Sizwe Banzi Is Dead Themes
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...
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