Role of Photography
Athol Fugard has maintained that the genesis of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead lies in an unforgettable photograph he saw hanging in a studio window. It was of a South African black man wearing his best suit and an angelic smile. He carried a pipe, a walking stick, and a newspaper.
Styles is selling Bansi dreams of more than what is currently available to him under apartheid. Styles’s photograph is made up of several lies about Bansi, though the man’s face can never hide the truth of his life.
Something about this photography spoke deeply to Fugard, and his collaborators on the play, actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani. They speculated on the man’s life as they wrote the play. Thus, Sizwe Bansi is Dead is built on a picture, a concrete illusion of reality. The story is driven by issues of control—or the lack thereof—over one’s life and one’s photograph. This essay explores how these ideas are expressed in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead.
The man who seeks some measure of control over his life is Sizwe Bansi. He has come to Port Elizabeth to get a better job to support his family. In Bansi’s hometown of King William’s Town, there are few opportunities other than the mines. Bansi equates such a job with death. When the place he is staying at is raided, the authorities discover his passbook is not in order. He does not have the proper paperwork to be looking for a job in Port Elizabeth. Bansi has three days to report to a government office in King William’s Town.
With the help of a friend of a friend named Buntu, Bansi tries to find a way to avoid deportation. After an evening of drinking, the two men stumble across a dead man whose passbook is in order. Buntu gets the idea to solve Bansi’s problem by having Bansi take over the identity of the dead man, Robert Zwelinzima. Bansi resists, but ultimately sees the benefits of the plan. He takes over Zwelinzima’s identity with a mere photograph. Buntu switches the men’s identity by pasting Bansi’s photograph in Zwelinzima’s passbook. If Bansi gets into any trouble, the authorities could discover the deception when fingerprints are compared. It is a risky solution to Bansi’s problem. Yet the photograph is all the identity Bansi needs to find work.
This identity switch gives him a new lease on life. To explain what has happened to his wife, Bansi goes to a photographic studio run by Styles to have his picture taken and sent to her. By this time, the switch has paid off. Bansi has found a job working for a company called Feltex and has a new suit. Yet the photograph Styles takes reveals that the control Bansi has over his life is just an illusion in many ways. As a photographer, Styles has several contradictory aspects. Throughout his opening monologue, Styles talks about the power of photographs, or ‘‘cards,’’ as he calls them. At one point, he says, ‘‘You must understand one thing. We own nothing except ourselves. This world and its laws allow us nothing, except ourselves. There is nothing we can leave behind when we die, except the memory of ourselves.’’
Yet Styles insists on placing Bansi/Zwelinzima in a false pose for the photograph. He makes him put on his new hat and hold his new pipe, but pushes the issue when he gives Bansi a lit cigarette to hold in the other hand. Styles flatters Bansi by telling him that he will soon be chief messenger at Feltex. To emphasize the matter, he pulls down a backdrop that is a map of the world—a world that illiterate Bansi does not know much about. Excited by his work, Styles convinces Bansi to pose for a second picture. The backdrop is the city of the future, and Styles tells Bansi he could be the head of Feltex in this city. Styles poses Bansi with a walking stick and a newspaper (though Bansi insists he cannot read) as he poses him walking in this city of the future.
These poses could be interpreted several ways. Styles wants to sell photographs, so boosting Bansi’s ego makes for a larger sale. Yet there is more going on here:...
(The entire section is 14,563 words.)