The desert valley of the Tankwa, Karoo is a six-hour drive north from Cape Town, South Africa, and is home to Afrika Burn – the world’s largest official Burning Man Regional Event. A well-paved highway dotted with the occasional police checkpoint gives way to a “tyre-munching” washboard dirt road. Over the final three hours, the drive goes from amusing to bone jarring.
Eventually, the dusty road – South Africa’s equivalent to Highway 447 – opens onto rolling hills, scrub brush and Stonehenge Farm — home to Afrika Burn. 2014 marks the event’s eighth anniversary, launched in 2007 by South Afrikan Burners most of whom first attended Burning Man in 2006. Decompressing in Yosemite Valley, they laid their plans to bring Burning Man home and make it their own. In early May, 2014, over 9,000 people braved heat, washboard roads and overdoses of electronica to trek to the event.
Afrika Burn is organized by a lean production team with oversight from a sizable group of Members, which in the U.S. would be known as the Board of Directors, helping to steer the direction of the non-profit community-building event organization. Afrika Burn shows some of the hallmarks of the processes, departments, and organizational systems that developed in Black Rock City during the late 1990s: the city layout is reminiscent, there is a Greeters Station with a bell, they have a newly formed Rangers department, emergency medical services, a central effigy that burns on Saturday night, a temple that burns on Sunday night, they provide grants for art projects, there is a version of Center Camp, and The Ten Principles describe the city’s culture. But all of these elements have been adopted by the organizers and modified with a South African sensibility and sense of humor. Center Camp became “Off Center Camp” and there is no cafe beverage service.
The Greeters Station bears the event emblem of “the clan” or “San Clan”, an image found in ancient cave paintings in the area, and that embodies the interconnectedness of people and community.
An eleventh principle was added. The city layout has its own design tailored to the land, the street names are in Afrikaans, and the avenue names run from “2:00 ish” to “10:00 ish”.
The central effigy sculpture changes entirely each year, with the presence of the clan emblem providing a sense of continuity from year to year. The 2014 event theme was The Trickster, manifested in The Interpreter, a 19 meter- (nearly 60 feet) tall robot sculpture with one arm raised and wearing a rabbit mask. Long-time central effigy builder and self-described troublemaker Brendan Smithers was the project lead behind The Interpreter. He describes the meaning of the sculpture as a representation of the duality of human nature, of technology and nature, of masculine and feminine. He shared that behind the mask is a slightly cynical commentary through the robot that speaks to participants adopting a sort of “Burner fundamentalism”, one where people allow themselves to be sucked into “group think” without discovering the opportunity for authentic expression, and eventually they develop a sort of inflexible attitude in what is supposed to be a very flexible environment. In the spirit of The Trickster, Brendan initially designed the robot with both arms raised, a nod and an irreverent poke at “The Burning Man”, but after Nelson Mandela passed away earlier this year, the sculpture design changed to one “fist” raised, an iconic gesture made popular during the African National Congress’s rise to power through the 1980s and early 1990s, led by Mandela’s commitment to equality in South Africa.
While Afrika Burn may be the largest Burning Man-inspired event in the world, it still feels young in a very vibrant, exciting way. Many people say that it feels how Black Rock City felt in 1998. The event is scaling slowly so that the organizers and community can support the spread of the ethos that is the spirit of Tankwa Town. To this end, Afrika Burn added an eleventh principle to the Burning Man Ten Principles: “Each One Teach One”, which states “All of us are custodians of our culture – when the opportunity presents itself, we pass knowledge on.” With a proposed planned growth rate of no more than 25% per year, and a possible self-imposed population limit, this event is being stewarded with great care and thoughtfulness.
One of the remarkable aspects of Afrika Burn is the noticeable family environment that is woven into the fabric of the city. There are families everywhere, people of all ages, all socializing and bonding in a most wonderful and playful way. There is a very tribal sensibility to peoples’ camps at this event, evident in how different families watch over each others’ children and how integrated they are in the activities of the event. A common sentiment among many of the youth is that they love Afrika Burn. This is a potential win for our collective future because, as with other Regional Events, it instills universally useful values in the people who could be the great artists, leaders, and creators of tomorrow.
As several of the Directors of Afrika Burn described, these types of events are a training ground for people to learn to be engaged. These experiences are an antidote to the insidious passive consumption that feeds on a life devoid of creativity, permission, and empowerment. Event Directors Liz Linsell, Graeme Allan and Monique Schiess all echoed that Afrika Burn is training people in “the Do-ocracy”. As Monique said, “If you see something that needs to be done, just do it. You don’t need to wait for some sort of authority to do it. You just do it.”
Afrika Burn is held annually in early May. More info may be found at AfrikaBurn.com.
Additional Contributions: Special thanks to $teven Ra$pa, the Afrika Burn production team, and the Burning Man Communications team.