Sizwe Banzi arrives at the photography studio of a man named Styles in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. When he asks to have his picture taken, he gives his name as Robert Zwelinzima. Banzi has recently arrived in Port Elizabeth from his home in King William's Town. He originally stayed with a friend named Zola, who was helping Banzi find a job. Their search was unsuccessful, and Banzi was told by authorities that without a job he must leave the city within three days. Banzi then went to stay with Zola's friend Buntu.
Buntu suggests that Banzi go to work in the mines, but Banzi thinks that is too dangerous. The two men go out for a drink, and when they leave, Buntu goes into a back alley to relive himself. There, he finds a dead man, and looks into his identity book to find an address. Instead, he finds a work-seeker's permit, which is what Banzi needs. Buntu takes the permit and puts it in Banzi's identity book; Banzi will adopt a dead man's identity in order to be able to remain in Port Elizabeth. Effectively, Sizwe Banzi will be dead, his identity gone, and Banzi will resume life as Zwelinzima, and will remarry his wife under his new name.
This story is told with interesting shifts in timeframe and point of view. For a comprehensive plot summary, please refer to the third Enotes link below.
The play is about an African man who leaves his home to try to find work in another city; however, when he gets there he is unsuccessful and is told that he has 3 days to vacate the town. He stays with a friend names Buntu, and the both of them go to get a drink at a local bar. Afterwards, they find a dead body in the alleyway. They debate letting the authorities know; decide not to, and instead take a look at his wallet, thinking perhaps they can find his family. In the wallet they find a worker's permit, which is the thing that Sizwe needed in order to stay in the city. They decide to steal it, along with the man's identity, so that Sizwe can stay in the city and work. So, Sizwe goes to get his photograph taken to put on the dead man's identification card.
For further details and discussion, see the links that I have provided below. I recommend reading the play too if you haven't already, as it is very interesting.
Sizwe Bansi is Dead by Athol Fugard, Wiston Ntshona and John Kani
Sizwe Bansi is Dead is a dramatization of the difficulties of blacks in apartheid South Africa. As the play opens, the audience is entertained with a light-hearted monologue from the proprietor of a photo studio by the name Styles, who narrates the circumstances that led to his starting of the business. He has resigned his job at Ford Motors having considered that at retirement he will go home with nothing of worth except a wrist watch. He converts an abandoned room into a photo studio after fighting with and overcoming the enormous cockroaches there. In the midst of Styles’ humorous monologue, a man who identifies himself as Robert Zwelinzima walks into the studio to get a snap shot. He informs Styles that he intends to send the picture to his wife who lives in his home town (King Williams Town). In a series of flashbacks alternating with his writing to his wife, the events of his life unfold.
Sizwe Bansi leaves his native town of King Williams in search of a job in the city of Port Elizabeth, but the authorities refuse to give him a permit and instead order him to leave Port Elizabeth within three days. Faced with the choices of going home to meet his wife without a means of livelihood or staying on in the city and facing the wrath of the authorities, Sizwe decides to defy the authorities. While staying with his friend, Zola, he narrowly escapes arrest. Zola takes him to a man called Buntu. While Bansi and Buntu are returning from Sky’s place (a shebeen), Buntu stumbles on the body of a dead man. Caught between the choices of reporting the incidence to the police and getting implicated, and walking away quietly, Buntu hits upon an idea. He finds the dead man, whose name is Robert Zwelinzima, has a work permit. Taking the permit from the dead man’s pocket he goes home and performs an operation on it: he transfers Bansi’s passport photograph to the dead man’s document, and the dead man’s to Bansi’s. Thus Robert Zwelinzima comes alive and Sizwe Bansi dies. With this Sizwe Bansi is able to stay in Port Elizabeth and secure a job there. This is what he writes to inform his wife that Sizwe Bansi is dead and her husband now lives as Robert Zwelinzima.
The play opens on Styles reading a newspaper. He begins to talk with the audience after noticing certain headlines. He describes the day that Ford visited the plant that he worked at, how certain safety measures for the first time were added, and how they got to shower and wash, but after Ford left, everything went back to normal. He realized that this was not being your own man, so he quit and wanted to start up his own photography shop. He bought a place, but it was filled with cockroaches, so he buys Doom to get rid of them. It doesn't work so he gets a cat, and business begins. He talks about different customers that he has had, and that his job was to create dreams.
This is when Robert/Sizwe comes in, asking for a picture to send to his wife. While he is getting it taken, the stage freezes as he narrates a letter to his wife. We then flashback to when he was Sizwe. He meets Buntu and asks for help, since his passbook has been written that he has to go back home, but he needs to stay to provide for his family. He and Buntu go out, and they get drunk and find a dead man. They steal the passbook from the dead man and places Sizwe's picture in it. He then practices as being Robert. Sizwe does not want to do this, because this means getting rid of his name, but he has to in order to survive. We return to the photo studio, where Styles is taking his picture again.