The trick to changing young lives
David Gore teaches magic to inspire township kids and teach them practical life skills
Confidence, self-esteem and communication skills are nourished through magic
IN his royal-blue tail coat and turquoise cravat, 19-year-old Asiphe Mnqika changes the colour of water, sends a crunched Fanta Orange can back in time and brings it back as a juicy citrus fruit.
The show takes place in a quaint old house, on a stage in a small room flooded in purple light, the perfect place for a top hat and a handkerchief that refuses to stay white.
The bigger magic, however, is off-stage. It is the lifelong commitment of magician Dave Gore, who is changing the lives of young people from Cape Town’s disadvantaged areas through the transformative power of an ancient art form.
He started the College of Magic in 1980 as a nonprofit organisation, and it is the only magical arts training organisation of its kind in the world.
It marries magic skills with life skills, and today there are 180 students enrolled in any given year across the six-year course, with most attending free of charge.
Coming from the most disadvantaged communities including Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Old and New Crossroads, the students enrol in a Saturday morning course while Gore’s team is constantly raising funds to subsidise their attendance.
For Gore, the magic is also in the mix, and diversity is a key ingredient. Those from more affluent areas — who are in the minority — are welcome to attend, but are required to pay R5 000 a year to cover costs.
Gore says the constant fundraising is worth it come Saturday morning when classes given by volunteer magicians make the school come alive with juggling, tricks, laughter and socialising.
“This year, we are also reaching out to students from the marginalised rural communi- ties,” says Gore, adding that apart from the 180 enrolled for the Saturday curriculum, 5 000 more pupils pass through the doors each year when their classes attend the Magic Classroom, where science and maths are taught in a fun and accessible way through magic.
In the first decade of its existence, the school was moved from pillar to post in search of a permanent, affordable home. Then, in 1992, just as it was evicted from makeshift premises in a shopping mall, Gore found a run-down Victorian house in Claremont, on an artery between the affluent suburbs and the impoverished Cape Flats.
“The old house had been a civilian military base but was abandoned in the late ’80s,” he recalls. “It was extremely dilapidated. Birds had nested in the roof, which then caved in, all the pipes had been stolen, things were crumbling. We didn’t even have keys.”
Through public tender, it was sold to the College of Magic and it took a gargantuan effort by volunteers, with contributions of paint and other services, to restore it to its former glory.
Since then, it has been a home away from home for many children.
For Mnqika, it has been a lifeline. “I am the person I am because of this place and because of loving the art of magic,” he says. “Because for the past eight years, it has actually changed my life. I am from a very bad background, but this has taught me not to look back at what I have experienced, but to look forward to what I want.”
Also, for him as for many others, the art of magic has been a conduit for life skills.
“I learnt how to really talk to people and not be so shy all the time when I am in front of other people. I learnt how to communicate, really.”
While someone else doing the same work for almost 40 years might feel jaded, or, at the very least, exhausted, Gore’s inspiration remains the same: to empower young people through magic. “Magic excites. Magic creates wonder. And it is the perfect tool for young people to empower themselves, because it opens their imaginations and gives them hope for the future.”
For Gore, these “wonderful gifts of magic” stand young people in good stead, especially through tumultuous times, and no child who shows an interest in joining is ever excluded.
He describes magic as a “wonderfully level playing field” that brings children and adults of all races, creeds, and socioeconomic backgrounds together with a common interest.
“When we started, we discovered myriad benefits for young people, and that has kept us deeply inspired to carry on, even when funding starts drying up or our resources are low.”
Things such as confidence, self-esteem and communication skills are nourished through magic and are needed in so many aspects of life, business and society, says Gore.
“The magic empowers them to go out into the world and make other people happy — it really sets them up for life, and that is the magical ingredient of what we are teaching.”
The perfect antidote to Gore’s sensible approach to life is Michael Barta, who goes by the pseudonym carefully embroidered on his white coat — Professor Bayla.
He could just as easily be called Gore’s fellow hero. Like the quintessential nutty professor, he sits in the canteen at the college surrounded by the innards of a dismembered gadget: knobs, wires and metal gizmos that would never see the light of day were it not for the prof in his one-stop, one-man repair shop.
Although he was a Waldorf School teacher for many years, it is in the Magic Classroom, with his white lab coat and bow tie, that he thrives. Like Gore, he takes the art of magic way beyond the lights and illusions of a stage, into the lives and hearts of the young people who flock to the college.
When the kids come for the Magic Classroom, he says, it is a hands-on, tactile experience for them. “I believe that by handling objects they are encouraged to be schooled in another way.”
With screwdriver in hand, he nails the perfect example: “If you teach balance, it is all about the six directions of forwards, backwards, left, right, up and down. If you put someone on a tightrope, they are learning those things.”
Then the tightrope analogy morphs into a more symbolic one. “The six directions turn into six perspectives. These are thought structures — different ways of seeing the world in which they live.”
The same goes for juggling. Skittles or balls or dinky round beanbags become a “metaphor for learning because you make more mistakes than successes, and you only get to the success part by making the mistakes”.
Not tearing his eyes away from the gadget he is repairing, he says of Gore: “There is literally none other like him. Otherwise I wouldn’t have hung around him for the last three decades.”