Sizwe Bansi Is Dead


Athol Fugard

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Sizwe Bansi Is Dead Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Athol Fugard's Sizwe Bansi Is Dead. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard was born in 1932 in Middelburg, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. His father was an Englishman, while his mother was an Afrikaner, a member of South Africa’s white minority population whose mostly Dutch ancestors colonized the country in the 18th century. After attending but not graduating from the University of Cape Town, he worked outside South Africa in 1953 and 1954, during which time he began writing. After returning to South Africa, Fugard worked as a clerk in a Native Commissioners’ Court—a court where white judges passed judgments on Black South Africans—and came to realize how racist South Africa’s laws and society were. Fugard married the actress Sheila Meiring in 1956 and in 1957, they settled in Johannesburg. In the late 1950s, Fugard wrote several plays that took South African racism as a theme and worked with Black South African actors to produce them. From 1960 to 1962, while also writing his famous early play The Blood Knot (1961), Fugard drafted the novel that would become Tsotsi. He did not try to publish it, however, and after ceasing work on it he refocused on his playwriting. In 1973, the National English Literary Museum (NELM)—a museum for South African literature in Grahamstown, South Africa—began collecting Fugard’s manuscripts and papers. NELM’s Fugard collection ultimately included the unpublished drafts of Tsotsi. In the late 1970s, a South African English professor named Stephen Gray found Tsotsi in NELM and persuaded Fugard to let him revise it for publication. Tsotsi was finally published in 1980. Although Tsotsi is Fugard’s only novel, Fugard has continued writing plays continuously from the late 1950s through the present day.
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Historical Context of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (1972) was written and originally performed under apartheid, a set of segregationist, white-supremacist laws active between the late 1940s and early 1990s in South Africa. Among other things, apartheid law required Black South Africans to carry an identity document called a passbook and limited where they could live and work. Though the play does not explicitly state what year it is supposed to take place, it makes several telling references. One character compares himself wearing factory safety gear to “Armstrong on the moon,” a reference to the U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930–2012), who became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. Later in the play, characters criticize “Ciskeian Independence.” Ciskei was a “Bantustan,” a term referring to areas that South Africa’s segregationist apartheid government demarcated as homelands for indigenous African populations. Ciskei was demarcated in 1961 and declared self-governing in 1972, a declaration that coincided with the government forcibly relocating many Black South Africans to Ciskei. The reference to Neil Armstrong indicates the play must take place after 1969, while the reference to Ciskeian Independence suggests it’s probably intended to take place in 1972, when Ciskei was declared self-governing, the same year Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was written.

Other Books Related to Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi Is Dead includes an extended monologue by the title character, an oppressed Black man in apartheid South Africa, insisting that he is a man like other men. William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–1598) may have influenced Sizwe’s monologue, as Shakespeare’s play likewise includes a famous speech by the title character, the Jewish merchant Shylock, insisting that he is as human as the antisemitic Christians who oppress him. The playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) may also have influenced Sizwe Bansi Is Dead; Brecht wrote political plays that frequently broke the fourth wall, calling attention to their artificiality to keep the audience focused on the political realities the plays were addressing rather than on their fictional elements. Sizwe Bansi Is Dead breaks the fourth wall in a similar way: the characters speak to the audience and mention the names of the playwright and the original cast directly while making political arguments against South African apartheid. Athol Fugard wrote Sizwe Bansi Is Dead in consultation with Black South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who also starred in the play’s original production. Fugard co-wrote another play with Kani and Ntshona, The Island (1973), which similarly represented the racism and injustice of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Other famous works of theater that critique anti-Black racism in South Africa include Mbongeni Ngema and Hugh Masakela’s musical Sarafina! (1988) and Craig Higginson’s play The Dream of the Dog (2007).
Key Facts about Sizwe Bansi Is Dead
  • Full Title: Sizwe Bansi Is Dead
  • When Written: 1972
  • Where Written: Port Elizabeth, South Africa
  • When Published: First performed 1972
  • Literary Period: Postmodern, Contemporary
  • Genre: Play
  • Setting: Port Elizabeth, South Africa
  • Climax: Buntu convinces Sizwe Bansi to steal the murdered Robert Zwelinzima’s identity.
  • Antagonist: South African apartheid

Extra Credit for Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

Collaboration: Though Athol Fugard is usually listed as the author of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, he collaborated with the actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani to create the script. Winston Ntshona played Sizwe Bansi in the play’s original production, while John Kani played both Styles and Buntu.

Political Censorship and Retribution: After a 1976 production of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, the actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani were jailed due to the play’s criticisms of South Africa’s apartheid government (and specifically Ciskeian Independence), though protests led to the actors’ release about two weeks later.