What are the themes of Sizwe Banzi is Dead by Athol Fugard?

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lprono | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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The play, which premiered in 1972, revolves around the theme of identity as its protagonist, Sizwe Banzi, ultimately decides to relinquish his true identity and assume that of a dead man (Robert Zwelinzima) who has a work permit. The permit will allow Sizwe Banzi to work in Port Elizabeth, where he has moved from his village to find a job, but this change of identity will mean relinquishing his family ties. The main character must either go back to his family without being able to support it or support it without being able to ever see them again.

This catch-22 situation leads us to the second theme of the play: family. Styles, the photographer Sizwe Banzi goes to to have his picture taken and sent to his wife, thinks of his job as enabling families to stay connected with their past ancestry and present relatives. The primary reason that pushes Banzi to leave his family and go to Port Elizabeth is to look for a job to support his family. In Port Elizabeth, Sizwe finds a sort of alternative family in his friend Buntu.

Finally, the play confronts the clash between human agency and racism. It points out that, in spite of the legalized and institutionalized racism that dominated South African society at the time, human ability to seize opportunities can lead us to defeat racist limitations.

I would try and locate all these themes within the opening scene where it is clear that both Sizwe and the photographer Style have reinvented their identities and found in this reinvention an opportunity to overcome material and racist limitations.


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