PHOTOS: South Africa’s Zip Zap Circus Brings A Big Heart To The Big Top

by Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier D’Unienville

Phelelani Ndakrokra completes an aerial act at a Zip Zap circus show in Cape Town, South Africa.

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.”

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.)