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The dual theme of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead is identity under South African apartheid and universal identity. The inception for the play was a photographic of a South African man of tribal descent seen in a photography studio window during the years of apartheid. The man was represented in clothes and with possessions symbolizing power that were unattainable for black South Africans under the rule of apartheid. Therefore, the photography created a reality that could only be dreamed of and never attained. During Apartheid, non-Caucasian South Africans were forced to a "Book of Life," an Identity book that restricted travel, living areas and employment. To be caught without a valid Book of Life, which were often spot-checked for no known cause, was to face imprisonment and possibly exportation. Sizwe Bansi needs a photo, and gives a false name to get it, to send to his wife so she can procure him a new identity book because he is without one and therefore stranded in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Mr Styles is important because he provides the avenue for Bansi's story to emerge. He also provides the picture that has the potential power to give Sizwe Bansi a valid identity and the power to act like a free person (at least within certain restraints) instead of fearing imprisonment. Styles is the symbol of life as the provider of the necessary documentation needed for a Book of Life identity card. The US also has identity cards like driver's licenses and social security cards but no citizen is imprisoned without one, although it is getting ever harder to get by in life without acceptable identification.
[For more information, see the African American Performing Arts Community Theater description and background of Sizwe Bansi is Dead.]
The South African Book of Life during apartheid was possessed by all non-black South Africans, i.e., whites, Indians, etc. Blacks were required to carry a passbook, and were not permitted to have a Book of Life.
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