Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606
The primary theme of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead is identity. The quest for or changing of identity deeply affects each of the major characters.
For Styles, identity means several things. First, Styles was able to forge a new identity as a photographer; previously, he had worked on the line at the Ford Motor Company, which was not a satisfying identity for him. Second, through his work, Styles is able to record the identity of his patrons. By taking photographs of common people, they are not lost to history—their descendants will remember them.
Sizwe Bansi’s identity issues are more problematic. His passbook—essentially his identity— has disappointed him; he does not have the proper documentation to stay in Port Elizabeth and look for a job to support his family. The stamp in his passbook says that he must report to a bureau in his home of King William’s Town.
Sizwe stays with Buntu, a friend of a friend. After a night of drinking, they come across a dead man and take his identity book. It is Buntu’s idea that Sizwe Bansi take on the identity of the dead man, who has the proper documentation to work.
This potential change of identity troubles Sizwe Bansi: his children have his name; he is unsure what would happen to his wife; and he could get into serious trouble with the authorities if the switch is discovered. Yet to ensure his family’s survival, Sizwe Bansi reluctantly becomes Robert Zwelinzima.
In Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, one’s true identity is knowing who you are—not what your name is.
The importance of family is another theme of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead. Styles believes that the photographs he takes will link families through generations; moreover, they allow descendants to see what their ancestors looked like. He says that his best business comes from family groups because their sheer numbers guarantee lots of copies sold.
Sizwe Bansi has come to Port Elizabeth to find work to support his wife and four children. He goes as far as to take on a dead man’s identity to make sure he can stay in the city and find a decent job. He has his photograph taken at Styles’ studio to show his wife that he is still the same man.
Buntu’s family situation—his wife is a domestic who only spends weekends at home, and his child lives with his or her grandmother—allows him to take in Sizwe and help him with his problems. Buntu treats him like family.
Limitations and Opportunities
Though both Sizwe Bansi and Styles (as well as Buntu) are limited by circumstances—such as racism— they are able to seize opportunities for positive change.
For example, Styles felt stifled and overworked at the auto plant. During the Christmas shutdown, he finds out about a room near a funeral parlor and gets permission to use it as a photography studio. Now, unlike many of his peers, Styles owns his own business. He is independent.
With Buntu’s help, Sizwe also takes advantage of opportunities. He cannot stay in Port Elizabeth to find work because his identity book has restricted his movements. When he finds a dead man in an alley, Buntu picks up the dead man’s identity book.
After reviewing Sizwe’s options, Buntu suggests that he take on this man’s identity so Sizwe can stay and find a job in Port Elizabeth. Though Sizwe’s options have been limited by apartheid, taking on the dead man’s identity gives him the opportunity to make a decent living and support his family.