Sizwe Bansi Is Dead


Athol Fugard

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In apartheid South Africa, in a township of the city Port Elizabeth, a young Black photographer named Styles enters his studio and begins reading aloud newspaper headlines. When he reaches a headline about a new automobile factory opening, he recounts how he worked for six years in a Ford factory under a racist white boss named Bradley. Eventually, Styles realized that as long as he worked the factory job, other people would control what he did all day except for the six hours he was able to sleep. He quit the factory job and became self-employed, which made him feel like a real man.

Styles claims his photos document people whom history would otherwise forget. He recalls how he once photographed a middle-aged man with an educational certificate the man spent seven years studying for; another time, Styles photographed a 27-person extended family because the family’s elderly grandfather had always wanted a family portrait. Styles himself has only a photo by which to remember his father, a Black man who served in South Africa’s army during World War II but was stripped of his uniform and rights as soon as he returned home.

A nervous-seeming Black man enters Styles’s studio, identifies himself as Robert Zwelinzima, and asks for a photo he can send home in a letter to his wife Nowetu. Styles does a photo-portrait of the man, arranging him with a backdrop and props so that he resembles a wealthy businessman. Then Styles convinces the man to do an additional walking action shot, which the man can send to his wife as a promise he’s coming home to her. When Styles takes the action shot, the photo suddenly comes alive—and the man in it begins narrating and acting out the letter he plans to send to his wife.

The man’s letter reveals that his original name was Sizwe Bansi. He came to Port Elizabeth looking for work: his rural hometown lacked job opportunities, but he needed to support his wife and children. The Port Elizabeth police raided the house of the friend with whom Sizwe was staying and discovered Sizwe didn’t have permission as a Black man under apartheid law to travel there. The police sent Sizwe to the Labor Bureau, where white men examined and stamped his passbook. To avoid the police, Sizwe went to stay with a friend of his friend’s, Buntu. Buntu, unlike Sizwe, could read; he explained to Sizwe that the passbook stamp ordered Sizwe to return home. Sizwe proposed various ideas for evading the police and starting a business in Port Elizabeth. Buntu, hard-nosed, shot them all down.

Then Buntu bought Sizwe drinks at an illegal bar. On the way home, Buntu and Sizwe discovered a man stabbed to death in an alley. They learned from the dead man’s passbook that his name was Robert Zwelinzima and he had legal permission to look for work in Port Elizabeth. Buntu suggested Sizwe steal the dead man’s passbook and identity, so Sizwe could stay in Port Elizabeth and get a job. When Sizwe protested he didn’t want to be a “ghost,” Buntu argued apartheid had already made Sizwe a ghost—Sizwe might as well exploit the situation to care for his family. At last, Sizwe agreed.

Sizwe ends his letter by telling Nowetu that if everything goes well, he’ll send her money and see her soon—though he previously expressed doubts to Buntu that he could get away with impersonating Robert Zwelinzima for long. Narration finished, Sizwe resumes his walking pose. Styles takes a final photo of him.