Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

by Athol Fugard

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

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The main themes of Sizwe Banzi is Dead include appearances, race, identity, family, and the clash between human agency and racism. The play explores how appearances can be deceiving, the impact of apartheid, and the fluidity of identity through Sizwe's identity swap. It emphasizes family connections and how human agency can challenge racist societal structures.

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Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, written by Athol Fugard and premiered in 1972, has a number of key themes. The first of them is made clear in the setting of the play: appearances. Styles, the first character we meet, runs a photographic studio: his job is to make people seem to be something they might not be. He calls his studio a "strong room of dreams" and creates fantasies for people who come in, making them look their best. Even his name, "Styles," indicates the play's concern with how we look.

Of course, connected to this is another major theme: race. When Athol Fugard premiered the play in Cape Town, South Africa was under racist apartheid rule. The characters in this play are all disrespected on a daily basis, and Styles's photographs give them dignity. Without the repressive government, the central plot-event wouldn’t take place at all.

And speaking of the plot-event, we come to the most important theme of all: identity. Sizwe Bansi is not dead, despite the title; Robert Zwelinzima is dead. But Sizwe has swapped identity cards with Robert, so there is a dead body with Sizwe's identity card in its pocket. This suggests that our identities can be defined by many things, and whether or not you exist within the legal system is the most important. The play asks, "Who is Sizwe Bansi?" and, in doing so, "What does it mean to 'be' someone"?

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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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