While many were following the circuitous twists and turns of making a decision around co-creating Black Rock City this year, AfrikaBurn organizers were already on the other side of this difficult process. The largest Burning Man Regional event, AfrikaBurn was put on hold for a second year in a row due to COVID-19 restrictions.
But behind the scenes, AfrikaBurn organizers were setting wheels in motion for a new, ambitious and visionary community project — a permanent initiative that goes well beyond the ephemeral cycle of the annual AfrikaBurn event.
For many years, the AfrikaBurn community had contemplated the opportunities and possibilities of owning the land that hosted the week-long annual event in Tankwa Karoo, located in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.
What if, instead of allocating funds to lease land every year, they could channel more resources into supporting creative projects? What’s more, owning land would support AfrikaBurn’s creative community with art space and infrastructure storage year round. As tends to be the case with pretty much anything creative, the sticking point was not only money, but what owning land would mean for the organization, when land appropriation is a deeply ethical consideration.
Then in 2019, something unbelievable happened.
A community member heard of AfrikaBurn’s plans to own land and offered to buy it for them. “It was a gift, which is a happy story which proves that if you give things energy, the right thing will happen,” said AfrikaBurn Co-founder and Creative Lead Monique Schiess.
After narrowing down a list of potential suitors who were courted over several years, AfrikaBurn found its forever home at Quaggafontein, just 19 miles from its previous location.
But AfrikaBurn can’t do it alone. After two years of canceled events, the organization is seeking donations from the global community — not only to develop its new home in Quaggafontein, but also to help the annual Regional Event survive.
Ambitious Plans to Restore the Land
During coronavirus lockdowns, Schiess decided to spend eight weeks on the 10,000-hectare space, soaking in its astounding beauty and reflecting on all the amazing things that could be done with the land. “There’s something about that vast openness and that solitude and that silence and that sepia landscape that is very powerful,” she said.
While seemingly devoid of life with a Mars-like landscape and shadows of mountains in the distance, the land isn’t barren at all — at least it isn’t supposed to be. The sensitive desert biome is in a state of recovery after years of extractive farming, overgrazing, and a seven-year drought. “That very desertified space that we love so much should actually be far more grassy than it is,” said Schiess, who has a background in environmental science.
Instead of just being the next set of humans to deliver ecological blows to the land, AfrikaBurn is planning Earth jurisprudence — a philosophy that all beings, including nature, have rights. In practice, that means committing to restoring the land and mitigating any potential damage from future events. “If we’re a community that is about imagining and redefining the future, what are we doing if we’re not instituting those things in our own home?” Schiess wondered aloud.
Schiess writes, “Our foundational question at every juncture is what the most philosophically transformative thing that we could do with land in the Tankwa/surrounds would be.
“We recognize also the opportunity this custodianship presents to engage with this land in a way that is transformative, and commit ourselves to ensuring that our impact on the community/land/environment and people is a positive one.
“So the principles have inspired exploration within the South African context of privilege and dispossession to ensure that our impact on the community/land/environment and people is positive, brave and transformational on all levels… from individual ones too. We are also instituting the Earth Jurisprudence measures — treating the land in her personhood.”
Taking a Bold Approach to Land Stewardship
AfrikaBurn was already undertaking bold environmental practices with its annual event, which attracts between 11,000 and 13,000 participants per year. But with a larger canvas AfrikaBurn plans to go even bigger, by growing a food garden, planting trees, setting up gray water systems, undertaking ecological restoration practices, and using bold and experimental approaches from their community to forge ahead with caring for the land in ways that will go well beyond their annual gathering.
The land and region haven’t always been empty — it was once a trek route to the north of the country, and still sees passing Indigenous sheepherders. AfrikaBurn continues to work with the local community by supporting the region’s cart horse association, sending exodus food to children in need, and supporting the only primary school in the Tankwa region.
AfrikaBurn also plans to strengthen ties with Indigenous groups across South Africa; they’ve already welcomed a First People’s camp to bless the land before any outsiders were invited. “They’re pretty avid Burners and they came and they did a lot of ceremonial and trance work,” Schiess said. “It was a very, very special and quite emotional thing.”
Engaging the Global Community
On Easter weekend 2021, AfrikaBurn offered the public 65 tickets to participate in Eco Trip — a small event at Quaggafontein that invited members of the community to offer ideas and experience their new home. “It was so amazing to be together again. Oh my word,” Schiess said.
Attendees planted native trees, started establishing hiking and mountain biking trails, held workshops, and brainstormed about the future of the space. “You’re in the desert but it was very fertile because of the amount of feedback and people who want to jump in,” Schiess said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, well, I just wanted to get to the desert and party my tits off.’ Everyone is very into doing that labor of love.”
AfrikaBurn is hoping to channel its community to build an environmentally sustainable home that they all want to be in. To do that, it wants to continue being a do-ocracy. “The key is also to keep being open source because that’s the solution to everything in the world,” Schiess said. “The more brains you have on the project, the better solutions you’re going to get.”
Schiess said that if AfrikaBurn can get the funding it needs, it’s open to going even bigger with its plans for environmental protection, as well as becoming a perfect space to create. “When the sky’s the limit there’s absolutely all sorts that can be done.”
All images of AfrikaBurn’s Eco Trip, 2021 (Photos by Gita Claassen)