Is it the end for popular Cape Town circus?

Mary-Anne Gontsana
Photo from SAN Circus Facebook page.
Mary-Anne Gontsana

As part of the City of Cape Town’s plans to rationalise municipal facilities, the South African National Circus School (SAN Circus) will have to vacate their premises in Observatory, after their lease was terminated before it was set to expire.

Citing sporting purposes as the reason, the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Community Services and Special Projects, Belinda Walker, said “SA National Circus was not evicted. Their lease was terminated in line with the lease agreement. Upon signing this agreement, the lessee accepts a clause which states that the City can terminate the lease by giving two months’ notice, which was accordingly given.”

She said the City currently has plans underway to rationalise municipal facilities. “The sporting facilities within the whole Hartleyvale and Malta Park sports precinct are being planned into this rationalisation process, in line with a strategy to optimise the usage of municipal sport and recreational spaces. The land is required for sporting purposes, in order to enable more residents than is presently the case to access this scarce and valuable sport and recreational space.”

Founder of the circus school, Dimitri Slaverse, said even though the lease stated that it could be terminated at anytime, they did not expect it to happen. “They sent us a letter saying that the lease is over, but the lease is not actually over. It’s like a year prior to us leaving. They’ve asked us basically to pack up and they have not even given us the option to renew our lease. We were not given any particular reason as to why we must leave. It was so sudden but we have recently found out that they want to make the football ground bigger.”

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SAN Circus founder Dimitri Slaverse says they have nowhere to go after their lease was terminated by the City of Cape Town. Photo by Masixole Feni

Slaverse’s story of joining the circus is wonderful. “I was lucky to join the circus,” he said.

“There was a circus school in Observatory in the time of apartheid. Only white kids were allowed to go. We used to walk from the township and come and stand by the fence and watch them swinging around.”

At lunch time Slaverse and his mates would jump over the fence and practice, but that would get them into trouble.

“They used to watch us and catch us and beat us. Some of those guys are still friends with us now,” he said with a chuckle. “One day they got money to go and do a show in a township. They were all scared, the manager too, about going into a township. So the manager said, ‘When those black kids come, get them. Then they can start the show and the people won’t be hostile to us.’ So we were five kids at the time and one time we jumped over the fence and they caught us. They took us to the manager. We thought they were going to beat us up. But actually they wanted us in the show. That week they taught us what to do, some acrobatics.”

So the whites-only circus, Slaverse and his mates ended up performing at Vrygrond township. “But it wasn’t even necessary for us to be there because everybody respected them when they came there. They were well received. Our act was the first and a lot of things went wrong because we were nervous and we’d never performed before. But then every time they performed in the townships they took us.” Once they flew Slaverse and his friends to Johannesburg to perform on a mine. “Slowly, slowly they started getting used to us, and we got better than some of the people working there. And some of us got contracts with the Boswell Wilkie Circus.”

Slaverse went on to perform around the world for many circuses. He has won several championships. He is a contortionist who can fit himself into tiny spaces including a bottle. He also does a trapeze act without a safety net, but his contortions have been his “top thing.” “As a kid I always used to go into small spaces to hide from my mother. I used to stay there for a long time. I was always in trouble,” he said smiling.

Running SAN Circus is Slaverse’s way of giving back to the community, giving children from across the city opportunities that were hard to come by in his day. It’s a family thing: his four kids are in the circus too!

But now that is at risk of ending. “We have to be out by the end of this month, 31 July. We received the letter on 7 May, we got it by post. We are stuck because moving requires money and the circus doesn’t have money, and where will we move to? After that date we’ll be squatting, we won’t have anywhere to go. We’re at their mercy. We have set up petitions in the hopes of getting some support. There’s nothing we can do and if we don’t move our things, they’ll move them for us,” said Slaverse.

“They not explaining anything. They didn’t call us to meetings,” he said.

“When we came here this place was like a jungle. It was a complete mess. We fixed it and made into what it is right now. We invested a lot of time and money into securing the tent,” said Slaverse. He explains that they’ve also landscaped and levelled the grounds out.

Slaverse said everyone he worked with was shocked when they heard the news because it was unexpected. There was no correspondence of any sort prior to them getting the letter.

“SAN Circus will be gone. We can’t operate without premises. They’re sending us out into the street. We’ll have to busk. But it’s difficult to busk in Cape Town because of all the laws … we just hope somebody comes to their senses,” said Slaverse.

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SAN Circus have been given until 31 July to vacate the premises in Observatory. Photo by Masixole Feni

Walker said the circus’ lease expires on 31 January 2016 so it has run for nine years and six months of the ten year lease term. “The City has the right to cancel the lease at any time, should the property be required for municipal purposes, on giving two month’s notice to that effect.”

SAN Circus is a non-profit. They have been sponsored by the Lotto to train 20 young people from 18 to 25. They also receive donations from companies for some of their equipment. Some companies do team building with the circus which generates money for them. The money from their shows is put back into the operation.

Children generally join the SAN Circus from about six or seven years old; the current youngest is five. The most promising ones will stick with them till they’re about 20 to 25. “Kids have been with us for 15 years or more,” said Slaverse. Over 20 professionals perform in their shows, and other members of the circus — such as those still in training — will help with lights, the tuck shop and other tasks.

There are other circuses in Cape Town, such as Zip Zap Circus, as well as one in Muizenberg.

The circus used to operate from a backyard where Slaverse lives. His house is still an important part of the operation. “When we identify youngsters, we bring them to the house where there’s a trampoline. Eventually we bring them to the circus. They play around till they 9 or 10, then we start to teach them the basics. Eventually they specialise,” he explained.

SAN Circus will have a show tomorrow (Saturday, 4 July) from 3pm to 5pm, and again the following Saturday. They usually have shows on public holidays, when they always get good turnouts. They also have shows as fundraisers for churches and schools. The circus does not use animals.

A correction was made to this article after publication. The article said that people can participate in Zip Zap circus until the age of 16. As pointed out to us, “Zip Zap’s vocational training caters for young adults from the age of 16 to 25, so their training does not end at age 16 as mentioned in the article. The children at Zip Zap often travel abroad during their time at Zip Zap and after, they don’t tend to join SAN Circus as the Zip Zappers skills are required on an international level.” We apologise to Zip Zap for the error.

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