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In Lesley Seitshegeco's magic routine, he portrays a young man heading for Egoli, the City of Gold, as Johannesburg has been known to generations of young South Africans hoping to find fortune there. In the act, he totes a suitcase to an imaginary train station, mimes missing the train and does a series of sleight-of-hand tricks with the contents of the case. In the last one, he pulls out a silk handkerchief to mop his weary face, and then another silk square, and another and another. Looking astonished, he crumples the kerchiefs up, blows on them and, with a flourish of his arms and a beaming smile, unfurls the bright, hopeful colours of the new South African flag.

When Lesley did the trick at the premier gathering of magicians in Las Vegas a few months back, it won him a standing ovation from a damp-eyed crowd. "It's a good trick," he said this week, still awe-struck, "but I wasn't expecting that."

The audience was plenty impressed with his magic, but many in the crowd also knew the remarkable story of how the 15-year-old and a small group of South African student magicians came to perform at the World Magic Seminar. They are pupils of the College of Magic in Cape Town, which is the only institution of its kind. It teaches card tricks, illusions and a belief in the impossible to students who come from communities with the highest rates of violent crime and HIV infection in the world.

The trip to Las Vegas was the first Lesley had made outside Cape Town, the first, in fact, that anyone in his extended family had ever made abroad.

Lesley lives in Mandalay, a township in the Cape Flats. Six years ago, he found his way to the red brick Victorian mansion that houses the college.

He was with a couple of school friends who put each other up to it, because, in a country where "magic" still has dark connotations of jealous curses, they were nervous about what went on inside.

But it took only moments for Lesley to see that the school could give him something special.

"It's discipline, and all that stuff that teaches you how to be a better person in life and gain more confidence. Now I'm not scared of people, I go on a stage where a lot of people are and perform," he said. "Plus, it takes us out of where we are."

And shows them they can go anywhere, added David Gore, who founded the school and has run it for the past 27 years. "We're able to make a real difference in these young people in six years," he said.

"We're able to produce young leaders, young entrepreneurs, who go out in the world, even if it's not as magicians, as valuable people in the new South Africa."

Mr. Gore, a South African who fell in love with magic as a child, put himself through law school performing at birthday parties, and then in 1980 packed in a law career to teach kids instead.

The school risked being closed for teaching multiracial groups of children in the apartheid years.

("It was ridiculous, because our students had to leave class and go home riding in separate carriages of the trains," Mr. Gore said.)

Today, it offers its pupils a chance to learn in a mixed-race environment that is rare even in the new South Africa. The college enrolls students from the age of 10, and offers a six-year diploma course in magic.

For Yanga Sidliki, 13, and in his third year at the school, the card tricks he uses to impress his older brother are great, but not the best thing about the school. "I've learned to talk to people, and I come here on Saturdays," he said.

Yanga, whose mother died last year, lives in a small shack with his brother in the township of Khayalitsha, and he was blunt about what typically happens in his neighbourhood on the day when he's at magic school.

"People get killed on Saturdays."

The school's 20 teachers are volunteers: former students, magicians and entertainers. Not all of the 150 students are sponsored - there are plenty from Cape Town's hillside ritzy neighbourhoods - but the college is run on a small and perpetually uncertain budget of donations.

"We're okay to December," said Mr. Gore, sounding determinedly cheerful. "Of course we could do a lot more if we had the resources."

In a quirky twist to this tale, the main sponsor for scholarship students is a gang of magic-loving women headquartered in Quebec.

Carole Marcil, a Montreal communications consultant, is co-director of the Siegfried and Roy North American Fan Club.

She founded the group, for magic fans she met on the Internet, after the famed Las Vegas illusion duo suspended their act in 2003 when Roy Horn was mauled by a tiger during their show.

Siegfried and Roy had been assisting the school with cash and donations of supplies and books since 1997, and in a gesture of support for the magicians she has seen too many times to count, Ms. Marcil organized her 600 fan club members to help the students.

"We started to sponsor the school as a gift for Monsieur Siegfried," she explained. "But in fact, we were giving ourselves a gift."

Ms. Marcil and a few of her fellow fans had a chance to meet Lesley and the other students who travelled to Las Vegas, and asked what the college has meant for them.

"The last thing they told us was that it gives them a chance to do magic - first they talked about how they learn to work in a team, that it's somewhere safe," she recalled.

"It's an organization that uses magic as a pretext for helping kids to get past the obstacles, to achieve, and that's what touched us the most."

The fan club raises $350 as the basic tuition for each student each year; this year members came up with the cash to sponsor nine pupils.

Some students just make their way on their own to the school, as Lesley did, and others learn about it through outreach programs in the townships, at homes for children taken into care by social services, and for gang-affected youth.

If they can't pay, Mr. Gore said, "we just find a way." If kids can't manage the price of bus fare, or props, or a wand of their own, the college finds the cash for those, too.

On Saturdays, the college comes alive with juggling practice on the verandah, mime practice in the corridor and tricks being taught in every classroom.

The mansion, the slightest bit dilapidated and mysterious, has been divided into classrooms that each have a curtained stage up front.

Last week, students in class three were mastering a card trick and practising performing in character. Their teacher sat in a corner, peering over her glasses, making notes with a quill.

Class one, taught by Mr. Gore, was learning the deceptively simple but astonishing trick of "floating matches," how to make them "jump" from box to box.

Mr. Gore, tall, gaunt and boundlessly enthusiastic, first demonstrated the trick with a student volunteer, asking the class as he went along about the strategy that lay behind his showmanship.

"You could make him always get it wrong," he chided, "but how do we feel if we always get it wrong?"

"Bad," his class chorused.

"So what did I do the first time?"

"Let him get it right. So he'd be happy."

"Yes," said Mr. Gore. "And he'd relax."

Class four was full of older teenagers insulting each other while they made nuts and bolts and balls disappear from their hands, and in class five, there was much eye-rolling in a group exercise when boys were told they had to stand next to the girls.

(About a quarter of the school's students are female, a sharp improvement on the typical demographics of the magic world. "And they're proper magicians," Mr. Gore was quick to note, "not assistants.")

Down the hall is a magic shop, stocked with rope and handkerchiefs and cards and wands and rings and coins. It does mail-order business all over Africa. There is also a 40-seat auditorium and a vast storeroom full of props and costumes.

The hallways were choked with four-foot tall magicians practising their patter - "I'm going to need a volunteer. How about you, madam? Step right up here and pick a card."

The children were poised and confident, and all except the youngest were in their working clothes: Bow ties, collared shirts, low pumps on the girls.

Everyone carried a briefcase of sorts, packed with cards and cups and matchboxes and other more mysterious items that were stuffed and snapped away from prying reporter eyes.

Ongama Stokwe, 18, was rehearsing card tricks for his coming exams. He fell in love with magic when he saw it on TV as a little boy. "But I knew nothing about how to learn it. I was trying to teach myself card tricks."

Mr. Stokwe has lost both his parents and lives in the township of Gugulethu with his aunt, who looks after him, his brother, three cousins and their granny, on the wages she makes as a maid.

He plans to go to college to study engineering next year, so that he can design sophisticated illusions. "When I get home, my granny will say, 'What did you learn today?' " he said. "She likes to see what I learned. But my auntie is always trying to catch me up!"

Lesley Seitshegeco didn't win the big prizes at the contest in Las Vegas - those went to students who have posh magic training in the West - but he was a crowd favourite, wooing the audience with disappearing-gold-coin tricks he first practised with "coins" made from hammered baking tin lids.

When he finishes high school in a couple of years, Lesley plans to study the less glamorous but practical subject of accounting, to help support his family, but he said he will keep doing magic on the side. "I'm going to perform in Las Vegas again," he said. "And be a star."

And with that, Mr. Gore knows that whether Lesley one day plays Vegas again or not, he has achieved his goal. "It's our big success, to make kids think things are possible in the future in the new South Africa."

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