Balule and the Black Mambas: 11 Things You Didn’t Think About When You Read This Heartwarming Story About Conservation and Community in South Africa

Please excuse me while I vent. Nothing makes me quite as annoyed as first-world people speaking ignorantly about third-world people.

Let me do this in Cracked style. Here are the top 11 things you didn’t think about when you read that article. Why top 11? Because I like to go one step beyond.


11. Balule Satellite Camp is a private (and for-profit) venture.

Balule was formed in 1993 from a merger of several smaller reserves. They took down the fences between their land, and the fence between them and the Kruger national park, and let the animals roam freely.

Not the people though. The people don’t get to roam freely. Balule is extremely expensive: prices start at just under SAR5000 (£200 – £250) per person per day. This is the reason why the park exists: the land is owned by former commercial farming operations who found that rhinos and elephants are more profitable than cattle.

Remember this, it’ll be important later.

If £250 a night doesn’t sound expensive to you, congratulations! You’re the sort of person that Balule is intended for. You’re also not the sort of person that the article is about.


10. Balule’s land comes with a history.

How did those farmers-turned-gamekeepers get the land, you ask?

Until apartheid was dismantled in 1992-1994, black people were not allowed to own land in South Africa outside of areas designated as “homelands”, which were generally the poorest and least accessible areas and made up just 10% of the country’s land. The area around Balule is not a homeland.

Limpopo province’s land ownership structure hasn’t changed since then. It’s the most overwhelmingly black province of South Africa, but the land is predominantly owned by a handful of white farmers, mine owners and commercial business interests. There are national efforts to change this: for a decade now South Africa has tried to get the amount of Limpopo land owned by local black residents up to just 30%, and has consistently failed.

Balule must be seen in this context: it’s a holdover from the days when black people could not own land and the large farmers could do what they liked. If they wanted to clear out the residents of an area in order to graze cattle, they not only could but the police would do their dirty work for them. If they wanted to clear out the residents to graze rhinos, they could do that too. In this case that’s what they did.


9. South African history is an ugly thing, and is still with us.

Did the above section shock you? Good. Apartheid was both evil and corrupt and it is shameful that it went on into the early 1990s. Under apartheid, the 80% of South Africans who were black had very few rights and had no way of enforcing the rights they did have, all so that the 10% of South Africans who were white could live a comfortable life in a country that they felt was “theirs.” This enabled, amongst other things, the gathering of land, water resources and mineral rights into a few (white) hands and the use of local government and local courts to expedite this process.

It should be pointed out that this was deliberate. There was nothing accidental about apartheid, nothing unstated or emergent. It was a system of laws designed specifically to ensure the dominance of one ethnic group and the continued weakness of another.

Apartheid may have ended but the land in Limpopo province is still almost entirely in the hands that apartheid put it in. Apartheid won in Limpopo province. It did was it was designed to do.

Most people in Limpopo don’t own any land. This was by design: it was felt that by preventing black people from owning land, they would be entirely dependent on white farmers and would not be able to negotiate for better wages or treatment. Villages are small, farms are large and people travel by foot or bicycle, meaning that people don’t have much of a choice of employers. Again this is by design, and land confiscation and village resettlement were things that occurred in order to facilitate it.

Nowadays this has had an unintended effect: with increased mechanisation the farms don’t need armies of labourers, meaning that unemployment is terrifyingly high.

This brings us neatly to the next point.


8. No matter how poor you are, Limpopo province is poorer than you.

Adult unemployment in Limpopo province stands at 85%. That’s the overall figure, including the towns. It’s worse in rural areas.

Do you know seven adults? Imagine if just one of them had a job. Now imagine all seven of those people, and their dependents, making do on that one wage.

Poverty in Limpopo province is at 79%. Again, this figure includes the comparatively wealthy towns and cities.

This is why in the article in The Guardian, the interviewees are incredibly excited. They can now buy groceries for themselves and their relatives!

Think about that. Think about the last time that you were excited about the fact that you can now afford to feed your children. Think about what it means to be happy that six other adults and their dependents can now live off you. Can you remember a time when you were happy about this? No? That’s because Limpopo province is far poorer than you.


7. …Which is why the private reserves exist in the first place.

It must be stressed once again that this poverty is artificial. It’s not something that happened because of a lack of education or a lack of technology. It happened because South Africa spent most of the 20th century making absolutely sure that black people had nothing, and had no means of getting anything. This was done deliberately as top-down government policy, and it succeeded, and now it’s still the case.

This is why there’s tens of thousands of square kilometres available for rich foreigners to come and look at rhinos in, and why those tens of thousands of square kilometres are surrounded by a fence with dirt-poor villages on the other side.

In places where people didn’t have the land taken from them, they’ve managed to improve it through hard work and ingenuity. People buy machinery and vehicles to take goods to market, and educate their children. It may be poverty by first-world standards, but it’s a genuine poverty. The poverty surrounding Balule is artificial and is a consequence of the same forces that allowed it to exist.


6. It’s impossible to not make this about race.

It’s been two decades since apartheid was dismantled, and there are now many rich nonwhite* people in South Africa. There have always been many poor white people too, and a great deal of South African history has been profoundly influenced by the well-off black community and the poor white community.

In the modern South Africa, anyone who has money may purchase land and may visit nature reserves, even extremely expensive ones like Balule.

However, the majority of those who can’t afford it are black, and the majority of those who can afford it are white, meaning that in practise nothing’s really changed. There is still a fence to keep one group of people from upsetting the beautiful animals of another group of people, and the skin colour of the one group is still much darker than the other.

It’s worth pointing out once more that Balule has no fence along its property line with the Kruger park, so the animals one pays huge sums to see there are exactly the same animals that anyone can see in Kruger for far less. The cost is purely to keep it exclusive, which leads nicely to the next point.


5. It’s impossible to not make this about colonialism.

If you’re from the first world, you might be able to save up for a few years and have a holiday in Balule. If you’re from Limpopo province – even if you’re from a village just metres from the fence – you have no reasonable chance of doing this.

Access to South Africa’s magnificent wildlife, in other words, is possible for foreigners but not for locals; and there are armed guards to keep locals out.

Many people say that Limpopo Province’s animal diversity belongs to the whole world. I would amend that sentence slightly by adding the clause “unless you’re actually from Limpopo province, in which case fuck you.”

But surely it’s all about protecting the animals? All the human misery and injustice can be thought of as being somehow worth it if we keep animals alive.

Funny story about that, actually.


4. We shoot animals in South African nature reserves.

At the moment it’s just elephants. We have been fairly successful in combating ivory poaching, and since nothing eats elephants their numbers have increased hugely. There’s now too many elephants, so we shoot them. Then we destroy the body, including the ivory. This kills the elephants just as dead as if they had been poached for the ivory and it had been sold.

If rhinos stopped being poached, then their numbers would increase once again until we would have to shoot them. The same goes for any animal which predators won’t eat.

In the wild, this sort of overpopulation would cause knock-on effects on the rest of the environment. Populations don’t stay constant: they rise and fall with good weather and dry weather, and frequently have such issues. In order to prevent this from happening and keep the populations artificially steady for the tourist industry, we absolutely and ruthlessly will straight-up kill a whole lot of animals.

Basically, if you’re opposed to the shooting of animals, then for-profit nature reserves and the third-world tourist industry are probably things you should not look too deeply into.


3. Ultimately it’s about money.

A private reserve like Balule is a business like any other. It has a stock of animals which it uses to attract foreign customers. It pays staff to prevent harm coming to those animals; that is unless there’s too many animals in which case it pays other staff to shoot those animals. It does this because South African land is far more profitable to its owners if it is used for foreigners to take pictures than it is if it’s used to feed and employ South Africans.

As long as we keep thinking of the rhinos as being principally an ecodiversity matter, we will never understand this issue. We need to think of it as being about rich people trying to come up with more and more inventive ways to prevent poor people from breaking their pretty, profitable possessions.

(I don’t really need to remind you of the skin colours involved, or why one group owns all the land and the other group is so hungry that they need to poach bush meat, do I?)


In just nine points, we’ve covered why this situation is the way it is, and why the way it is is inextricably bound to South Africa’s shameful past.

Now let’s talk about Jessica Aldred’s article. We don’t need to cover the way it carefully avoids asking why poor people are starving in its rush to congratulate them on protecting rich people’s sources of revenue: any article about the first world / third world intersection which is written by a first-worlder will always have that aspect to it. It will always be offensive to one group and that offense will always be puzzling to the other.

Let’s talk specifically about two parts of it that are straight-up racist bullshit.


2. “In most cases now, people come in for rhinos, because they want to get rich, drive some fancy cars and build a nice house.”

People who can afford the high prices of the Balule reserve can afford a fancy car and a nice house.

The different reserves that make up Balule don’t boast about their earnings on their websites, but farmers in South Africa whose holdings are that large will own fancy cars and live in nice houses; and the park owners are scarcely going to use it as a park if they could make more from farming. (See point 3 above.)

To Ms Aldred, these are both the natural state of the world: rich white South Africans and rich first-world people deserve to have nice things. However, she pounces upon the chance to use a quote which condemns the locals for wanting the same.

A “nice house” and a “fancy car” don’t mean the same thing in Limpopo province as they do in Europe, however. Poachers are desperately poor people driven to extremes: locally a “nice house” is a house with electricity and running water and a “fancy car” is one that was made this decade. These are not the sort of houses or cars possessed by the visitors to the park.

I doubt that Ms Aldred is enough of an asshole to genuinely believe that poor people should desire only to remain poor. However, this is the argument that she has made here, whether she intended it or not.


1. “Role Model”

Straight-up and inexcusable bullshit of the highest calibre. Here’s the whole quote:

It is hoped the Mambas can bridge this gap by showing that local black people from disadvantaged communities can get jobs and education in the reserves too. Being role models for “social upliftment”, and educating the local community is how the war on poaching will be won – not with guns and bullets, they say.

As we’ve seen, one of the legacies of apartheid was to take the mechanism of enrichment and job creation out of the hands of the locals, and to make them unable to seek alternate employers if their current employment is not to their liking. This was intended as a way of driving down wages, but it has the consequence of making them entirely unemployed if the one local landowner doesn’t want to employ them at all.

In this case, Balule reserve has chosen to employ 26 people in the Black Mambas. That’s the number they want, chosen presumably by budgeting and cost-benefit analysis. For the rest, there is no employment here and cannot be because the reserve does not want to employ more than 26 people. To say that those 26 people are showing the others how to get jobs is therefore simply untrue. It’s also bullshit of the highest order, and not the sort of bullshit that a paper as socially conscious as The Guardian normally descends to.

People in Limpopo province aren’t stupid and they aren’t animals. They have churches and schools and lives; they love, hope and read books just like every human does. The only difference between them and anyone else is that they can’t afford to go to Balule, and there’s a high fence and men with guns to enforce that. In other words, despite the fact that they live right next door to it, Balule is less a part of their world than it is of the world of a first-world person who might someday go on holiday there.

They can probably decide for themselves what counts as being “socially uplifted” amongst their community. It might be becoming a teacher, a preacher or an enterpreneur. It might be having enough money to buy groceries for all your friends and their dependents. It might be having children, writing a book, going into politics, managing to get electricity in your house or just chucking it in to move to Johannesburg like the rest of us.

“Socially uplifted” probably does not, however, include protecting some animals that they aren’t allowed to look at so that some people they’ve never met can pay some other people they’ve never met to take pictures of them.

This assumption – the assumption that poor, third-world, black people gain standing in the world only by serving white people’s interests – is unworthy of a newspaper like The Guardian. It is unworthy of the 21st century. It has no place in the world. This is racist, colonial thinking and Aldred should be ashamed of it.

3 thoughts on “Balule and the Black Mambas: 11 Things You Didn’t Think About When You Read This Heartwarming Story About Conservation and Community in South Africa

  1. *Race in South Africa is more complex than just white and black; and I am not the person to write about it in depth. However it should be pointed out that there is a small but prominent Indian minority which was significant both during apartheid and nowadays in the democratic period, some of the members of which now number among the country’s economic elite.


  2. Unlike his fellow South Africans who cannot afford groceries, the writer of this piece lives a comfortable life and works in an industry where he has a reasonable expectation of being able to find work. His family never had to worry about being forced from their homes by police during the bad years, let alone the other indignities that South Africans suffered under apartheid. If he chose to visit Balule then the owners would welcome him with open arms, and this would also have been the case back in the bad years. He acknowledges his privilege.


  3. Thank you for writing this article. I wouldn’t have even seen the mamba story otherwise, and your commentary was a guide that helped me follow the article and get more out of it. However, the first section feels a little bit uncharitable, and the second section outright shady.

    I’m not sure what’s meant by “things you didn’t think about while reading this” — whether this is a reproach to Ms. Aldred for not emphasizing them enough, or to the readers for not considering what they mean. Most of what you’ve said is, in fact, in the article, and I would have liked to see you acknowledge that.

    “the western boundary fence, which borders hundreds of thousands of impoverished villages”

    “Mogakane says: “Firstly, poaching was for bushmeat. People say ‘we don’t have jobs so we must go inside the reserve and poach some impala so that we can sell it and get some money to buy groceries for our family’.”

    “A night in a luxury suite in one of the local game reserves – seen as the preserve of rich tourists – can cost at least £250. In many cases, people living in the surrounding villages don’t have access to these reserves – or their profits. With more than 85% of the local population unemployed. . .”

    “Mogakane supports 10 family members with her salary”

    Perhaps she does carefully avoid asking how this poverty happened — it’s clear that she considers it less important than the ecodiversity. It’s still noteworthy that she does report on it, and in substantially more detail than the assignment demanded.
    On to the “racist bullshit.”

    Your headline for the section on “fancy cars and a nice house” is a direct quote from a Mamba named Ms. Mogakane. You don’t attribute it to her. In fact, the name “Mogakane” does not appear once in your article. You also neglect to explicitly say that it’s *not* Ms. Aldred speaking, although you allude to it when you comment on what these words mean in Limpopo. As a strictly formal matter, that’s not good practice. It also implies, perhaps unintentionally, that Ms. Mogakane’s views are not a legitimate part of the story.

    Obviously it’s possible and common to selectively quote the members of an oppressed group whose opinions are ideologically convenient, and it can be done maliciously or unconsciously. It’s also possible that Aldred has been astroturfed, and Mogakane’s statements were scripted by her employer. On the other hand, the story isn’t an economic report on Limpopo province, it’s a profile of the Mamba program. It should give the Mambas themselves a chance to speak. There are only 26 Mambas, they trained together, and they work together closely. I would expect them to have a strong group ethos. (They may also have been screened for their politics pre-hire) It’s possible that Aldred quoted the only Mamba who told her what she wanted to hear, but I think it’s likely that Mogakane is a typical Mamba speaking for the Mamba consensus.

    Poverty doesn’t automatically bestow virtue or insight, and the Mambas were likely hired from families somewhat better-off than their neighbors. We don’t have to accept their opinions uncritically, but we do have to take them seriously.

    (called to dinner now; continued later)


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