Bank, was born and raised in East London, but lives in upmarket Palm Beach, Florida. She left South Africa four decades ago, and claims to be proficient in Xhosa and Afrikaans.

Her parents, Alec and Blanche Bank, were very involved in the local Jewish community, and Marks attended synagogue with her friends at the time, filling the seats to capacity when the community was at least 1 000-strong.

Today, the community has dropped to roughly 38 orthodox town dwellers and about 50 reform members, said community stalwart Louis Robinson, who grew up knowing the incumbent ambassador and her family. He said as news of her appointment reached the ears of the tight-knit community, people seemed pleased, even discussing it over Yom Tov celebrations. 

Robinson’s mother, Zahava, 92, told the SA Jewish Report that she played bridge with Lana’s mother, Blanche, for many years.

A lifetime resident and long-standing friend of the Bank family, Zahava said that she knew Marks as a young girl, as the Robinsons and the Banks were very close family friends who attended each other’s simchas and parties. Marks’s father, Alec, was a pole holder at Zahava’s wedding.

She said she thought Marks’s appointment as ambassador was “incredible”.

“This news is fabulous for us East Londoners. It’s wonderful. It’s a big thing, the mind boggles when you think about it. When people talk about South Africans, it’s usually people from Jo’burg and Cape Town. Lana comes from a very small town, it’s quite something. And for me, having known her parents so well over the years, it’s unbelievable. The whole of East London will express joy.”

East London resident Lisa Schewitz echoed this sentiment. “It’s amazing that someone who grew up in East London has risen to such a position. We wish her best of luck in her new role, and we hope she comes to visit her home town. We would be delighted to welcome her to spend a Shabbos with our small community at any time.” 

The glamorous handbag designer is best known for her wildly expensive exotic leather handbags, worn by red-carpet, A-list celebrities like Benoni-born Charlize Theron, Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie, and Helen Mirren; and for her friendship with the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Marks, 65, has come a long way from her time spent at Stirling Primary School and Clarendon High School in the Eastern Cape. 

As the owner and chief executive of Lana Marks Collections, it’s still unknown how she intends to juggle her diplomatic duties with her fashion business.

In an interview with New York magazine earlier this year, Marks, who owns several upmarket stores, said that if confirmed as ambassador, she would have to give up any personal business interests within 90 days. “Essentially,” she told the magazine, “I’d say that I’m getting ready to sell.”

The US has not had an ambassador in South Africa since Patrick Gaspard vacated his post in December 2016, with its mission being overseen by a chargé d’affaires.

During her senate hearing, Marks said she intended to deepen trade and investment ties, and strengthen the relationship between South Africa and the US.

She said her experience in business and her ties to South Africa would hold her in good stead for the position. Her ability to speak three of the four most widely spoken of the 11 official languages, as well as her knowledge of the country, would also help.

In her written testimony, Marks said she started her business as a small artisanal handbag enterprise from the kitchen table of her then two-bedroom apartment, and grew it into a global brand.

Marks, who left South Africa when she was in her early twenties, said she and her family represented the American dream, “achieved through hard work, determination, and perseverance”.

Marks also spoke about her father, who she described as “a good and fair” man. “He escaped the anti-Semitism of Lithuania in the 1930s, and emigrated to South Africa, where he worked his way through university, earned a degree in engineering, and went into real-estate development.”

She said her priorities as ambassador would be the safety and security of Americans in South Africa, and she would work to cultivate the already robust relationship the US has with the country.

“South Africa is our most developed trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa. Deepening those ties would support one of the administration’s key objectives in the Africa strategy.”

Marks said American firms already contributed about 10% of South Africa’s gross domestic product, and employed about 200 000 South Africans directly and indirectly. Considering this, she would “work tirelessly” to expand markets in South Africa for American exporters, and ensure that American businesses and products were treated fairly.

2 Comments

  1. 2 Louise Temkin 10 Oct
    Did you investigate the many media reports branding Lana Mark's as a liar??? Specifically she claimed to have played tennis for SA at Wimbledon where no record of her name could be found. There were several other inconsistencies in her story about herself and her past. I'm not,at all sure that, while she may indeed be Jewish, she is a person of any integrity at all.
  2. 1 Herschel gelbart 10 Oct
    Well done Lana !
    hope u succeed as sa now needs all the help it can get from USA 
    I moved here 27 years ago from Durban and have sourced goods from sa for many years 

    sadly the steel tarriffs put an end to future dealings here 

    regards 

    herschel gelbart 





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