Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville and Tommy Trenchard for NPR
Editor’s note: This story was reported and photographed from February 2019 to March 2020. The text has been updated to reflect the activities of the circus during the pandemic.
Phelelani Ndakrokra prefers not to talk about his past. But what the 23-year-old acrobat will say is that if he hadn’t joined the circus ten years ago, he’d probably either be dead or in prison by now.
“Where I came from it’s hard to know what would have happened to me on the streets” says Ndakrokra, who grew up in a part of Cape Town where gang violence is rife. “The circus gave me a platform to feel free and do something I enjoy. It gave me a place to belong.”
AurÃ©lie Marrier d’Unienville/ Tommy Trenchard for NPR
Now, as he walks out on stage to thunderous applause from the audience, spotlights following his every move, that past seems a long way away. It’s late 2019 and Ndakrokra is about perform an intricately rehearsed aerial dance routine in what will turn out to be one of the last major pre-COVID performances of the Zip Zap circus, a Cape Town institution that’s been wowing audiences since 1992.
It’s what’s known as a “social circus.” That’s to say, one that aims not only to entertain but also, through the teaching of valuable life skills and the creation of a nurturing environment, to foster personal development and achieve positive social change. As such, it aims to give youngsters from some of Cape Town’s roughest neighborhoods a path to a different future.
Few have benefited quite as much as Ndakrokra, who has risen up through the organization to the point where he’s not only a star performer but also a trainer, mentoring and inspiring the next generation. He says joining the circus has given him “the best family I’ve ever had” and has transformed his sense of self-esteem.
“It’s hard to explain but it feels like it’s not me performing” he says, describing the euphoria he experiences on stage. “It’s my soul, my energy. Once I hold the straps and the music starts everything just flows like a waterfall. I lose everything. The audience is my power. I feed from their energy, and I become unstoppable. It feels like there’s nothing I can’t do in the world.”
Social circuses have been booming in recent years. When Zip Zap first began, it was one of only a handful world-wide, but since the 1990s they have been springing up everywhere from Conakry to Kabul. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Cirque du Soleil, the number of social circuses in operation has shot up from just eight in 1979 to more than 500 today.
“It’s exploded in the last 25 years!” says Brent Van Rensburg, co-founder of Zip Zap. A former trapeze artist, Van Rensburg took jobs as a stuntman to help fund the project in its early days.
“People are using circuses for drug rehab, violence, poverty. It just works!”
At the outset, one of his main goals was addressing racial injustice in his homeland.
“We wanted to bridge the divide between black and white,” says Van Rensburg. “That was the beginning of our work. We wanted to be a part of the rainbow nation, a part of the new South Africa and to be a lifeline for kids who were struggling.”
Back then, South Africa was only just beginning to emerge from the horrors of apartheid and the country remained deeply divided along racial lines. Nelson Mandela had only recently been released from prison, and it would be another two years before the end of white minority rule. At the time, seeing black and white South Africans performing together on stage was a powerful symbol, says Van Rensburg.
In its early years Zip Zap operated on a shoestring budget, with Van Rensburg and his wife and co-founder, Laurence, fixing trapezes to trees in schoolyards and teaching kids the basics in an abandoned warehouse made available to them by a local company.
Since then the circus has grown enormously.
Today, Zip Zap receives funding from various donors, but receives around 40% of its revenue from ticket sales at its shows. (The loss of ticket revenue has been a blow, but a portion of the shortfall has been covered by ticket sales for online screenings of past shows.)
Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville and Tommy Trenchard for NPR
The circus has won a slew of cultural, artistic and public service awards, both in South Africa and overseas. It has toured the world many times and entertained everyone from Mandela to Roger Federer. In 2016 they even performed for Barack Obama at the White House. Some of its performers have even gone on to world-famous circuses like the Cirque du Soleil.
Asked what it is that makes the circus so well-suited as a tool for personal development, Zip Zap’s performers cite everything from the way it fosters trust in colleagues to the way it teaches discipline, patience and perseverance. They point out that succeeding in the circus requires teamwork, physical fitness and self-confidence. Above all, they say, it offers a supportive community and a space to grow.
“Respect — that’s what I’ve learnt from Zip Zap”, says 23-year-old Aviwe Mfundisi, a trapeze artist who lives with his family in the township of Khayelitsha. “At Zip Zap you trust people even though you’ve never met them. It’s the circus way. When you’re in the air, you have to just know that the other guys will catch you. It’s not like that in the townships.”
Like many of the performers, Mfundisi credits the circus with completely altering the direction of his life. In the neighborhood of Langa, where he grew up, many of his contemporaries got caught up in a cycle of unemployment, drugs and crime. By contrast, thanks largely to the circus, he says, Mfundisi has become a respected professional, acquired new skills, traveled the world, become part of a community and earned enough money to start expanding his mother’s home. He even got a tattoo of a circus tent on his forearm to serve as a reminder.
It’s that kind of passion that Lizo James hopes to pass on when he turns up at a hospital in Khayelitsha every Wednesday to introduce kids living with chronic illnesses to the circus. The sessions are part of a collaboration with the medical charity Doctors without Borders and aim to make hospital visits less intimidating.
“Within a couple of minutes you see them start smiling, and you see the interest. They become more relaxed,” says Lizo, who joined Zip Zap at the age of 11 and says it opened his mind to a whole other world. “I love what I’m doing, it always feels good.”
Since the lockdown put an end to their regular schedule of training and performances, the Zip Zap team has been doing tricks on video in their front yards to entertain fans on social media, staging virtual training sessions for some of their outreach programs and screening online reruns of past performances (which brings in some revenue to offset the loss of ticket sales for their shows).
And they’ve helped distribute food to some of the underserved communities they work in.
“It has definitely been and will continue to be a challenge” says Van Rensburg, who compares trying to navigate a safe path forward during the coronavirus pandemic to walking a tightrope. “It requires meticulous preparation, focus and balance. But, as always, the show must go on.”
Tommy Trenchard and Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville are photojournalists based in Cape Town, South Africa. Their last joint contribution to NPR explored the funeral practices of Indonesia’s Toraja people.