Fear and Loathing at AfrikaBurn

After nearly two years of being the caretaker of AfrikaBurn’s workshop in Cape Town, of being treated like an indentured labourer and seeing a lot of productive time wasted, frustration levels are high. The last year in particular has been a litany of lost opportunities as the varied, hapless petty tyrants and prima donnas upon whom the workshop’s development has depended, have failed to deliver on almost every tangible material item, preferring to waste time and money on rumour-mongering and office politicking. Complaints about these behaviours have been ignored or swept aside, complainants cast as anti-social and the same stupid mistakes have been repeated over and over again.

Something had to give at some point.

Africa Spurned
White Mischief in the 21st Century

“This place is a jumble sale of wrong ideas” — Given Rabalao, Artist.

AfrikaBurn’s leadership appears to lack an intellectual and moral centre, and through a catastrophic failure of both insight and resolve, has allowed a Machiavellian coup by the privileged and powerful to to occur. By putting wealthy elitists at the helm of its employment policy, which can be compared to giving a paedophile the run of a kindergarten, it has allowed what should be considered unconscionable abuse of the goodwill of employees and volunteers to be made mandate.

Thanks to this corporatised, plutocratic employment policy, a paranoid, Thatcherite governance portfolio and an imperious, brutish and weaselly, ‘White Madam,’ management style, AfrikaBurn has been reduced to a cruel and impersonal meat grinder that pampers the rich and leeches the poor. The working environment, described in film titles, feels like, ‘Lord of the Flies meets Groundhog Day,’ as trivial, internecine power struggles play out, day after day.

AfrikaBurn’s newly adopted employment policy predictably divides and compartmentalises labour and, in true corporate fashion, commodifies and diminishes the roles of individuals through arbitrary, incoherent and conflicting assignments of responsibility. Volunteerism has become a euphemism for coercion by threat of exclusion, and the emergence of an influential, invisible hierarchy has taken place.

The salaried heads of departments, comfortable suburban socialites whose jobs entail little more than attending meetings, talking on the phone, and sending emails, and who are so perpetually, ‘drowning in admin,’ (for admin, read gin and tonics) that they hardly lift a finger at workday events, quite happily call on freelancers, who often struggle to pay their rents, to give up their weekends and other time to labour on AfrikaBurn’s behalf for no remuneration, besides fairly liberal lashings of alcohol. The larneys are using the dop system on their own people for a change.

It is the advent of new age feudalism. The newly created peasant classes, actual artists, are cajoled by self-interested lushes invoking, ‘Burner Spirit,’ into McVolunteering their time and energy to create a playground for South Africa’s louche and superficial, white, art-school irony set, those over-stimulated, licentious, inbred prodigies of Cape Town’s flagrantly incestuous advertising and film industries. The latter, accompanied by a few trustafarians and bored millionaire players, occupy the top tier of what is ultimately a pyramid scheme of social capital.

By sleight-of-hand and the wholesale and completely unnecessary import of an unwieldy American pop culture franchise, a group of creatively blocked shadow artists, bureaucrats and box tickers are making an elaborate and specious lunge at celebrity through curation-by-funding. Employing savvy redistribution of ticket money, they stand on the shoulders of established, older artists and their fashionable, younger counterparts, thus hoping to crown themselves the fairy godmothers of local pop culture. In short, involvement in AfrikaBurn appears to be nothing more than a cynical exercise in associative branding for themselves and, in some cases, the products they promote in the real world.

AfrikaBurn is now a sly and manipulative Tom Sawyer with a fence to paint, wanting the Huckleberry Finn’s of the world to pay (sorry, ‘gift,’) him for the privilege of doing the hard work. It is a grotesque and potentially irredeemable psychopath intent on seducing swathes of wide-eyed, art-world wannabe’s into producing the backdrop to a lurid, fetishistic orgy of conspicuous consumption where the rich congregate to flaunt and destroy their annual excess away from the eyes of their real-life servants. The ensuing, vainglorious pantomime is a melange of a Johnny Lampshade convention, a pissing contest for commercial artists and a thinly disguised networking operation for set builders and advertising industry art buyers. AfrikaBurn is also an important new pilgrimage for plagiaristic ad agency, ‘creatives,’ looking to jumpstart their stalled collective imaginations and features more SUV’s per square metre than the parking lot at a canned lion hunt.

If AfrikaBurn is a tool for social change, as they’re now calling it, then the tool is in the wrong hands. Twenty years into the New South Africa, and eight years into AfrikaBurn, we have an all-white membership, an all-white directorship and an all-white staff. (Not counting McVolunteers, of course.) That’s not change, that’s entrenched white privilege! The upper echelons appear still to have more black* servants than they have black friends, yet somehow grudgingly believe their lifestyles and business interests are encroached upon by Black Economic Empowerment. AfrikaBurn could aptly be described as Halloween in Orania.

The only thing vaguely African about AfrikaBurn is it’s location and the icon it has a appropriated as it’s logo. Nothing else about it is remotely informed or inspired by African culture, except as interpreted through the eyes of white people. As such, it can never hope to attain cultural or even regional authenticity. Overtures made to include black artists have been self-conscious and tokenist at best and the opinion seems to be that the current trend of what has been called, ‘organic inclusion,’ of black artists at the fringes of theme camps is satisfactory. Organic inclusion simply means that black artists are being included on white artists’ terms and are expected to work their way up the ranks, so yes, of course it’s satisfactory, if you’re the funded head of a theme camp, in need of free labour to construct your ego platform in the desert.

Artist and theme camp funding tends to favour demanding, egocentric, alpha-type personalities with, ‘proven track records.’ In other words, you already have to have money to be given any. Artists with integrity, who are reluctant to commodify their talent in the marketing world, will have to make do with the crumbs in typical neo-liberal, trickle-down fashion. Alternatively, less affluent participants have the option of digging and maintaining the toilets as a means to entry. This also entails several weeks of being shouted and screamed at boot-camp style and then placated and reassured in a good cop, bad cop routine run by pucker little private school prefects who believe they are, “fostering a culture.” Ayn Rand would have been proud. So would Kim Jung Il, for that matter.

Shortfalls in funding for theme camps and installations are usually made up for at the latest imposition on the social calendar, burn fundraisers. At these arty, burn-proselytising Tupperware parties, you can expect to pay for poorly prepared, banal, counter-cultural performance art representing the kind of social rebellion encouraged and popularised by mainstream fashion and music channels and then be asked to tidy the venue before you leave — to give you a feel for the, ‘ethos.’ Either that or dance to tunes provided by irony DJ’s who haven’t realised that bad 80's pop and big-hair metal doesn’t really improve with age. Then be asked to tidy the venue.

McVolunteerism aside, the only discernible, original contributions to culture that AfrikaBurn has produced so far are a new form of government, the Narcocracy, or Rule by Addicts and Alcoholics, and a new form of citizen, the white, South African, ‘burner.’ A burner is essentially a lager lout dressed in dashboard fur and a tiara, with a slightly diminished sense of irony. The community, which is really just a self-absorbed, xenophobic clique, is a haven for that seasoned South African archetype, the sacrosanct Paternalistic Alcoholic Bully, in this context reframed as the, ‘Old Burner,’ and distinguishable either by his utili-kilt or the fact that his gut protrudes from his dashboard fur.

Musicians often say you’re only as good as your last gig. No such humility exists at AfrikaBurn, where the more, ‘Burns,’ you’ve been to, the better you are. The better what, one has to wonder? The better at exploiting human labour and natural resources in the real world? The better at taking more than you give in every transaction in the real world? Or the better at being born into money?

Burner snobbery is obviously built on the shaky foundations of priviledge. Attending, ‘The Burn,’ presupposes a level of disposable personal wealth most people do not enjoy, which has to mean participating in 51 weeks of profitable self-commodification each year in order to participate in 1 week of decommodified, ‘gifting.’ The mathematics of this ideology is not encouraging, never mind the extent to which having so much time and money to spend on a glorified camping trip shows that one doesn’t really have a commitment to any meaningful projects in the real world.

The burner mindset is parked on bricks in the stultefying cul-de-sac of hipster insouciance. The impenetrable collective ennui, against which the burn is a futile stab, is the inevitable consequence of a marketing-driven, consumerist lifestyle in which sensation is taken for love, and pleasure and possession are equated with happiness. Irony has become the facade for spiritual paralysis in the face of increasingly monolithic corporate encroachment on human life and the bizarre response to this has been to create a monolithic, hierarchical corporate environment. How ironic!

The petty and punitive governance portfolio, which uses burners’ ticket money to make it more difficult and expensive for burners to attend the burn, produces red tape, rules and codes of conduct and, in a stupefying and vulgar display of bureaucratic hubris, lately issues quasi-literate, mean spirited and vaguely accusatory, ‘Letters of Concern,’ to employees who are largely volunteers earning symbolic salaries.

Production planning is managed by knee-jerk brainstormers with little or no real workshop experience, who specialise in organograms, venn diagrams and colour-coded list making. Processes are, ‘actioned.’ (Yes, ‘verbing,’ happens at AfrikaBurn.) When someone tells you they’ve, ‘actioned,’ something, it means they haven’t done, they’re not busy doing and they’re not immediately intent on doing anything about it. These dynamic administrative genii blithely issue their fantastical visions of how things should be done as instructions to those whose task it is to realise the project, usually at the very last minute.

The unrealistic demands, intense deadline pressure and the difficulty of the environment, coupled with the inexperience of many of the volunteers and the fact that power tools are involved, make this a dangerous arrangement. Unfortunately, volunteers are so hyped on the event that they aren’t really pausing to consider the extent to which their personal safety is wantonly being put at risk by a group of people who probably won’t even bother to find out their names, let alone thank them for their efforts.

Many would do well to realise that, where AfrikaBurn’s consumer promise is an attempt at creating temporary community, ‘temporary,’ is the key word. When the hangover has passed and the beneficiaries of their labours have melted away into their luxury homes, all most outsiders will have left of the burn, ‘community,’ is the feeling of soot sifting through their fingers. The lucky few may gain some facebook friends who will click,’ Like,’ at their posts for a couple of weeks.

AfrikaBurn purports to centre around a set of principles which, in reality, merely pay lip service to some of the ideals of socialism and anarchism without actually committing to any sort of political discourse or real social action. It is the Disneyfication of radicalism, crypto-fascism masquerading as anarcho-syndicalism, and a form of denial; an anti-convulsant for the death rattles of shallow elitism, eagerly injected by slaves of entitlement, those stupefied idealists who imagine the currently dominant form of capitalism isn’t failing.

A frequently overlooked irony of the delirious, evangelical burner cult is that of the adoption of the, ‘burner,’ identity, coupled, as it is, with the principle of, ‘Radical Inclusion.’ What is apparently missed is the fact that labelling oneself is an act of exclusion. It is to set oneself apart from the rest of society and thus tacitly anti-humanist and self-interested. At a time in history when income inequality is greater than ever, where destitution and deprivation are commonplace and the skills and energy of the educated and capable middle classes are most needed by the poor, these are being spent creating a debauched, hedonistic spectacle of gratuitous self-indulgence and narcissistic posturing.

In a self-conscious attempt to mitigate this obvious hypocrisy, AfrikaBurn has created a branch dedicated to philanthropic pursuits. This Bob Geldof-style, pop-charity wing, dubbed AfrikaBurn Outreach, aims to sanitise AfrikaBurn’s image through broadly publicised, photo-opportunity gifting, and garner social media, ‘Likes and Shares,’ from it’s sycophantic, armchair acolytes.

The tasteless and patronising AfrikaBurn Outreach symbol, a pair of black hands reaching up in eternal gratitude to AfrikaBurn’s brazenly purloined and disingenuous brand identity, fittingly represents the organisation’s subliminal western-supremacist attitudes; the idea prevails that their artificial, technology-driven culture is somehow superior to that of the indigenous African peoples they are supposedly intending to uplift.

Charity is dispensed in the usual forms, such that the rich are able to maintain their power to determine the fate of the poor through a cycle of perpetual patronage**. The process of westernising the rural youth by upstaging their parents and educating them out of their homelands, which represent their material and cultural heritage, is also worrisome and worthy of careful scrutiny, especially as it comes from the landed classes whose motives to this end may prove dubious in the longer term. Or perhaps they are simply naive? Which is worse? Does Black South Africa really need a gaggle of politically backward, white lefties with more money than good sense flapping about, implementing their insipid, condescending visions of social reform?

The important questions in this regard clearly have not been asked, primarily because the afflicted are not included or properly consulted. It is this arrogance, this aristocratic assumption that wealth is right that needs to change. The lesson needs to be learned that benevolent egotism is still, just egotism.

An organisation cannot be an agency of social change if it is run by a group of people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, who keep servants and are used to profiting from the labour of their fellows. AfrikaBurn’s priorities are skewed by this demographic of priviledge and by duplicitous social climbers drawn to it’s perceived status and power. Some have come to hyperbolically believe that they are AfrikaBurn and that theirs is the right to dictate the terms of engagement on behalf of the greater community.

The workers are not impressed. Clearly, a revolution is required.

The Bastille must be stormed! Heads must roll!

Kurt Siegfried
February 2015

Acknowledements are due to the late Mark Twain and Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, may they rest in peace. Among the living, similarly to Susan Faludi, Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Ayanda Kota of the Unemployed People’s Party, Aragorn Eloff of the Bolo Bolo Collective, Given Rabalao, Adrian Roberts and Malderor of Piss Clear magazine and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose separate writings and observations have inspired and motivated and, in some cases, been broadly paraphrased throughout this piece. Thank you all for sharing your wit and wisdom!

*There is no such thing as race. The idea is nothing but spurious, malignant and hateful pseudo-science designed to divide and manipulate humanity and to legitimise and vindicate the brutalisation of indigenous peoples around the world by erstwhile colonial, as well as contemporary, equally imperialist, corporate powers. Race as a consideration therefore deserves neither a place in our lives, in our lexicon, nor in the decisions we make, except inasmuch as the terrible injuries and injustices that have been and continue be perpetrated in its name need to be honestly acknowledged and addressed. It is in this spirit that the term, ‘black,’ is used in this article, and it is meant here to refer to anyone who wasn’t considered, ‘white,’ by the irrational, fascist apartheid regime of South Africa and its supporters, and who consequently endured the terrible humiliation of having their humanity, their intellect and their capacity for self-determination brutally denied by decree. It is important to remember that whiteness in this context was also an indicator of heteronormative sexuality as well as of adherence to the Christian faith and fealty to capitalist dogma. Therefore, ‘black,’ would also include those who, perfectly naturally, find love with members of their own sex, those whose cosmologies differ from those prescribed by the Christian bible, as well as socialists, communists, intellectuals and critical thinkers. (The racist among the Afrikaners didn’t recognise the connection they were thus making between, ‘black,’ and, ‘intellecual,’ which is quite telling.)

**See Ayanda Kota’s brilliant article, “Some lessons for South Africa’s sectarian middle-class lefties,” published on 4 December 2014 by GroundUp.org.za for more on this point.