Sizwe Bansi Is Dead opens in the photography studio of a man named Styles. The studio is located in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. After reading a newspaper article on an automobile plant, Styles tells a humorous story to the audience about an incident that occurred when he worked at Ford Motor Company.
Styles continues to read the paper and talks about his photography studio. His musings are interrupted when a customer, Sizwe Bansi, arrives. Sizwe asks to have his picture taken, but when Styles asks him for his deposit and name, Sizwe hesitates. Sizwe says his name is Robert Zwelinzima. Styles asks Sizwe what he will do with the photo, and Sizwe tells him he will send it to his wife. When the picture is taken, the moment is frozen into what the photograph will look like. It comes to life and Sizwe dictates the letter to his wife that will accompany the photo.
In the letter, Sizwe tells his wife that Sizwe Bansi is dead. He writes that when he arrived in Port Elizabeth from their home in King William’s Town, he stayed with a friend named Zola who tried to help Sizwe find a job. His employment search was unsuccessful; as a result, he was told by the authorities that he must leave in three days. Sizwe went to stay with Zola’s friend, Buntu.
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead returns to present time. Staying at Buntu’s house, Sizwe tells Buntu about his problems—unless a miracle happens, he will have to leave town in three days. Buntu is sympathetic to the problem and suggests he work in the mines in King William’s Town. Sizwe rejects the idea as too dangerous. Buntu decides to take Sizwe out for a treat at Sky’s place, a local bar.
The focus switches back to Sizwe as he continues to compose the letter to his wife. He describes his experiences at Sky’s Shebeen, where he was served alcohol by a woman in a respectful manner.
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead shifts to the outside of Sky’s after Sizwe and Buntu have been drinking. Buntu decides that he needs to get home to go to work tomorrow. He goes into an alley to relieve himself and finds a dead man there. Sizwe wants to report the body to the police. Buntu nixes the idea, but he retrieves the dead man’s identity book to find his address. Buntu finds that the man, named Robert Zwelinzima, has a work-seeker’s permit—the very thing that Sizwe needs to stay in town. They take the book. At Buntu’s house, Buntu switches the photographs in the books. He proposes that they burn Sizwe’s book—effectively making him dead—and have Sizwe adopt the dead man’s identity so he can stay in Port Elizabeth. Sizwe is unsure about the plan; in particular, he worries about his wife and children. Buntu contends that they can remarry. After much discussion, Sizwe agrees to the switch.
Sizwe finishes dictating the letter to his wife. In it, he tells her that Buntu is helping him get a lodger’s permit. The scene shifts back to Styles’ photography studio; Sizwe is getting his picture taken.