Imagine that you’re wandering a desert in South Africa in the middle of a cold, windy night. You don’t know what time it is, but judging by the position of the moon it seems to be around midnight. Or maybe 2ish? It’s hard to tell time from the moon.
Eventually you see a large, spherical object glowing in the distance. You trudge closer to it, step-by-step, until you get close enough to realize… it’s an egg. A huge, cracked, wooden egg.
As you walk up to the side of the egg, you see a small flight up stairs leading into an opening. Obviously, you want to know whats inside, so you walk up the stairs into the opening. Inside, you notice that the opening leads to a womb-like chamber at the center of the egg, and- wait a minute- there are people inside! A small group of bodies are clustered in a circle around the yolk of the egg. Nobody is talking, but everybody seems friendly enough, so you mutter a “hey,” squeeze between two bodies, and lie down.
After a few seconds, you start to hear some ambient music, and then you realize that there are speakers tucked away somewhere inside the wall. It’s a strange mix, alternating between Eno-esque blips and light piano tinklings, but you like it, and it seems to fit the space well.
After a few minutes of reflective silence, interposed by blips and tinklings, one of the bodies makes a comment about the music. There are noises of affirmation; you hear a mumbled reply, then another, louder response. Pretty soon everybody has something to say. The noise in the room rises, and you notice how the acoustics of the egg amplify every sound until the chamber sounds like a food court.
And then an older woman- blonde, slight, and wrinkled- starts to make a sound like somebody letting the air out of an inflated balloon. “Shhhhhhhh…” she hisses. Slowly, reluctantly, the talking dies away.
For a few more minutes the only thing you can hear are the otherworldly sounds coming from the hidden speakers. Then, the drunken babble and heavy plods of two men as they trip up the stairs. The smaller of the two men says, in a thick Afrikaans accent, “I’m gonna run across the wall!” Without any further warning, he proceeds to parkour along the slanted edge of the wall like a half-pipe, narrowly missing the protesting mass below. He lands at the entrance and barely avoids tripping into his buddy, who has started clapping in appreciation. Some of the people in the circle join in, and then slowly, you do the same. The egg begins ringing with the rat-tat of clapping.
And then you hear the hissing noise again. “Shh! Shh! Shh!” You look around see the old woman, spitting with anger. And so the noise dies down again, but this time you can feel the tension in the room. The Afrikaans blokes stumble back into the night. The piano crescendos, then diminuendos into an uneasy quiet.
And then a young woman in the back of the egg, a mousy girl with florescent highlights in her hair, speaks up. “I have a story. Would anyone like to hear a story?” Some nods, a couple of audible murmurs, and a few uneasy glances at the angry woman, who’s trying her hardest to look like someone lost in thought. Then a slight shift as everyone turns to face the storyteller.
She tells her story, about meeting her high school Geometry teacher at the festival, and she tells it well. Sounds of approval ripple through the cluster. Then a man who looks like a university literature professor begins to tell about the time he met his estranged cousin at a music festival. As he gets to the moment he sees his cousin dancing on stage, he loses control and starts snorting with laughter. His laughter is contagious, and soon the egg is filled with the echoes of a sea of laughter.
Then, pushing against the current of noise, a thwap-thwap-thwap like a fish against the side of a boat. This time the noise does not subside. You look to your right and see the shriveled woman beating the wall with her palm, snarling. She stands up and begins shrieking. “This isn’t what this is about!” She flails her hands and stumbles towards the entrance like a bat trapped inside a house. “You’ve ruined it!” She clears the pile of bodies and climbs down the stairs. “You’ve ruined it!” She wanders away. “You’ve ruined it!” Her screeches echo in the night.
This is a true story- it happened to me while I was exploring the Karoo desert during my most memorable night at Afrikaburn. In the moment, I tried to push the situation to the back of my mind. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, after all. But as the festival went on, I found myself replaying the scene in my mind again and again.
As a piece of art, the egg was a space without an apparent purpose. And yet, it’s hard to imagine the artist building it without any idea of what it would become; perhaps they even built it intentionally, with a specific experience in mind. Does that matter? Did we violate the space by drowning out the music with our own chatter and activity? Or should the form be fundamentally organic, completely open to the uninformed interpretations of the layman? Is it right to control the conditions of an artistic space?
And I realized: this was more than a chance encounter with a crazy old bat. It was the central tension of Afrikaburn played out in the miniature.
(Cover photo by Hennie Niemand)
Center and Periphery
You may not have heard of Afrikaburn, but you’ve probably heard of its parent organization, Burning Man. Like many of the art featured at the event, though, it’s hard to describe exactly what the Burning Man phenomenon is all about. The original Burning Man was founded as a temporary escape from the pressures of contemporary life, in 1986, by a pair of disaffected San Francisco Bohemians. The basic idea of was simple, yet radical- bring a group of people into an isolated space, let them abide by a series of counter-cultural values, create art, and then burn the art. In its first year, a couple dozen people congregated on Baker Beach in; the titular “Burning Man” failed to burn, fire codes were violated, and the event was nearly shut down.
Somehow, the event survived its first year, and slowly but surely began to pick up steam. By 1990, the festival was brought to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where it has remained. By 2004, the event was large enough (35,000 people!) that Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey decided to write The Ten Commandments- I mean, The Ten Principles– of Burning Man.
The values of Radical inclusion and radical self-expression are designed to allow anybody to enter the space and behave in any way that doesn’t harm others. This explains all the naked people at the festival. The space (almost) entirely decomodified, meaning monetary exchange and corporate advertising is disallowed. Instead, burners rely on gifting to establish social bonds within the festival, and active participation and immediacy to establish and maintain the infrastructure of the space. Everyone shares in these duties equally; it’s part of your civic responsibility as a burner.
These principles are utopian in form, because they interrupt the sense of organic form but allow certain types of expression to flourish. They also allow Burning Man to claim to be different from your standard hedonistic festival experience. In a word, Burning Man aspires to be both a festival and a project in intentional living.
Its hard to tell if Burning Man has been able to keep this promise, however. Today, the event has ballooned into an uber-trendy arts festival with a staggering 70,000 participants, as well as regional burns on every continent (except, you know, Antarctica). The “Burning Man” is still present, and presumably burns smoothly, but alongside him are hundreds of other works of art, ranging in size and scale. What was once a creative hub for new age leftists has now evolved into a mecca for the new new age- think ravers and DJs, cosplayers and otherkin, and most controversially, tech entrepreneurs.
Yup. This anti-modernist back-to-basics utopia has now been overrun by techies eager to play hard and… network? A slew of think pieces published in the last several years have described the surge of techies from basic coders all the way up to Silicon Valley executives- The Google guys, Mark Zuckerburg, and Elon Musk are just a few of the names that have attended. The presence of these high-powered burners signals a cultural shift that, to many veteran burners, undercuts the intention of the festival. For example, venture capitalist Jim Tananbaum made headlines during the 2014 Burning Man when he threw a party with- get this- a $17,000 per person cover charge. Yeah, not so sure about the whole “Radical Inclusion” and “Decommodified” thing anymore.
Perhaps this is simply the size of the festival. With a population larger than most US cities, Burning Man cannot be regulated in the same way that it used to be. For this reason, many die-hard burners have started to leave the center in favor of the periphery. The regional burns, many of which have under 1,000 participants, bring Burning Man across the world in miniature.
Afrikaburn may seem small compared to the scale of Burning Man, but with 12,000 participants at its peak, Afrikaburn is the largest regional burn in the world. This makes it an interesting laboratory to see if the Ten Principles can be upheld at a smaller, yet still significant, scale. Can Afrikaburn save Burning Man?
Space and Place
Afrikaburn takes place in South Africa’s Karoo Desert, about 2 hours away from the nearest small town. In the weeks leading up to the event, volunteers from around the world (but mostly South Africa) flock to the desert with construction tools, tents, and other essentials to transform the stretch of desert into Tankwa Town, Afrikaburn’s kinda-sorta official temporary city.
A volunteer Department of Public Works team arrives a few weeks before the start to set up basic infrastructure: signs, wooden toilets, and a medic tent. The artists also come early, setting up the characteristic wooden structures that will eventually be burned in the final days of the festival. Finally, in the weekend preceding the event, organized groups of people who want to provide a service to the community arrive to set up their Theme Camp.
After all this is set up, the masses descend, and the town springs into action.
When I arrived at Tankwa Town on Monday, I was floored by the massive scale of the space. It took me an hour of walking without stopping to get from one end of the camp to the other, and the path was hardly straightforward.
Most of the action takes place in the Binnekring, or the inner circle, where the majority of theme camps are located. The theme camps are the engine of Tankwa Town. They vary massively in the services they provide, but the main condition is that they offer their services for free. The possibilities are almost endless. Do you want a fresh cup of Coffee in the morning? Alienz Cafe. How about a yoga session right after that? Camp Skaduwee. Wanna get a manicure, pedicure, and henna tattoo? Oasis Spa. All this and more, for free.
At the center of it all are the art installations, which range from the mundane to the magnificent, from the beautiful to the downright weird.
Also in the center are the Mutant Vehicles. As the name implies, the Mutant Vehicles are vehicles that have been modified to look and behave like something else- a train, a snail, a dragon, even an old west saloon. With enough creativity, anything is possible. Like the interactive art installations, the Mutant Vehicles come in all shapes, colors, and sizes.
Some, like this steampunk inspired car, only have room for a few people; others can hold dozens. My favorites were the ones with a speaker system hooked up to them. These would stop at random points on the playa to hold spontaneous dance parties.
With all this excitement, figuring out where everything is located is a challenge. As I walked through the Binnekring, I would occasionally notice large posts with time markers on them: 6ish, then 7ish, and so on. These map markers are a clever play on the loose nature of time and space in the burner community. The circular layout is mapped out like a clock, so the time points function as destination markers.
Meanwhile, since time keeping is not strict in Tankwa Town, you often hear that events are starting at “…ish” times. If an event starts at 4ish, don’t expect it to happen to happen right at 4 (or even within the hour). Of course, this gets confusing when someone tells you that an event is at 4ish and you’re not sure if they’re talking about the time or the destination. But no system is perfect, huh?
It may seem convoluted, but the unique construction of space in Tankwa Town is not accidental. It’s all designed to give the effect of being transported into another word, where kindness and reciprocity abound, where deadlines and obligations are illusory, and ultimately, where you can play to your heart’s content.
But who is the you here? Who plays, and who doesn’t? Or, if we assume the language of intentionality, who is allowed to play and who is not? This may seem like a silly question- of course anyone is allowed to be a burner! Radical Inclusion! Radical Self-acceptance! And it’s true: there are no codified restrictions on who can enter the space. As long as you have a valid ticket, you’re welcome to join the festival.
But just as the construction of Tankwa Town is not incidental, neither are the exclusions from the space. When the strip of Karoo becomes Tankwa Town, borders are erected. And we can only find them if we look beyond this fantasy land, into the unforgiving domains of geography and history.
Inclusions and Exclusions
Looking around the heavily costumed festival-goers, it’s easy to get the impression that only freaks come to a place like Afrikaburn. At the lighthouse rave, young ravers in glowsuits entertain a burner family, kids in tow; by the body art tent, a topless 20-something in a pink tutu frolics with a middle-aged man in a leopard print onesie; at the spa, a woman dressed like a witch get her nails touched up by a cosplaying unicorn; and by the acrobatics tent, a buddah-like old man walks the slackline with surprising ease. The spirit of radical acceptance abounds.
With such diverse and progressive burner identities, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that you’re actually IN Africa. There are African influences, sure, but they’re mixed in with a smorgasbord of other cultural influences. The geographical styles trend towards exoticized cultures – think Native American headdresses, Eastern iconography, and mandala designs- whereas the Western styles lampoon familiar social roles – think slutty police officers, nurses with alcohol syringes, and elaborately robed bishops. There’s even a strong fantastical element that seems to go beyond apparent culture; in particular, steampunk styles (ornate gearwork and google-hats), medieval styles, and human-animal hybrids.
But once you actually start meeting people, a different picture emerges. The leopard man is actually a marketing executive at Sasol. His companion in the pink tutu is actually a Social Studies teacher in France. So it goes.
But there is a pattern to both the Afrikaburn weirdness and the real-world normality. In Tankwa Town, people tend to present a weirder version of themselves than they normally would- more carefree, tolerant, and experimental. In the real world, however, they follow a familiar pattern- middle or upper middle class, well-educated, and, undeniably, white.
In fact, the only group of people you can’t seem to find is the group you would most expect to find in Africa- Black and Coloured Africans (coloured being the South African term for mixed race Afrcans). Ok, that’s hyperbole. What isn’t hyperbole is that the vast majority of burners I encountered were white.
I caveat this by saying that other people’s experiences may have been different- there were obviously many people I did not encounter. A census would be useful to substantiate my observations, and while there indeed a census for Burning Man, such a thing does not (yet) exist for Afrikaburn. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to argue that, as a social group, Black and Coloured Africans were under-represented relative to their population size in South Africa, where just 8.9% of people are White, and 89.1% are Black or Coloured, according to the 2011 South African census.
Why is there such a strong racial skew? Personally, I would rule out racial hostility. I heard no racial epithets being uttered in my company or in the company of Black Africans. In terms of how people treated each other during the festival, I saw nothing that would constitute racism. This doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t there- my identity as a white person obviously limits me in this regard- but it doesn’t seem to be a prominent barrier.
Economic costs are usually the first place people look at when accounting for social exclusion, and to an extent, this makes sense. A festival is not a cheap experience, in terms of either time or money. By festival standards entrance into Afrikaburn is actually quite cheap, at R1000 (about $65 USD) for however long you stay. For those who were able to for several days, like myself, this makes Afrikaburn seem quite affordable. But of course, the entrance fee alone isn’t the only cost. I had to budget in food costs, costumes, camping equipment, and transportation. With all that taken care of, my total costs had ballooned up to around R6000 ($400 USD)- no longer so affordable.
Then there’s the time cost. Most casual festival-goers arrived in Tankwa Town on Wednesday and left Sunday, which of course meant that their real world routine had to be put in hold. With some jobs, this is possible; with others, not so much. I heard of a startup in Cape Town where more than half of the office took time off for Afrikaburn, which certainly says something about the office (good or bad? Hard to tell).
This situation seems incredibly unlikely for a day laborer. With few exceptions, working class jobs are much less flexible with time-off than professional class jobs. Combined with the heightened economic strain of attending the festival, it’s no wonder I didn’t meet a single person with a working class job.
Ok fine, but this explanation alone is far from sufficient. Economic inequality cuts across racial lines in every developed country, and especially in South Africa, but there is still a thriving middle and upper class of Black Africans who might have had the time and money to attend Afrikaburn. To account for their absence, we need to take a closer look at the social divisions in South Africa.
A Zulu woman I befriended during my second day told me her friends thought she was crazy for going to Afrikaburn. “My boyfriend was like, ‘Isn’t that where all the white people in Cape Town go?'” She laughed. “It’s just nothing like where I’m from.” I asked her why she was here. “I don’t really know. I guess I like art too much to miss this.”
The simplest explanation for why Black Africans (generally) don’t go to Afrikaburn today is simply that Black Africans (generally) have never gone to Afrikaburn. It’s much easier to sink the time and money into a week-long arts festival when you know your friends are going with you than when you have to go alone. Even in the most tolerant of places, the simple fact of not having your people or culture represented can be the most concrete barrier of all.
And this, I think, is one of the most important reasons for the racial skew at Afrikaburn. But this answer still begs the question: why is there such a separation in the first place?
22 years ago, at the end of apartheid, South Africans of all stripes were hopeful that the country’s racial divisions would disappear. But this hasn’t happened. White South Africans, on the whole, have become more spatially segregated than during Apartheid. In fact, only 22 percent of white South Africans and a fifth of black South Africans live in racially integrated neighborhoods. In the all-white enclaves, the best schools are found, wealth is concentrated, and homes meet basic housing standards. This is in sharp contrast to all-black neighborhoods, where only 27 percent of black children have access to piped water in their home.
In apartheid South Africa, skin color was the basis for enforced separation. Post-apartheid, the separation is maintained by cultural forms such as language, education, and even art and music preferences. When social and economic inequality is high, culture becomes a major source of pride and exclusion. Pitted against each other by apartheid, the various ethnic groups of South Africa developed many distinct cultures based largely in opposition to each other. Over time, these cultural disparities have formed borders nearly as impermeable as the borders of forced segregation.
To see how cultural segregation plays out in South Africa, we need look no further than Oppikoppi, South Africa’s largest and most well-known music festival. It has been vaulted as “the festival that jumpstarted South African rock music,” and decried as “a religious pilgrimage for white people.”
And in its early days, that’s kinda what it was. Founded right in the beginning of the period of cultural upheaval that marked the beginning of the post-apartheid era, Oppikoppi was explicitly started as a space for white afrikaaners “om weg van alles te kom” [to get away from it all]. Like many festivals of the early post-apartheid era, Oppikoppi was an unabashed celebration of Afrikaans culture by Afrikaans rockers, for an Afrikaans audience.
The festival has changed since its inception: the line-up now features many black artists, and black festival-goers are starting to attend in greater numbers. But the festival still has a long way to go before it can be considered an inclusive space.
In 2014, several reports of open racism surged from Black festival-goers who were told “Praat Afrikaans of hou jou bek” (Speak Afrikaans or shut your mouth). On the other end of the cultural gap, many of the non-Afrikaans artists were met with tepid responses. Journalist Tseliso Monaheng describes the apathetic response of the large, mostly white audience at oppikoppi during the set of a black rapper, Okmalumkoolkat.
“Okmalumkoolkat and Dirty Paraffin are the zeitgeist of contemporary urban South African culture, and when confronted with this zeitgeist, the white kids turned up their noses and ignored it. They can’t understand it and don’t have any interest in doing so.”
The cultural tensions of the festival today demonstrates both the resistance to change and the deep cultural gap that exists between White and Black Africans in South Africa today. Legal Apartheid may no longer exist in South Africa, but its legacy lives on in the cultural gap between South Africans of different skin colors. Without radical action, it is unclear that the space between the worlds can ever be bridged.
At this point, you may see me like I saw the woman in the egg, as some bitter old bat flapping around and ruining everybody’s fun. But I hope you’ll give these last few words a read anyways. You made it this far, after all.
I’m not saying that Afrikaburn is a bad thing. Truly, I had one of the best weeks of my life at Afrikaburn. I had a profound spiritual experience inside an egg, swung across a crowd of ravers on a trapeze, rode the back of a fire breathing dragon-car through a sandstorm, and attended my first wedding (it was very purple). I felt liberated and at ease, and I want as many people as possible to experience this as well.
But many burners think that simply calling the event “radical” and letting people run around naked is enough for it to actually be radical. And this head in the sand mentality is nearly as bad as the freakout mentality of burners who think they can control what an art installment is used for.
If we don’t take radical inclusion seriously, then the outcome will be exclusion.
Afrikaburn is very much a tolerant community, but it has a long way to go before it becomes a radically inclusive one. Tolerance passively accepts other cultures; radical inclusion actively recruits them. Tolerance hides from cultural clashes; radical inclusion seeks them out. Tolerance goes with the flow; radical inclusion makes sure the water is flowing in the right direction.
We, as burners, need to recognize that the place we create is not a neutral space. The way we organize, promote, and participate in it has inherent cultural biases. Radical inclusion means being able to name the parts of burning culture that exclude people, and decide if these exclusions are necessary.
The double-edged sword of intentional living is that while we can take credit for what we create, the flaws and omissions are ours as well. When someone is excluded from our space, we cannot blame anyone but ourselves.
It’s time to burn the ugly borders that surround this community.