“I am very much at home in places where there is a noisy democracy,” says the new South African High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Robina P. Marks. Ms. Marks who also serves as the South African High Commissioner to the Maldives and Bangladesh and the High Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Nepal, asserts that her previous diplomatic [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Activist ambassador

Born in apartheid South Africa and having been an active participant in its transition, South African High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Robina P. Marks tells Randima Attygalle how the political fabric of that nation has shaped her life

Their guiding light: South African High Commissioner Robina Marks stands next to a framed picture of the iconic leader Nelson Mandela. Pic by Indika Handuwala

“I am very much at home in places where there is a noisy democracy,” says the new South African High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Robina P. Marks. Ms. Marks who also serves as the South African High Commissioner to the Maldives and Bangladesh and the High Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Nepal, asserts that her previous diplomatic experience with the East Asian regions of Laos, Cambodia,Myanmar and Thailand contributed to her finding herself in her ‘element’ in the Lankan fabric. “Noisy democracies such as the one we have back at home remind us that our democracy and our civil society are robust but at the same time, it is peaceful and is engaged with the issues of the day.”

Her Sri Lankan experience (from November last year) so far has been rewarding, enabling her to make a contribution to some of the “seemingly intractable issues” faced by the country today in a “tangible space”, she adds.

Born in 1963, the same year in which the late President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, for young Robina Marks as it was for her entire generation, the visionary leader was an ‘absent father’. “Even in his absence, he was very much present in our lives,” she reflects, asserting that, what sets African diplomats apart are the values of  humility, integrity, patriotism and passion for South Africa which the Father of their nation instilled in them. “Our political conscience is shaped by our history in which we were not allowed to vote, live and work where we desired, deprived of basic needs and not even allowed to be buried next to white people,” she says, adding that this dark past has driven South Africa to make policy prioritizing the “most marginalized, most vulnerable and the most secluded.”

Recollecting her first meeting with the globally revered leader, Ms. Marks says with a smile: “I was completely dumbstruck thinking what am I supposed to be saying to such a man who loomed so large in all our lives! He was our moral compass.”

Robina Marks at home with ‘Ching-chi’ her puppy

Ms. Marks who calls herself ‘an activist ambassador’ notes that South African politics had shaped her consciousness. She was an anti-apartheid activist from the age of 13, and worked in community based organisations, trade unions and women’s organisations. “I was also a regional organiser for the United Democratic Front that was agitating for the release of political prisoners and the unbanning of political parties. I was detained under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act that allowed for indefinite detention and held in solitary confinement in various prisons,” she recalls.

With an academic background in sociology, gender and institutional development as well as teaching, she had also held several senior positions in both the public and private sector in South Africa wearing multiple hats of a researcher, lecturer and consultant.

“My work as a diplomat is a natural extension of my activism for human rights, gender equality, justice and fairness. I became a diplomat because it allowed me to work at the intersection of policy and practice which means that I can advocate South Africa’s progressive position on these issues.” In Sri Lanka this means she can be exposed to the practical work that government and civil society organisations are doing on the ground to build a ‘united in its diversity Sri Lanka’, she says.

Transitional justice, human rights, peace and reconciliation are very close to the heart of Ms. Marks who brings with her the experience of nation building and reconciliation in her previous postings. “One year after I took up office in Thailand, there was a soft coup and the country went through a period of soul searching. In the case of Myanmar, the only country they trusted as the moral authority around reconciliation was South Africa and I spent a fair amount of my time in this process of moving the country forward.”

South Africa’s commitment to Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process has been consistent says the High Commissioner, adding that her country has always been a “reliable partner” in this exercise. “There had been a lot of foot traffic between the two countries and we will continue to support in the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. At the same we will also remain concerned about several issues including the completion of the Terrorism Act, the reported incidents of torture, the pace of the writing of the constitution and the rights of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. We also urge the Sri Lankan Government to live up to the commitments made at the UN Human Rights Council.” The optimist she is, she says: “When the entire world was expecting a revolution, we were able to give birth to a new country. If it was possible for South Africa, it is possible for Sri Lanka too.”

Lauded as one of the most progressive constitutions in the world which champions inclusiveness and non-discriminatory practices, the South African Constitution also articulates gender equality in terms of women’s representation in Parliament. “Sri Lanka should take a cue from this, particularly at local level as women’s participation in governance mirrors good governance,” says Ms. Marks.

She also urges for gender awareness programmes to be in place if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process is to be a feasible exercise. “In our experience with TRC, ‘women only’ platforms were created for them to speak of their painful experience, to testify on behalf of their victimized family members,” says the High Commissioner who adds that a day should dawn for Lankan war-affected women to have “a space beyond tears”. “Even if the war is over, the war still lives in them very much,” says Ms. Marks who also reminds that violence has its many manifestations of poverty, under-development and forced removals.

“We are here to share our own transition process towards reconciliation and nation-building. We recognize and respect the territorial sovereignty and integrity of Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, united and unified state and will continue to promote the need for a peaceful, sustainable long-term political solution, which will be best achieved through broad consultation and an inclusive dialogue process amongst all the people of Sri Lanka.  As well, at our most recent Partnership Forum meeting, we also confirmed the strengthening of the economic relations between both countries; the identification of new opportunities in the fields of renewable energy, the blue economy and agro-processing; and to an aligning of positions in global fora in pursuance of the strengthening of multilateral organisations and the reform of global institutions of governance.

“South Africa is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner in the African region and the balance of trade at the moment is in our favour and we are looking at ways of balancing that relationship,” says the diplomat who also believes in a strong African-Asian trade dialogue. “These two blocs are the last two frontiers of economic growth in the world and therefore it makes sense for the two to speak to each other,” says Ms. Marks who adds that South Africa is exploring maritime sector education opportunities here while encouraging Lankan students to explore scholarship openings in South Africa.

Rubber is also an area of interest for her country says Ms. Marks. South Africa is a possible gateway to the Southern African Development Corporation in terms of  tea exports. The potential Sri Lankan cultural tourism offers with its rich heritage is also significant, she notes.

A lover of books, beaches and jazz, Ms. Marks adds on a lighter note that ‘Ching-chi’ her puppy  is alarmed by Sri Lankan fire crackers!  Very much in love with Colombo for its unique fusion of flavours, she is also fascinated by the Galle Fort. “Whenever I miss Cape Town where its fort dominates the landscape, I run away to the Galle Fort,” smiles Ms. Marks.

A woman who claims her sense of empathy to be her greatest strength, she is inspired by the core values of peace, kindness, compassion and forgiveness advocated in all religions. “Our faiths are linked to each other and if we could revisit the core values in them which are not subverted by negative elements of nationalism, reconciliation is made easier,” she says reminding us of the poignant words of President Mandela which she cherishes as her all-time favourite: ‘Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.’

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