Nigeria and South Africa have been the two African countries of greatest strategic importance to the United States. They are the two largest economies on the continent, and a major venue for U.S. investment. Historically, the United States and Nigeria have cooperated on African issues of mutual concern. Nigeria is on the front lines of the jihadist insurgency Boko Haram that spills over into other countries of the region. South Africa’s is the most sophisticated and developed of Africa’s economies. Political cooperation, however, is less developed than with Nigeria. Nevertheless, South Africa’s new foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, is expected to pursue closer dialogue with the United States and other western countries than her immediate predecessors. South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa is actively seeking greater U.S. trade and investment.
Reflecting their importance, the United States maintains large embassies in both countries, and in both there is a significant interagency presence reflecting the broad range of U.S. interests. In Nigeria, the Trump administration has announced its intention to appoint a career diplomat, Mary Beth Leonard, as ambassador. She will succeed current Ambassador Stuart Symington, another career diplomat, when his tour of duty ends. Mary Beth Leonard has had numerous African assignments and served as the U.S. ambassador to Mali from 2011 to 2014 during the coup d'état that overthrew then President Amadou Toumani Toure. As is the case with Ambassador Leonard, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria nearly always comes from the career foreign service.
In South Africa, the U.S. ambassador is usually a political appointee rather than a career diplomat. The most recent ambassador, Patrick Gaspard, held senior positions in the Democratic Party and the administration of President Barack Obama before being named ambassador to South Africa in 2013. His mission ended in December 2016 (Ambassadorial assignments are normally for three years). Since then, there has been no U.S. ambassador to South Africa; the U.S. mission has been headed by a charge d’affaires.
In November 2018, the Trump administration announced its intention to nominate Lana Marks as ambassador to South Africa. She is South African-born, a highly successful designer and manufacturer of high-end handbags. She is a member of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. As of now, Lana Marks has yet to have her Senate hearing. Speculation as to why the confirmation process is taking so long ranges from the complexity of her business affairs to the Trump administration’s focus on judicial appointments. Such speculation is just that—speculation. Nevertheless, the fact remains that for nearly three years, there has been no U.S. ambassador in South Africa.
South Africa will occupy one of the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council this coming January. It can be anticipated that South Africa will be more active diplomatically than in the immediate past. Under those circumstances, having a U.S. ambassador in Pretoria would appear to be a matter of urgency.