What Is Afrikaburn All About?

Afrikaburn (originally called Afrika Burns) is an offshoot of Burning Man. The participants create a community where art, creativity and radical self-expression are all integral parts of the experience.

The event is called a ‘regional burn’, an official Burning Man event fashioned after the Burning Man Festival, which is held in the Nevada desert, USA. While Burning Man participants create the temporary city called Black Rock City, Afrikaburners conjure Tankwa Town in the Western Cape province, South Africa.

If you know anything about Burning Man, then you’ll know that this isn’t your typical festival. Yes, there is music, art, dancing and events, but this festival is created entirely by those who attend and those who volunteer.

The whole purpose is to be able to express yourself in a way that you can’t normally. Being there is like being in a different dimension. Where everyone is accepted, no money is required, and you can wear whatever your inner heart desires.

silhouette of people looking at art near afrikaburn
Under African skies in the Tankwa Desert (📸©️ Joffrey Hyman)

How did Afrikaburn start?

Let’s get down to brass tax and take it back to the beginning

Burning Man Origins

To understand why and how Afrikaburn started, you must first understand its origins. Burning Man began in 1986 when Larry Harvey was in a rut in his life and his heart.

One day he woke up and thought, “enough is enough” he called up his friend Jerry James, and together they pulled off a feat of note. They built a wooden sculpture of an eight-foot-tall man, took it to Baker Beach in San Francisco and burned it!

So those are the facts. But what happened when they lit the giant man acted as the impetus for what was to come. People noticed it and gathered around.

They started to sing and dance. Then a lady ran up to the burning effigy and attempted to grasp his hand just as a gust of wind quelled the flames for a moment. Somehow, this spontaneous act had formed an instant community. It was magical.

If you want the whole story, with all the heart-warming details, I’ve written about the symbolism of Burning Man and what it means to society today.

A desire for Burning Man in Africa

Fast forward to 2002, Paul Jorgensen met Larry at Burning Man and mentioned that he’d love to do a Burning Man event in South Africa, so they set the wheels in motion. They had discussions for the next four years, Jorgensen filled out a funding application, and many other essential contributors like Robert Weinek, Lil Black, Mark Mostert and many others joined the team effort.

By 2007 it was finally time for the first regional Burning Man event to occur. Since then, several other Burning Man-esque community-centric events have emerged.

For the first thirteen years (13) of the event, Afrikaburn was held on a private reserve called Stonehenge farm, near Tankwa Karoo National Park, South Africa. After being gifted two adjacent farms called Quaggafontein and Vaalfontein towards the end of 2019, Afrikaburn was moved to these two properties.

Afrikaburn is more than just the annual event

Afrikaburn was formed as a non-profit company to be an annual event, give back to the community, and live out Burning Man’s spirit.

So, the non-profit organises community programs and outreach activities throughout the year to support disadvantaged communities. For example, they do free art workshops in local communities, outreach for communities in need of food, medical care, education funding, and other volunteer-based community services.

What are the Guiding Principles all about?

Afrikaburn endeavours to apply the Burning Man principles in the South African context and make a real difference. To understand what this ‘Burning Man Spirit’ is, let’s take a quick look at the guiding principles and how they have developed to be unique to South Africa.

There are 11 guiding principles. Of course, the first ten are based on Burning Man’s 10 principles, and the last was another that emerged from this unique offshoot of the festival.

Each of these ten principles has genuinely grown to represent the culture of Afrikaburn. While it may seem like these are rules or requirements, they merely represent the culture that has organically developed over time from the start of Burning Man and has been carried over to Afrikaburn.

1. Radical inclusion

Radical inclusion in the original Burning Man means including everyone no matter who they are. While it means the same thing at Afrikaburn, it also addresses the barriers and imbalances found within South African society, specifically making efforts to overcome them and make Afrikaburn accessible to anyone.

2. Gifting

Gifting ties in with de-commodification, the next principle on the list. Afrikaburn is a place where nothing can be bought or traded. People come to Tankwa Town, gifts in hand, ready to share. The point is not to expect anything back but rather to give for the sake of a kind act.

3. Decommodification

In order to preserve the spirit of gift-giving, no trading or selling of anything is allowed in Afrikaburn. This ties in with one of Burning Man’s original ideas: creating something rather than consuming something.

4. Radical self-reliance

To have an experience outside consumerism and societal parameters, you must see what it’s like to fend for yourself. Radical self-reliance allows for freedom.

5. Radical self-expression

Many people love Afrikaburn because they can go there and be themselves in a way that is impossible in everyday society. Tankwa Town is a place that exists outside of the expectations of the world. It’s a place that is what Afrikaburners make it and so here they are free to explore what being themselves means.

6. Communal effort

From the first Burning Man, it was a communal effort to build the man. Unfortunately, a few years later, people started treating it like a spectacle.

“What had been a communion for us was just a cheap spectacle for them. And you know, our society is largely organised around cheap, and expensive, spectacles…in which you are anonymous, you’re passive, you consume a product, you share nothing with anybody, you go away, come back and get some more later when you feel empty again.”

Larry Harvey, 1997

When Burning Man was moved to the desert, Larry Harvey spoke about how now people had to make an effort to be there.

Now you had to contribute, and that is what it is about. Building something together as a community, not showing up and “attending”. Afrikaburn has held to the same idea.

7. Civic responsibility

The whole idea of Afrikaburn is not to run wild and get away from any semblance of civility. On the contrary, the community of Tankwa Town values its members and the laws that keep them safe.

At Afrikaburn, each person has the responsibility to uphold the local and national laws as well as look out for one another as a matter of duty.

8. Leave no trace

Of course, creating an entire temporary city brings with it a lot of stuff. It can negatively affect the environment in which it takes place if the proper caution is not taken. In short, burners care about the place that they hold so dear, so they make sure to clean up after themselves and when possible, leave the site cleaner than they found it.

9. Participation

You can’t have a community-built city without participation. It is the participation that makes the whole experience so unique. Through participation, Afrikaburn becomes a community rather than an event that people attend.

Everyone works and plays together. It creates a connection between each and every burner and their shared bubble of freedom. Through participation, this other dimension is made real.

10. Immediacy

This means truly living in the here and now. Making direct contact with the experiences you are having at that moment in time, rather than evaluating them as they happen. Immediacy allows burners to just exist as their true selves, without thought of the past or the future.

11. Each one teach one

This principle is unique to Afrikaburn and actually addresses a problem of sparkle ponies that Burning Man has faced. This problem arose from first-timers not quite getting the principles the first time around and consequently facing some negative attitudes from veteran burners.

The each one teach one principle asserts that it is each burner’s responsibility to spread the culture and pass on knowledge to those who need it.

In a nutshell

While Afrikaburn sprouted as Burning Man’s progeny, it has grown to have its own flavour, reflecting South Africa and the community that has been built there. It is a place for anyone and everyone to express themselves, find themselves or lose themselves.

It is also an organisation dedicated to making a difference in the community and uplifting individuals within that community by living the principles so dear to every burner.

It truly is a life-changing experience. So why not give attending the event some thought? Many use this opportunity as a sort of pilgrimage.