Black Mambas review – thorny issues for South Africa’s all-female anti-poaching unit

Lena Karbe’s tough film resists valorising its characters in favour of untangling issues of race, gender, class and wealth

Formed to battle the endless killing of rhinos in South Africa, the Black Mambas are an all-female anti-poaching unit who tirelessly work to protect wildlife in Balule Nature Reserve and Kruger national park. Dressed in camouflage uniforms and trained in a military-style boot camp, the women come off as formidable guardians of environmental justice. In showing their day-to-day activities, Lena Karbe’s documentary could have easily fallen into the trap of empty valorisation; in contrast, the film digs deep into the complex racial and class dynamics that are at play.

First and most obviously, the women who are members of the Black Mambas do not have decision-making power; their superiors are all white. The Mambas understand the importance of their role, but the women lament the gruelling hours and the fact that they are unarmed. Furthermore, while the media tends to demonise poachers, the Black Mambas have a more nuanced, locally informed view. With the influx of tourism and the lack of job prospects, men are often reduced to killing animals in the reserve either for food or for money.

Some of their supervisors, however, lack this sympathy. While Craig Spencer, the founder of the Black Mambas, is aware of the imperialist origins of the Kruger national park, other leaders in the team have a relationship with the women that borders on intellectual condescension. Badass as it may seem, the anti-poaching unit remains a surface solution to deeper issues of wealth inequality. For meaningful change to occur, the Black Mambas, as well as the rest of the community in this region, need access to opportunities that will bring more stability.

• Black Mambas is released on 26 August at Bertha DocHouse.


Phuong Le

The GuardianTramp

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