On an unseasonably hot afternoon in March, an eclectic mix of artists and drifters congregated in the clubhouse of the South African National Circus School, bouncing cigarettes and joints and listening to iconic American hip-hop act A Tribe Called Quest on an old boombox.
Until recently, the circus was a popular and long-standing institution in the famously bohemian Cape Town suburb of Observatory. Its towering red and white tent, located on an open patch of land next to the brick clubhouse, remains a prominent landmark.
But in the past few months, the once proud structure has begun to deteriorate rapidly, crumpled and torn by the Cape’s strong southeasterly winds. At the same time, the circus school has become an unlikely site of contention in Cape Town’s spiralling housing crisis.
“The trouble all started about six months ago,” said Moyo*, a tall and amiable Zimbabwean painter with long dreadlocks who is among the 20 to 40 squatters living on the site, depending on who you ask.
Moyo had previously been renting a single room in a shared house elsewhere in Observatory, but it had become too expensive. About a year ago, he said he’d seen an advertisement for cheaper accommodation at the circus and moved into one of the rooms in the clubhouse. “We had no idea we were living here illegally,” he said.
Then, City of Cape Town officials started showing up with notices to vacate the premises, the most recent of which was issued on 15 January this year.
Moyo and various other circus dwellers that New Frame spoke to said they’d been paying rent to Dimitri Slaverse, a charismatic contortionist and trapeze artist from the Cape Flats and the founder of the circus school.
Slaverse travelled the globe with major circus companies for almost two decades before returning to South Africa and setting up the circus school around 18 years ago, as a means of giving back to youth from underprivileged communities like his own. His trainees performed in well-attended shows in the main tent and a number had gone on to be professionals.
In July 2015, News24 and GroundUp reported that the city, which owns the land, would be terminating the circus school’s lease imminently. At the time, Belinda Walker, member of the mayoral committee for community services and special projects, said the land would be incorporated into the neighbouring Hartleyvale and Malta Park municipal sport precinct.
But since then there has been no sign of any development on the site and various city officials contacted by New Frame declined to comment on its future. In a recent statement issued to the Observatory Civic Association (OCA), local DA ward councillor Paddy Chapple said a formal legal process to “deal with the illegal occupation” was currently under way and that he could not comment further until “such proceedings are finalised”.
In the meantime, residents in lower Observatory, which borders the circus and the sport precinct, claim there has been a steady stream of squatters moving into the space in the past 18 months. In messages posted to local WhatsApp groups seen by New Frame, some residents claimed that this trend has led to a spike in petty crime and drug pushing in the area.
Anine Kriegler, a crime statistics expert at the University of Cape Town’s Centre of Criminology and an Observatory resident, said that such links were tenuous and that according to the Observatory Improvement District’s detailed crime map, there had been “no increase in the number of crime incidents near the circus” in recent months.
However, Kriegler shared many residents’ sentiments that the current situation was untenable.
“Most people in Observatory are lefties and want to take a compassionate line on this, but it’s complex. People don’t want to chuck them out, but at the same time they can’t stay there under current conditions, it’s not going to work out,” she said.
Poor communication on the part of the city seems to be exacerbating the precariousness of the situation in a neighbourhood that has experienced escalating tensions over a raft of proposed large-scale private developments on public land in the past 12 months.
“We’ve had to hold the line in an area that is under severe threat,” said OCA chair Tauriq Jenkins. The association has taken a firm stanceagainst many such development proposals, saying that they threaten Observatory’s heritage and unique character.
The OCA is now bearing the brunt of the responsibility to push for a prompt resolution to the circus debacle. But with no clear plan of action being proffered by the city, divisions have emerged within its ranks over the best way forward. Jenkins has begun to cut an increasingly isolated figure, facing accusations of dragging his heels and siding with the circus dwellers rather than members of his association.
Excluded from the conversation
Paddy Chapple appeared to fan the flames with a post to one of the local WhatsApp groups implying that Jenkins was hindering calls for the prompt eviction of the circus dwellers by “advising [them] to form a housing association”. Chapple declined to respond to multiple requests from New Frame for comment on this remark.
“Anyone facing eviction has a right to legal support,” countered Jenkins. “There’s a lot of contestation around the circus and it’s not difficult to tell that the people who are living there are disenfranchised and are not within the same levels of operation as other community members … They should be appropriately protected and integrated into any decision-making process.”
But all the circus dwellers New Frame interviewed felt that for the most part they’d been routinely excluded from any conversations concerning their future or that of the circus site. They were eventually invited to attend a heated town hall gathering at the Observatory Community Centre on 9 April, where they were met with open hostility from a number of OCA members.
“There’s a lot of prejudice towards us, and we understand,” said Gregory Booth, one of the circus dwellers, as he boiled an old kettle on a small gas stove in his room at the clubhouse. “We are poor people, and poor people are seen as a threat. But there’s more good here than bad.”
From the streets to the circus
Booth, 62, was a computer programmer who had fallen on hard times. He’d moved to the circus clubhouse with an animated 32-year-old Tanzanian who went by the name of Bobby*, whom Booth referred to as his adopted son. Booth said Bobby had “mental health issues” and had ended up living on the street, a path he said was shared by a number of the circus dwellers.
Booth claimed that he and Bobby had paid Slaverse as much as R25 000 in combined rent before the city started issuing letters stating that Slaverse was in breach of his lease agreement. According to documentation made available to New Frame, the first such letter was issued in April 2018. According to the OCA, a first notice to vacate was then issued in June 2018.
Occupiers said that after such notices were issued they ceased paying rent to Slaverse, whose presence and efforts to maintain the property have since become increasingly rare. The vacuum has seen a number of new occupants move in and many residents in surrounding areas fear that the population will continue to grow if something is not done soon.
According to Kami Gordon, who’s been living at the circus since April last year, the current state of limbo, the steady deterioration of the premises and the increase in its temporary population have created a fraught environment.
‘Fighting and racial tension’
“There’s a lot of fighting, and a lot of racial tension,” she said. “I’ve had to call the police many times because at night you just hear bodies being slammed into walls.”
Gordon, who is slender and tanned with straw-coloured hair, previously worked as a florist in Johannesburg. But the industry suffered during the recession and the price of flowers ballooned.
Struggling for work and concerned that the big city wasn’t a healthy environment for her 26-year-old daughter, who is autistic, Gordon moved to the Cape to be closer to her son, who lives in Gardens. The children’s father died when they were young.
After a brief stint in Gansbaai with a friend who drank too much, Gordon heard from another friend, a professional clown who was living at the circus, that there were other rooms available to rent there. Bank statements show payments made from her account to Slaverse’s in the months after she and her daughter moved in.
“It was fine here at first,” Gordon said, “but then [Slaverse] began demanding additional rent. He became very aggressive and hostile when I said we couldn’t pay it. He threatened to attack my daughter and I. He trashed our place.”
Gordon eventually took out a protection order against Slaverse, seen by New Frame along with signed witness statements. Other circus dwellers claimed he had a violent streak and had gone so far as to kidnap one tenant and leave him in the Cape Flats in the middle of the night as punishment for not paying his rent on time.
A number of the current occupants, as well as members of the OCA, said Slaverse had close connections with certain officials at the Woodstock police station and that the same two officers routinely came to the circus in the middle of the night to harass and intimidate them.
In a recent audio recording, the two officers can be heard shouting profane language and racial slurs at the occupiers and threatening to set police dogs on them. The Woodstock station commander failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.
When New Frame contacted Slaverse by phone, he admitted that he had previously collected “small money” by renting out rooms at the clubhouse to generate some income for the failing circus school and to maintain the premises. “But now there’s no money coming in and evidently you can see that the tent has fallen apart,” he said.
Slaverse added that any other accusations against him were “just people making up stories”. He said the real focus of this article should be the demise of the circus school. “It was seeking to uplift underprivileged people who could then make a career for themselves in the circus, and now it’s been taken away from them by the city.”
‘Microcosm of land and dispossession’
For Tyronne McCrindle, who lives on the same road as the circus premises and is a former organiser for Ndifuna Ukwazi and former chief of staff at Social Justice Coalition, the tragic trajectory of the circus is a “microcosm of what’s happening in terms of land and dispossession right across the Cape Town metro”.
“There needs to be a critical self-reflection on the part of people who live here in terms of inclusiveness,” he added, noting that there were substantial amounts of underutilised land around the circus that could be used for social housing.
Back at the clubhouse, Booth said he had once had big plans for developing the circus site into a hub of arts and culture, with a neighbourhood market, performance and exhibition spaces and a museum with information about the area’s history – the nearby banks of the Liesbeek River were the site of a battle between indigenous Khoikhoi and Portuguese explorers in 1510, the earliest recorded struggle against colonial conquest in South African history.
“We want to make a positive impact in the community,” Booth said. “But everything that’s been happening has been very demoralising. I feel as though I’m running out of steam.”
* Some surnames have been withheld to protect identities.