Brent van Rensburg

Co-Founder Zip Zap Circus School

Brent van Rensburg founded the Zip Zap Circus School with his wife Laurence Estève in 1992, with the vision of using the circus as a means of bridging the divide between children and bringing children from all backgrounds and cultures together, teaching them to live and work together and be part of the new South Africa – and Nelson Mandela’s dream of a Rainbow Nation.

There are five outreach programs, a beginner, intermediate, advanced, adult training and early childhood development. All the resident teachers and instructors are children that grew up here. ‘You don’t have to leave at any point, you can stay as long as you wish to’ says Brent.

Zip Zap is a performance-based circus school and as a non-profit organisation rely heavily on their performances as an income, with shows and tours bringing in about 45% of their revenue. This means that the children get to perform a great deal, including at private functions hosted in their dome tent on the Cape Town foreshore.

‘When we started 27 years there were 15 children, today over 2000 children participate in 11 programs, all attending for free. Zip Zap has never charged a child to be here. All they need to give in return is their dedication and willingness to work hard and be a part of the team.’

This is all about passing on the Circus Magic though. Brent comes from the first circus school in South Africa, which was started in 1971 and closed in 1978. From that time until Zip Zap’s opening in 1992, there was no circus school in the country. At the time after spending 15 years travelling as a trapeze artist working overseas, Brent returned to Cape Town for a 6-week holiday to show his girlfriend – now wife – his place of birth. They never left, establishing Zip Zap and still going very strong 27 years later.

Many of the children at Zip Zap come from difficult backgrounds – which is why it’s a social circus school. Some go on to make a career out of it, simultaneously learning life skills, and no matter how long they stay and where their path takes them, the hope is that their time at Zip Zap will have served them well.

The outreach programs are an essential part of the work that they do. The oldest partnership is with Doctors Without Borders, working with children living with HIV in Khayelitsha – some who are today teachers at Zip Zap. Another is the SOS Children’s Village, an international organisation for children that have been taken away from their family and receive safe care as wards off the state. Outreach is a big part of the Zip Zap story as there’s a lot of healing benefit to be had.

Any child can join the circus school, it doesn’t matter how tall, short, fat, thin, rich or poor you are. There is a place for everybody at Zip Zap. If you’re not destined to be a trapeze artist be a juggler, if not a wire walker then a clown. It takes is a lot of hard work and dedication, sacrificing weekends and holidays and hours of practice, but for those that stick it out here’s a safe, fun and family orientated place to hang out.’

‘Our proudest moment was performing for and meeting Nelson Mandela when we did a show for him on his 77th Birthday, with the opportunity for the children to offer him hugs and have a chat. He said to Laurence and me; “keep up the good work” – and that is exactly what we have tried to do in the subsequent 20 years that followed.’

As for the name, in 1994 while headed to Grahamstown on tour they were toying with the original idea of calling it ‘Dare To Dream’, but wanted something catchy for their performance. Bouncing ideas around the children came up with Zip Zap – and it stuck.

All the permanent instructors are children that grew up as part of the Zip Zap family and have gone through the various programs on offer, and there is an intern program that welcomes 40 interns a year from all over the world to come to help. At the Zip Zap academy there is a residential wing where they stay with the students, learning about each other’s cultures and varied worlds through their interactions, cooking and eating together – and it’s a great way for them to be in the city. They also bring their various skills to the school. 

Lauren and Brent are very proud and humbled by the fact that tens of thousands of children have passed through their Zip Zap circus school doors and been guided towards seeing a difference side of life. For them the most important thing is keeping the academy’s legacy alive, that it may continue to enhance lives, inspire young people and build a new culture of peaceful coexistence in South Africa long after they are gone.

When Zip Zap started there were 10 social circus schools in the world, now 600 exist in 75 countries, reaching well over a million children, prove that the circus magic works.

Now working out of a custom-built permanent home in Salt River, over the years Brent and Laurence have worked to overcome challenges; the greatest of these the endless search for adequate venues to teach circus skills to young, eager children and youths. From underequipped schools in Langa, to abandoned warehouses, ‘no challenge has been too great to impede the passion firmly lodged in their hearts – to use circus arts and performance as tools for social transformation, and community upliftment.’

The Zip Zap children have performed for presidents and world leaders. They have done more than 30 international tours and numerous international media showcases. ‘Children who began as six-year-olds swinging from a trapeze tied to a tree, are now professional performing artists working in Europe and North America. Young people who grew up on the streets are now skilled and valued artists and technicians in the entertainment and film industries. Best of all, these kids have become teachers themselves. They are ambassadors and role models for others, demonstrating dramatically to young people and the wider public the possibility of a new way of treating each other.