Written by Athol Fugard in collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the play Sizwe Banzi is Dead
follows Sizwe Banzi as desperate times cause him to shed his name and adopt the identity of a dead man.
Fugard wrote the play while a law clerk at Native Commissioner's Court in Johannesburg. Due to the South African Pass Laws, which aimed to segregate working-class black men, every black man was legally obligated to carry a passbook that would limit his employment and travel throughout the country.
The opening scene takes place in photographer Styles's studio in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Styles is reading a news article about an automobile plant, and he tells the audience a funny story about his time working at Ford Motor Company. He expresses his desire to preserve the images of his people. He continues reading and is talking about his studio when Sizwe Banzi comes on the scene and interrupts him. He wants his picture taken, but when Styles asks for his name, he hesitates and gives Styles a false name, Robert Zwelinzima. Sizwe tells Styles that he intends to send the photo to his wife. While Styles is taking the picture, the actors freeze for a moment to give the audience a sense of how the photo will turn out.
Sizwe speaks out the contents of the letter to his wife, something that often happens between scenes. He tells her that Sizwe Banzi is dead and that upon arriving in King William's Town, he met up with his old friend, Zola. Zola gave him a place to stay and helped him search for a job. When the job hunt was unsuccessful, the local authorities told Sizwe that he had three days to leave town. Sizwe is now staying with a friend of Zola's, Buntu. Zola is hopeful that Buntu will find work for Sizwe.
The next scene follows Sizwe's letter dictation. Sizwe arrives at Buntu's and shows him his passbook. Buntu, the only character that can read, sees that Sizwe was actually supposed to return home three days ago and realizes there is no hope of Sizwe finding work. Buntu suggests Sizwe work in the King William's Town mines, but Sizwe thinks it would be too dangerous and there is no other work available there. Discouraged, Sizwe fears that his family will starve. To console him, Buntu takes him to Sky's Place, a local bar.
Back to Sizwe's letter dictation, he tells his wife about the bar that he went to with Buntu and about the respectful treatment he received there.
The next scene is outside the bar as the men are leaving. When Buntu goes into an alleyway to urinate, he finds a dead man lying there. Sizwe tries to convince Buntu to report the dead man to the police, but, instead, Buntu rifles through the man's belongings in search of his address. Finding the man's passbook, Buntu learns his name, Robert Zwelinzima. Robert's passbook has a worker’s stamp that enables him to remain in the city. The two decide to take Robert's passbook with them.
Back at Buntu's house, Buntu removes the photo on Robert's passbook and replaces it with Sizwe's. Buntu convinces Sizwe to burn his and adopt Robert Zwelinzima's identity. He assures Sizwe that he can always remarry his wife.
Sizwe is again dictating the letter to his wife. He tells her that using Robert's identity he has received a lodger's permit.
The play ends in the same scene that it began, back at the photography studio where Sizwe is having his picture taken.
The play demonstrates the apartheid system of South Africa, which lasted into the early 1990s. Apartheid was a form of institutionalized racism that ensured segregated facilities, events, employment opportunities, and land apportionment. The laws benefited the white minority in South Africa and caused economic hardship on black South Africans, the effects of which are still prevalent today.
Identity is a prominent theme in the work, appearing in every scene. First, we learn of Styles changing his own identity from factory worker to photographer, then of his interest in preserving the identity of his people through his photos. Next, we meet Sizwe who has taken on the identity of another man in order to survive and feed his family. Sizwe has to destroy his former self to have access to fundamental human rights.
Fugard directed the world premiere of Sizwe Banzi is Dead
in Cape Town with his collaborators, Kani and Ntshona, playing the starring roles. Kani played Styles and Bantu, and Ntshona played Robert and Sizwe. The two would later win a Tony Award for their performance and Fugard would be nominated for a Tony for Best Direction of a Play. The actors reunited in 2007 to stage the play at the Royal National Theatre.