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Black Mambas

Director: Lena Karbe (Germany, France). Year of Release: 2022

A locked gate outside the Kruger National Park. We hear a voiceover from a poacher, explaining how rising prices and a lack of jobs means that he needs to shoot animals to survive. The camera cuts to him but he is filmed from behind for anonymity. Opening credits tell us that the Black Mambas were formed in 2013. They are a troop of Black South African women who dress in military fatigues and patrol the edge of the park, protecting rhinoceroses from the poachers.

The film follows three of the Mambas over a period of more than a year. For Nkateo, the Mambas provide a stepping stone towards getting a job as a tour guide. Naledi is pleased to have a job which values women, especially if she doesn’t have to work down the mine like her mother. And Qolile needs the money to pay for her 2 kids, a wastrel unemployed partner and brothers who want her to pay them through college. Since her father died, she has to earn for the whole family.

The Mambas work apart from their home and families for 21 straight days every month. At first they see the job as a chance to protect nature and maybe to help them fulfil their dream of becoming a tour guide. And yet as the film goes on, the women become increasingly dissatisfied with their working conditions. Even when their bosses organise that a couple of women get onto a course, it is not clear whether they’ll be paid. Yet they can’t survive without that money.

We also meet the supervisors, who give the Mambas their orders. While the mambas are all working-class black women, the supervisors are mainly male and exclusively white. After three decades of a Rainbow Nation, some power structures don’t seem to have changed much. It is slightly disconcerting listening to one group of people ordering another around in the accent used to defend apartheid in so many tv broadcasts in the 1980s.

Mambas founder Craig Spencer has an eye for marketing. He explains that species extinction is not new, but it was rhinos who attracted the attention of social media. The Mambos were formed as the rhino protectors. Maybe they will have to re-market themselves later as protecting pangolins (I originally thought he said penguins, who I guess are endangered in the South African Bush). For all the talk about empowering women, you get the feeling that Spencer Is profiting from their labour.

Spencer explains why it is important to him that the Mambas are women – “I don’t want soldiers,” he says. “Look, they can wear lip stick.” Which begs the question – if their stated job is to scare off poachers, why are they wearing camouflage? And why is the first time that we see them, a drill instructor is barking at them and telling them how to take orders? For all the occasional liberal talk, the division of power does not seem to have radically changed since the days of apartheid.

Other supervisors are less adept at hiding the old colonial mentality. Johan, an older man, who presumably was an adult under apartheid, believes that you’re good or bad and the poachers are simply evil. He says that all Mambos as great but “his” Mambos are the best because of the way he has nurtured them. “I knock them down a bit,” he says. He also teaches them “how to be not a drama queen.” They need advice like this, he says, because “they are all girls”.

There is a telling interview with Spencer towards the end where he denounces the people running the park as being the “last Bastille (sic) of the old white colonial mentality” (it may be mentioning here that the park was named after colonialist Paul Kruger and was established in 1920 as a symbol of “white unity”). Just after making this pronouncement, he concedes that he’s doing it while smoking imported German tobacco and waiting for someone to pour him a rum.

For the first half of the film, I was worried that it would be too uncritical about the valuable work done by the Mambas, without mentioning the underlying social conditions. Although more than one woman notes that their motivation for working – the need to survive and provide for your family – is the same of that of the poachers, this is mentioned in passing, but not followed up. Similarly, little explicit is said about the power relationships determined by class, race and gender.

But I think – I hope – Lena Karbe is giving the liberal supremacists enough rope to hang themselves and let us process the information for ourselves. Occasionally, very occasionally, we hear poachers saying things like “We fight with the white people because they use our things” and that the people who built the Park didn’t care whether Black people have enough to eat. In a country still divided by race, where those at the bottom are almost exclusively Black, you see his point.

In a director’s statement, Karbe says the following: “At the end of the film, viewers should ask themselves: is this a form of exploitation or empowerment? Can exploitation lead to empowerment or do they systematically contradict themselves? Finally, should the ambiavlence of the Black Mambas inspire us to question our personal definitions of exploitation and empowerment? … What price can we pay and do we want to pay for a self-determined life?

Black Mambas also opens up a number of questions that it doesn’t follow to the end. Are National Parks there to protect wildlife or as a tourist magnet? If they “help the economy”, what does this matter to those who gain little from a stronger Rand? And, most importantly, over 30 years after the fall of apartheid, why are so many positions of power and privileged held by white men? Karbe doesn’t tell us all the answers, but she gives us information to help us make our own judgements.

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