North of Cape Town and into South Africa’s arid Karoo semi-desert, where the AfrikaBurn festival is held, is a tented town with an eclectic mix of people and multi-storey creations.

The festival, based on America’s Burning Man, which draws 70 000 participants each year, is a chance to experience a different, transient space that runs on creativity, self-reliance, self-expression and communal effort. To foster these values, nothing can be bought there: The festival is a de-commodified zone run on a gifting rather than a bartering economy. Each participant has to bring everything they need to survive, including shelter, water and food. It also means that all the entertainment – from creative shows, DJ performances and art – is envisaged, created and produced by the participants.

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Out of 130 regional events scattered across the globe that are affiliated with Burning Man, AfrikaBurn is the largest, drawing more than 11 000 people this year. Its success could in most part be due to its guiding principles, which promise a transcendent experience.

Afrikaburn “wildlife” photo credit festival Facebook page

The festival’s website proclaims that AfrikaBurn aims to be radically inclusive and accessible to anyone. The touchstone of value in the festival’s culture will always be immediacy: experience before theory, moral relationships before politics, survival before services, roles before jobs, ritual before symbolism, work before vested interest and participant support before sponsorship.

Some of the more outstanding principles are:

1. Radical Inclusion- Anyone can be a part of AfrikaBurn. There are no prerequisites for participation, meaning anyone can partake.

2. De-commodification- They prioritise participatory experience over consumption and seek to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.

3. Radical self-reliance- encouraging the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

4. Leaving no trace- the festival endeavors to remove any physical trace of the activities.

The magnum opus of the festival, as is the case at Burning Man, is watching the art installations being set ablaze. Experiencing the spectacle of giant art works on fire with a crowd of burners (the term used for festival goers who inevitably participate in or experience the burning of the installations) gasping in awe in union is the major highlight of AfrikaBurn.

The burnings bring a perfect end to days of costumes, performances, themed camps, music and the mutant vehicles that are used to get around the large area that the festival covers. These “art cars” that traverse the desert town vary in scale and shape: Visitors can jump onto the back of a big purple snail, a porcupine or a rhino, or sail across the horizon in a pirate ship.

AfrikaBurn so Caucasian

Historically, “burning” has been a white pursuit as the lack of security and general vulnerability that outdoor events like these have for minority groups greatly limit diversity. However, it would not be unreasonable to expect that an African festival based on the African continent would host African people, of all races. So far, the festival – even though it panders inclusion to its audience – has almost no black “burners” and, by the look of things, it is run by an all-white membership, directorship and staff, except for the volunteers.

AfrikaBurn has been criticised for emulating the original Burning Man to the point that the only thing vaguely African about it is its location and logo. Nothing else about the festival is remotely informed or inspired by African culture, whether by design or lack of imagination.

Furthermore, the amount of profitable self-commodification a participant would have to undergo to be part of this de-commodified community is sizeable. Basically, you need to have a whole lot of money to sustain being in this gifting economy. Not many people have the kind of personal wealth it takes to participate in the festival. Even with low-rate tickets, massive barriers lie in logistical needs, supplies and time off from work.

Although the festival’s principles are commendable, AfrikaBurn has been described by goers in their personal reviews as “classist” and “painfully lacking in diversity”, making it, in reality, separatist and completely contrary to its aspirations. After more than a decade of existence, AfrikaBurn has failed to meet most of its principles. It seems to be no more than a cut-and-paste of the American festival it emulates. This is without pointing out that its failures happen in a country where race politics are still very fragile.