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.”
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…”