Skip to content

Writing: Full text of AfrikaBurn piece


Afrikaburn 2011
Festival dates 27 April – 2 May 2011
By Scott Smith – TNA Media

Scott Smith goes in search of an alternative to consumer culture at a carnival of human expression in the Tankwa Karoo and finds not only temporary respite but some new resolutions.

Welcome to AfrikaBurn, check in your ego at the gong.

Tucked away in the semi-arid Karoo, about 100 km south of Calvinia, off one of South Africa’s longest dirt and deserted roads, the R355, lies something just a little out of the ordinary that happens just once a year. A collection of temporary structures literally just popping out of the desert gravel, a gathering of people maybe just a little weirder than you may be comfortable with, and probably the most interesting five days you will spend anywhere.

AfrikaBurn is primarily an art festival despite the loose philosophy guiding this temporary community based on the values of radical self-expression and self-reliance in a strictly non-commercial environment.

Organisers feel the event represents such a radical break from the norms of society that if the festival continues to grow then the experiences there will somehow, in some form and some measure, spill into mainstream society and make desired changes such as more love, less commercialism and more tolerance. Unlikely in this correspondent’s opinion but it is a noble ideal and those who do participate do so properly.

The following of AfrikaBurn is dedicated and feverous. Considering that several of the world’s major religions trace their origins to transformative religious experiences in the desert – Moses, Jesus, Mohammed each had significant spiritual experiences in the desert, along with Jim Morrison of The Doors – we can expect the religious following of this event to simply grow, perhaps surpassing the local Christian Zionist pilgrimage to Moria. Not so far-fetched when you consider the blossoming of the original Burning Man festival in the aptly named Black Rock City in the Nevada desert numbering some 50, 000 by last count. The numbers of AfrikaBurn are nowhere near that scale just yet but impressive just the same at 4000 after just four years.

These increasing numbers may suggest, broadly, a growing displeasure with mainstream society. Without getting too philosophical about it or going so far as to suggest that something is indeed wrong with the world we live in, an excuse to go wild in the desert and trump conventions and even laws is clearly on the minds of many revelers. In fact, the expression and wildness displayed at the festival betrays a bottled up people that are almost desperate to go that extra mile in showing just who they are. AfrikaBurn is, in a very real sense, a glorified theme and dress-up party.

So what is it exactly? In short, it is indefinable. Participants and organisers desire to keep the event free from the prison of interpretation, explanation, and the insidious net of meaning. In other words – it is what you make it and considering the varied individuals at the event it appears people do just that – make it up. Conformity is simply non-existent. It is a social experiment if one does require an answer.

What it is for the participant is a carnival like atmosphere; bright lights, plumes of huge flames bursting periodically, theme cars ranging from the beautiful to the dangerous, lots of naked people, buckets of body paint and eccentric characters, friends in every tent, and the safest environment to express yourself despite the lack of any health and safety standards.

If there is any real meaning it is lost on the uninitiated. Those who attend come away with different ideas and experiences and so their thoughts on what it means to them. This correspondent would go so far to consider it a kind of pilgrimage. A big, exciting party in the desert to be sure, but one with a somewhat more archaic calling to gather. In a real sense, and this notion is repeated among revelers, it is a gathering of tribes. People from all different walks of life, interests and values gather together and sit beside another tribe with absolutely no antagonism.

What do you do there? Anything you want. Due to the concept of loose participation there isn’t a strict schedule of activities which may frustrate those not used to this way of doing things. Suffice to say, there is no single focus of the event, although the building of an effigy of a man and its subsequent burning on Saturday night is a ritualistic feature. A tradition dating back to 1986.

While there are many myths surrounding Burning Man’s origins, the festival had a modest beginning on Baker Beach in San Francisco, California in 1986 with about 20 participants. Larry Harvey and Jerry James burned a wooden man on the beach in honour of summer solstice. Within a couple years the figure was known as the Burning Man and the followers around this event described themselves as a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.

Today, the core values have been established as – participation, radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, gift giving and leave no trace. The South African organisers of this satellite event add on to these principles somewhat with: communal effort, civic responsibility, immediacy, decommodification, radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression.

The most interesting is the gifting concept. A gift economy is broadly defined as a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards and, according to theory, seems to circulate valuables effectively throughout a society. It needs to be clear that this is not a barter economy but one of gift where the general concept of giving a gift stands – it is something you do in a positive light without expecting anything in return. During your time at Afrika Burn your capacity to give often surprises.

Afrika Burn ties in with the local concept of ubuntu – sharing, friendship and companionship. So gift a little.

If this social experiment is one where you can leave your belongings lying anywhere you want them to, leave your tent unzipped and your camera lying in the dust while you dance or go for a walk, where it is safe to walk naked and not have to worry about being abused, harassed, judged or raped. Where guns and knives simply don’t exist and the starry night sky is visible from horizon to horizon while the Milky Way was never so milky – that is a world I could live in.

What better place to drop out of mainstream society than in the middle of a desert with no network coverage. Just burn it all.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: