Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

by Athol Fugard

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Historical Context

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In 1972, South Africa had a system of repressive apartheid; segregation occurred socially, economically, politically, and culturally. For years, black Africans and ‘‘coloureds’’ (the South African term for those of mixed race) had been the overwhelming majority, yet their rights and opportunities were severely restricted by the white minority.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, the white minority in power restricted ownership of land, education, employment, and movement within South Africa. Races were not allowed to intermarry. Many blacks lived in crowded areas and could not live in the same areas as whites. Blacks and coloureds were paid less than their white counterparts. The white-controlled government tried to restrict all dissent by whites and blacks.

Yet there seemed to be some positive progress in 1972. Three black homelands—Bophuthatswan, Ciskei, and Lebowa—were given self-governing territory status within South Africa. This move was supposed to promote self-government, which meant that each territory could have their own cabinet, legislative assembly, official language, flag, and national anthem.

The South African government was trying to geographically consolidate black homelands. Yet such events were seen as empty, politically suspect gestures by much of the world.

In 1973 new forms of black resistance, including the burgeoning Black Consciousness Movement, became prominent in South Africa. Black trade unions staged a number of strikes. They demanded higher wages (the disparity in wages between whites and blacks was about five to one) and better working conditions. The strikes publicized the situation in South Africa worldwide, starting a backlash against the brutality and inhumanity of apartheid. The United Nations General Assembly declared the system of apartheid a ‘‘crime against humanity.’’

Literary Style

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SettingSizwe Bansi Is Dead is set in New Brighton (an African township) in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1972. The action of the play takes place in three locations. The first is Styles’s photography studio located near a funeral parlor, where Sizwe Bansi (as Robert Zwelinzima) gets his picture taken.

The second is Buntu’s house, where Sizwe stays when he has nowhere else to go in Port Elizabeth. The last setting is the streets of New Brighton outside of the local bar. This is where Buntu discovers the dead body of Robert Zwelinzima.

Each of these settings emphasize the fact that these characters inhabit a certain part of South African society that places limits on the movements of its African citizens.

Monologue/Stream of Consciousness/ Improvisation/Transitions
Large parts of the one-act Sizwe Bansi Is Dead consist of stylized monologues.

In the original production, the actor who played Styles, John Kani, was allowed to improvise his opening stream-of-consciousness monologue. As the script calls for Styles to read from and comment on a newspaper, actors who play the role sometimes update it to reflect topical concerns of his location at the moment. These touches allow Sizwe Bansi Is Dead to stay relevant.

Styles’s long monologue also introduces the themes of the play. In revealing some of his life story (how he came to own the photographic studio) and his opinions (how the photographs he takes allow the common person to leave something of themselves behind), Styles reflects on the results of apartheid.

Sizwe Bansi and Buntu’s monologues have different forms and purposes. Sizwe’s monologue is in the form of a letter to his wife, who lives in King William’s Town. Fugard uses the letter to give background to the story.

For example, in the beginning of the letter, Sizwe tells his wife that ‘‘SizweBansi, in a manner of speaking, is dead!’’ He chronicles the raid at his friend Zola’s and how he came to stay with Buntu.

The action shifts to Buntu’s house...

(This entire section contains 418 words.)

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and Sizwe’s arrival there. Sizwe Bansi’s letter givesSizwe Bansi Is Dead structure and organization. Each segment after the beginning of the letter is set up by such a Sizwe monologue.

Buntu’s monologues are more traditional. Most of them occur at his house, when Sizwe is analyzing his problem and proposing feeble solutions. Buntu counters every one of Sizwe’s ideas and chronicles long stories about recent events in his own life that are relevant.

Compare and Contrast

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1962: The head of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela, is sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the country illegally. Two years later he is sentenced to life in prison for treason and violent conspiracy. In the following years he becomes an international symbol of resistance to apartheid.

Today: Finally released from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa in 1994. He has announced his retirement from public life.

1969: In South Africa people of color are segregated into certain areas. They are prohibited from living in white areas.

Today: In South Africa, laws are enacted to redistribute land among citizens of color.

1972: The South African economy is strong, but there is extremely high unemployment among the black population. The salary gap between white and black is about five to one.

Today: The South African economy is struggling. There is an extremely high unemployment rate and a rising crime rate.

Media Adaptations

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Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was filmed for television by the BBC and British Open University in 1978. The production was produced and directed by Andrew Martin. It features Jose Ferrar as a presenter, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. The tape also includes discussion of stylization, avantgardism, realism, and Black Theater. It was released on videotape in the United States by Insight Media in 1992.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Clurman, Harold, review of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, in The Nation, December 12, 1974, pp. 637-38.

Gill, Brendan, ‘‘The Great Ratiocinator,’’ in The New Yorker, November 25, 1974, p. 131.

Hughes, Catharine, ‘‘Two from South Africa,’’ in America, December 21, 1974, p. 415.

Kauffmann, Stanley, review of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island, in The New Republic, December 21, 1974, pp. 16, 26.

Kroll, Jack, ‘‘The Beloved Country,’’ in Newsweek, December 2, 1974, p. 98.

Vandenbroucke, Russell, Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard, Ad. Donker, 1986, p. 167.

Weales, Gerald, review of Sizwe Bansi is Dead, in Commonweal, January 17, 1975, pp. 330-31.

Further Reading
Brink, Andre, ‘‘‘No Way Out’: Sizwe Bansi is Dead and the Dilemma of Political Drama in South Africa,’’ in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1993, pp. 438-55. This article focuses on the play’s cyclic nature and treatment of apartheid.

Donahue, Francis, ‘‘Apartheid’s Dramatic Legacy: Athol Fugard,’’ in The Midwest Quarterly, Spring, 1995, pp. 323-31. This interview provides an overview of Fugard’s career, including Sizwe Bansi Is Dead.

Lester, Eleanor, ‘‘I Am in Despair about South Africa,’’ in New York Times, December 1, 1974, Section 2, p. 5. This article features an interview with Fugard and discusses the genesis of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead.

Peck, Richard, ‘‘Condemned to Chose, But What? Existentialism in Selected Works by Fugard, Brink, and Gordimer,’’ in Research in African Literatures, Fall, 1992, pp. 67-83. This article explores the existential aspects of Fugard’s plays.

Walder, Dennis, ‘‘Crossing Boundaries: The Genesis of the Township Plays,’’ in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1993, pp. 409-23. This article surveys Fugard’s ‘‘township plays.’’




Critical Essays