In the South African township of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, a youthful man named Styles walks into Styles’s Photographic Studio, whose sign advertises photos for both celebrations and official documents like Reference Books. Styles wears a dustcoat but also sports a bowtie. He has a newspaper in hand. Sitting down at a table, Styles begins reading headlines aloud. After reading about plans to expand a car factory, he comments that expansions never translate into more money for workers. He used to work for Ford, and every time a U.S. or British bigwig made a speech about helping “non-white workers,” the papers ran stories, but the workers wouldn’t be paid better.
Styles seems to be doing well economically: he runs his own photography studio and dresses sharply, wearing a bowtie to work. Yet his commentary on the headline about Ford suggests that before he was self-employed, he worked under much worse conditions because he was “non-white”—alluding to the racism and economic oppression people of color suffered under white bosses during South African apartheid. That Styles advertises for Reference Book photos is also an allusion to racial oppression under apartheid—Reference Books or “passbooks” were identity documents used to monitor and restrict the movements of Black South African men—and shows that Styles has figured out how to make money off apartheid law, illustrating Black resistance to white supremacy but perhaps also Styles’s minor complicity in the passbook system. Styles’s criticism of speeches in newspapers suggests that official history and documentation often fail to capture oppressed people’s lived reality. Meanwhile, his monologue to the audience—there are no other characters onstage—draws attention to the fact that an actor, a real person, is saying these politically loaded lines. By breaking the fourth wall, the play forces the audience not to dismiss Styles’s words as fiction but to consider whether they’re true.
Styles recounts how once, “Mr Henry Ford Junior Number two or whatever” announced he would visit the factory where Styles worked. The workers were excited because a visit from someone important often meant a small bonus. One morning when Styles entered the factory, the machines were off, and a sign announced Ford would visit that day. The General Foreman, Mr. Bradley, summoned all the workers together. Mimicking Bradley’s Afrikaans accent, Styles recalls how Bradley told the workers to clean the factory instead of doing line work. All the bosses were yelling, “Come on, boys!” and ordering the workers to completely, thoroughly clean the factory.
Henry Ford (1863–1947) founded Ford Motor Company; his grandson Henry Ford II (1917–1987) was CEO of the company during the period of time the play’s events are likely supposed to take place. Notably, the workers are excited about the visit not because Henry Ford II is famous or important but because they may get a bonus, which indicates they aren’t usually paid well and economic concerns are at the front of their minds. The (presumably white) bosses call the (presumably Black) adult workers “boys,” implying a racist power dynamic where Black men have to accept a demeaning, infantilized identity foisted on them by white bosses in order to keep their jobs.
After the workers had cleaned the factory, Bradley painted both a white line on the floor and a warning about the tow motor. Styles laughs at the memory, noting that this was the first time he’d seen such a warning in six years working at the factory. Then Bradley painted a yellow line with a warning about not smoking and a green line with a warning about needing eye protection.
Bradley painted warning lines and signs in preparation for an important person’s visit—which means no such signs existed before. This fact reveals that the white supervisors don’t care about the Black employees’ safety; Bradley is painting the warnings as an act to fool the company’s CEO into thinking local South African managers treat Black workers better than they actually do.
After painting the green line, Bradley called Styles over. Mimicking Bradley’s Afrikaans accent, Styles repeats Bradley’s question about how to translate “Eye Protection Area” into “your language.” When Styles translated it for him, Bradley initially accused him of joking, but Styles said he was serious. Bradley then ordered Styles to spell the translation. Laughing at the memory, Styles recalls how Bradley and other higher-ups were kneeling on the floor while he stood over them and spelled out the words.
Afrikaans is a language spoken by a minority of white South Africans. It evolved from the Dutch spoken by the Dutch people who colonized South Africa in the 18th century. The most common indigenous African language in Port Elizabeth, where the play is set, is Xhosa; that is likely what Bradley means by “your language.” Styles’s amusement at the memory of Bradley and other white supervisors kneeling while he stood indicates that such an event was unusual. The white supervisors’ desperate desire to fool the company owner into thinking they cared about Black workers’ safety briefly flipped the usual power dynamic between white supervisors and Black workers.
The bosses demanded the workers go shower, which was unusual for a Thursday morning. After the workers showered, the bosses gave them new overalls and new tools. The bosses also gave Styles, who worked in a particularly dangerous area of the factory, “a new asbestos apron and fire-proof gloves to replace the ones [Styles] had lost about a year ago.” Styles compares how he looked in his new gear to Armstrong on the moon.
The U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930–2012) was the first human being to walk on the moon in 1969. By comparing himself in an “asbestos apron” and “fire-proof gloves” to a famous astronaut, Styles reveals how alien safety equipment was to his experience in the factory. That revelation, together with the detail that Styles lost his last safety equipment a year before, shows how careless about Black workers’ safety the white supervisors are and how desperately they are trying to hide the usual dangerous working conditions from Henry Ford II.
Once the workers showered and dressed, Bradley demanded Styles translate a speech to the other workers. Bradley orated about how important Mr Henry Ford the Second’s visit was, how he wanted the workers to act cheerful and sing during the visit, and how they needed to show Mr. Ford they were superior to “those monkeys” in Harlem who went on strike, whom he called a racial slur. To the other workers, Styles mocked Bradley, said Mr. Ford was a “bastard” who “own[ed]” them, warned them to hide their true feelings, and said that as “South African monkeys,” they had to act “better trained” than their U.S. counterparts.
Bradley’s speech to the Black workers is overtly racist: after calling Black New Yorkers in Harlem “monkeys” and using a racial slur to describe them, he demands the Black South African workers perform a childlike, singing happiness for Mr. Ford. Evidently Styles feels he cannot protest Bradley’s racism, because Bradley is his supervisor and could fire him. Bradley’s ability to impose his racism on Black workers due to their need for jobs shows how official identities like “employee” can damage people’s personal identities (like “human being”) under oppressive conditions. Yet Styles manages to get back at Bradley, using Bradley’s ignorance of indigenous African languages to pretend to translate for him while in fact mocking Bradley and Mr. Ford and acknowledging the disturbing, racist work situation where important white company men act like they “own” Black workers.
The workers worked very slowly, singing. Styles saw Bradley and other higher-ups grooming themselves, not suspiciously monitoring the workers like usual. Then three cars arrived. All the higher-ups ran to greet them. (In the present, Styles mockingly mimes how the higher-ups obediently made way for Mr. Ford.) Styles thought to himself how the higher-ups were “playing [his] part.” He saw a very tall man take three steps into the factory, glance around, and walk out without talking to anyone. After the cars drove away, the white higher-ups demanded the workers work extra fast to make up for lost time. Styles bemoans that he worked at the factory for six years.
Styles’s comment that the white South African supervisors were “playing [his] part” for Mr. Ford suggests an analogy between apartheid’s racial hierarchies and global capitalist hierarchies: just as Styles had to show deference to his white South African supervisors because they had more power, money, and legal rights than he did, so his white South African supervisors showed deference to Mr. Ford, who in turn had more power and money than they did. By calling this deference “playing” a “part,” Styles suggests that people with less power often act in front of—and intentionally deceive—people with more power.
Styles, reading the newspaper again, notes an advertisement for Doom. He recalls how one day when he worked for Ford, he realized he didn’t control his own existence or time because he spent all his waking hours working for someone else. He decided to become a photographer, a job he already did on the side at celebrations. His wife and parents didn’t understand his ambition; when he declared self-employment would make him “a man,” his father retorted that he was already married and circumcised.
Doom is an insect-killing spray; clearly the newspaper advertisement for Doom has reminded Styles of something, but it isn’t clear yet what or why. Styles’s recollection that his factory job ate up his whole life shows how keeping a whole class of marginalized people—in this case, Black South Africans—poor can be a way of controlling them politically: people who have to work constantly to make ends meet live under their bosses’ control and have no time to organize or protest. Styles’s belief that becoming a self-employed photographer would make him a “man” shows how official identities like “employee” or “boss” as well as more personal, private identities like “husband” or “adult” affect the characters’ senses of self. Finally, that Styles aspires to become a photographer introduces an association between photographs and people’s dreams that will continue throughout the play.
Styles applied for a vacant room, which he planned to turn into a photography studio. Though it took several months for officials to approve his application, he eventually got a letter telling him the studio was his. When he entered the vacant room, he found it dilapidated and dirty. He cleaned it thoroughly, feeling good about being his own boss, only to see cockroaches on the walls. Thinking of Doom, he went to a Chinese man’s shop and bought two tins. In the present, Styles mimes shaking the tins, firing them off at the cockroaches, and “put[ting] them into their holsters.”
Styles had to undergo a months-long application process to rent his studio—and when his application was approved, the studio turned out to be in terrible condition; these details reveal how excessive bureaucracy and poor material conditions oppressed Black South Africans trying to work and accumulate wealth under apartheid. Yet Styles’s playful recreation of using his insect-killing spray like a sheriff’s guns in a Western shows how his dream of becoming a photographer helped him meet challenges with imagination and good humor.
Styles imagines that after he went home, the remaining cockroaches had a secret meeting and performed “a general inoculation” against Doom. When he came back the next morning, he tried to spray the cockroaches dead but had run out of Doom. When he told a friend about his problem, the friend told him to get a cat—township cats hunt insects because no one has enough money to feed them milk or meat, and the poor boys have killed the mice. The friend then gave him a cat, who ate the cockroaches.
Styles’s joke about the cockroaches holding secret meetings and “inoculat[ing]” themselves against Doom shows how he maintains his sense of humor even in adversity. The revelation that township cats eat insects because no one can afford to feed them, meanwhile, illustrates the poverty in which apartheid forces Styles and other Black South Africans to live.
Styles, broadly indicating his studio, expresses his pride. He claims his studio isn’t some rote operation churning out photographs for official documents like reference books. Styles claims to use photography to commemorate people with dreams whom history would otherwise forget.
Styles contrasts reference book photos with photos that commemorate marginalized people’s dreams; in so doing, he associates passbooks with official identities imposed by the government and the photographs he takes with personal identities and aspirations. Yet Styles is after all running a business; while he may commemorate some people that history would otherwise forget, he likely does not commemorate those people too poor even to buy photographs—a detail that suggests the limits of visual documentation like photographs for representing the complete reality of marginalized people.
Styles points to a photograph on display and explains how the man it depicts came to the studio one day and asked for Styles to photograph him standing. Styles notes that he always photographs people how they want to be photographed, so as not to interfere with their “dream.” The man asked Styles to photograph him with an educational certificate. He explained that his boss told him he needed more education if he wanted a promotion, so he had been taking a correspondence course for over seven years and finally finished. He was planning to keep taking courses until he was a “graduate, self-made!”
That Styles always photographs people how they want to be photographed suggests he does not so much document marginalized people’s realities as their aspirations, what he calls their “dreams.” It is unclear from the story Styles tells whether these dreams are important motivators or cruel illusions. The boss of the man Styles photographed may simply have been using the man’s lack of education as an excuse not to promote him (or give him a raise)—so that the correspondence course may represent a false hope of advancement. On the other hand, the man’s tenacious quest for education is admirable, which suggests that dreams really do motivate people to accomplish good things.
Styles continues examining the photographs on display. He calls one photograph his “best.” One day, a 27-person extended family—from tiny children to an ancient grandfather—came into the studio. One of the grandfather’s sons explained to Styles that the grandfather has always wanted a family photograph. Styles arranged all 27 family members with much difficulty. Then, trying to get them all to smile, he encouraged them to say cheese. All 27 people said cheese, and the noise got so loud that people in the street started saying it too. Styles kept reorganizing the family and taking new photos; in total, he did 10 different family portraits.
Here, Styles’s photography really does memorialize people’s personal identities—their family relationships—in contrast with the official identities imposed on them by government documents like passbooks. Styles doesn’t explain why he considers a photograph of the family his “best,” but perhaps it is because the grandfather’s dream was simply to have a photograph—so that Styles was able to memorialize and to fulfill the grandfather’s dream at one and the same time.
The next week, the grandfather’s son came to retrieve the photos and told Styles the grandfather died and would never get to see the family portraits. Styles told the son to be thankful for his father’s life and went over the family portraits with him; the portraits caused the son to cry but also to smile. Once the son exited the studio, Styles imagined him passing around the photos to people in mourning. He reflects that “we” only own “ourselves” and after death persist only in memory. He says he knows this because his own father died.
The grandfather died before he could see his dream of a family photo-portrait realized, which illustrates the uncertain, potentially illusory nature of dreams and aspirations. Styles’s claim that “we” only own “ourselves” is ambiguous. He may mean that “we” (as in Black South Africans) live in poverty due to racial oppression and so only have power over personal identities, nothing else. On the other hand, he may mean that “we” (as in human beings) have only “ourselves” because possessions are transitory and all lives end in death.
Styles indicates a photo of his own father on display. He explains how his father fought in World War Two, for the freedom of South Africa and other countries. When he shipped home from the war, his weapon and uniform were taken from him “at the docks,” as well as “the dignity they’d allowed him for a few mad years.” Styles found the photo of his father after he died; it is the only memento Styles has of his father.
Ironically, Styles’s father represented South Africa as a member of its army fighting for freedom abroad—but as soon as he returned home, literally “at the docks,” authorities took this positive official identity from him, and the “dignity” it implied, due to his race. That a photograph is the only memento Styles has of his father shows that photos do have an important role to play in commemorating marginalized people, even if they cannot document marginalized people’s whole reality. Although Styles does not say this explicitly, it is possible that his dream of photographing marginalized people and affirming their personal identities and aspirations derived from his father’s experience of having his official identity and “dignity” stolen by South African authorities.
Styles, noting another photo, is about to tell a story about a woman whose husband was arrested when someone knocks on the studio door. He says, “Tell you about it later,” and asks the knocker to come in. An uncertain-seeming man enters wearing a suit that doesn’t fit and holding a hat inside a plastic bag. Styles, smiling, says to the audience, “A Dream!” He asks the man for his name and address. After pausing, the man—seeming scared—identifies himself as Robert Zwelinzima and says he’s staying at Fifty Mapija street. Styles asks whether he’s staying with Buntu; Robert says he is. Styles speaks approvingly of Buntu’s kindness and quips, “If that man was white they’d call him a liberal.”
When Styles says, “Tell you about it later,” there are no other characters on stage. Clearly, then, he’s addressing the audience—which means that he hasn’t been talking to himself but has been aware of spectators this whole time. By “breaking the fourth wall” and acknowledging the audience, the play makes clear that its audience inhabits the same politically unjust, white-supremacist political system that its play represents in fiction. By calling his new customer “A Dream!” Styles suggests the customer will want some aspiration memorialized—but, perhaps without meaning to, also suggests there is something illusory or unreal about this “Robert Zwelinzima.” Finally, Styles’s joke about his and Robert’s mutual acquaintance Buntu—that if he were white, he'd be “a liberal”—suggests that white people get political credit for helping Black people in a way that Black people don’t when they help other Black people.
Styles asks Robert how many photos he wants and how he wants to pose. Robert replies that he only wants one photo and has no preference about poses—but as Styles begins arranging props, Robert tentatively puts on his hat. Styles praises Robert’s suit and asks where he got it. When Robert says Sales House, Styles makes a joke about how Sales House doesn’t recover suits from customers who can’t make payment installments. He and Robert both laugh. Setting up the photo equipment, Styles asks Robert what he’ll do with the photo. Robert says he plans to send it to his wife, Nowetu, in King William’s Town.
Robert’s tentativeness about how he wants to be photographed suggests he has an uncertain sense of self. He and Styles develop a rapport praising Sales House for not repossessing suits from poor customers, which suggests that poverty is a common experience over which the two men can bond. Finally, that Robert is sending a letter home to his wife suggests that he’s had to move for work—economic concerns have separated him from his family.
When Styles praises Robert’s family-mindedness and asks where Robert works, Robert says Feltex. Robert is getting stiff and nervous, so Styles encourages him to smile. Trying a smile, Robert takes a pipe from his pocket to use as a prop. Styles suggests that they use the photo background to make Robert look like an important employee. He adds a world map to the background of the photo and gives Robert a cigarette to hold along with his pipe. After instructing Robert on how to pose, Styles photographs him.
Styles does not attempt to photograph Robert as he is—stiff, nervous, and economically insecure—but as an important, self-assured employee. This shows that Styles is more interested in affirming people’s dreams and aspirational selves than in documenting them as they are. It also suggests that Styles has correctly guessed what Robert’s dream is: to appear employed and successful to his wife. Yet the silly details in the photo—for example, Robert is holding both a cigarette and a pipe—suggest that the dream-image Styles is creating is flawed, perhaps divorced from reality.
After telling Robert he’s finished, Styles suggests Robert get more than one photo. He suggests a postal worker might open his letter looking for money and throw away the contents. Then Styles asks whether Robert wants a “movie,” that is, a photo of Robert mid-action, pretending to walk home to his wife Nowetu, for instance, so that she and his children can see the photo and look forward to a future visit from him. When Robert agrees, Styles flips the background world map over; on the other side is a fictional high-tech city. He gives Robert a walking-stick and a newspaper as props, insisting on the newspaper even when Robert says he can’t read. Styles guides Robert through a posed walk, tells him to freeze, and photographs him.
Styles’s representation of Robert is getting more divorced from reality: he convinces Robert to pose in front of a science-fictional city backdrop and insists Robert hold a newspaper even though he can’t read. These details show how even though photographs simply record visual data, they can document reality in misleading ways—and how dreams, represented by photographs, can be cruelly illusory as well as positively motivating.
When the camera flashes, all the lights go out and a spotlight finds Robert—replicating the photo Styles has just taken. Robert begins to narrate the letter he has written to Nowetu. He says he has something very exciting to communicate: “Sizwe Bansi is, in a manner of speaking, dead!” In a flashback, Robert is staying with a friend named Zola in Port Elizabeth and looking for a job—where he finds much competition from other unemployed men from rural areas—when an official stamps his passbook and orders him to leave Port Elizabeth within three days.
In this scene, the photograph of Robert “comes alive” and begins narrating a letter. This highly stylized, artificial transition draws attention to the play’s status as a work of fiction—which focuses the audience’s attention on which parts of the fiction may be false (e.g., particular characters’ names and stories) and which are true (e.g., the oppressive political context being represented). Since photos have represented dreams and aspirations throughout the play, the photo coming alive also suggests that Robert’s dream has somehow been realized or come true. Because the audience doesn’t know who Sizwe Bansi is or what it means to be dead “in a manner of speaking,” however, the play still has not revealed exactly what Robert’s dream is. Yet Robert does say he wanted work and that his passbook, representing his official identity, prevented him from getting it—which suggests that questions of employment, documentation, and identity will be important to the fulfillment of his dream.
To avoid the official, Robert goes to stay with a friend of Zola’s named Buntu. At Buntu’s house, “Robert” introduces himself to Buntu as Sizwe Bansi. Buntu explains that they’re alone in the house—his wife works as a round-the-clock maid and is only allowed to return to her own home on weekends. While Buntu washes up and changes out of his work clothes, he asks Sizwe about his situation. Sizwe explains that he’s not allowed to stay in Port Elizabeth, only King William’s Town. The authorities discovered him during a raid on Zola’s place and brought him to the Labor Bureau. There, a white man examined his passbook, and then someone else came and stamped his passbook.
Here the audience learns that “Robert” was originally called Sizwe Bansi, the man “Robert” declared dead at the beginning of his letter. It is not yet clear whether Sizwe faked his own death or underwent some other identity transformation in order to become “Robert.” Buntu’s economic and family situation—his wife’s job only allows her to return home on weekends—shows how poverty and economic inequality can prevent people from enacting personal identities like “spouse” or “family member.” Finally, Sizwe’s memories of the Labor Bureau, in which white people interacted more with his passbook than with him, show how racist, oppressive, and de-individualizing the official identity represented by the passbook is.
Buntu asks to see Sizwe’s passbook. When Buntu asks whether Sizwe understands the stamp, Sizwe explains that he can’t read. Buntu tells Sizwe that the stamp ordered him to return to King William’s Town and appear before the Bantu Affairs Commissioner for “Influx Control”—and he was supposed to do this by yesterday. Sizwe says he doesn’t want to go home; Buntu replies: “if that book says go, you go.” When Sizwe suggests destroying the book, Buntu points out that he’d need another one—if the police catch him without a passbook, he’ll be fined or jailed. And even if he got a new book, the Labour Bureau would just stamp it in the exact same way again. Eventually the authorities would force him to return to King William’s Town.
“Bantu” is a group of indigenous African languages, some of which are spoken in South Africa. A “Bantu Affairs Commissioner” would be a bureaucrat in charge of dealing with South Africa’s indigenous Black population. “Influx Control” was a South African apartheid policy restricting the movement of Black people into cities. Essentially, the passbook is ordering Sizwe to stay out of cities and report to a bureaucrat in his rural hometown. As a marker of his official identity, Black South African, the passbook doesn’t care about Sizwe’s personal identity of husband and father or his dream of supporting his family. When Sizwe suggests destroying his passbook and going without an official identity, Buntu points out that the law makes having an official identity unavoidable.
Sizwe suggests he may get a job as a gardener. Buntu informs him that “little white ladies” who advertise jobs like that in the papers only want employees whose papers are good and know things about flowers. When he asks whether Sizwe knows any white men who’ll hire him, Sizwe replies that he doesn’t know any white men. Buntu says that’s a shame, because if Sizwe could get a white man to write a letter saying he’d employ Sizwe, Sizwe could go through a complicated process with bureaucrats in King William’s Town and Port Elizabeth to maybe get the right stamp and the right letters he would need to apply for a “Residence Permit.”
A “Residence Permit” is official permission allowing Sizwe to live in Port Elizabeth. This passage is mocking the convoluted, almost impossible process Sizwe would have to undergo to obtain such a permit—a process that depends almost entirely on Sizwe having a potential white boss, revealing how apartheid law forces Black workers to be dependent on white people, even when those white people, like the “little white ladies” Buntu mentions, have silly or unfair employment requirements.
Sizwe suggests that maybe he could start a small potato-selling business. Buntu asks where Sizwe would get the money to buy the potatoes. He also points out that Sizwe couldn’t get a license to sell them because of his stamped passbook. At last, Buntu tells Sizwe he should return to King William’s Town and get a job in the gold mines. Sizwe retorts that working in the mines doesn’t pay well and is very dangerous: “I don’t want to die,” he tells Buntu.
This passage shows how Sizwe’s opportunities to get a job and earn money are limited both by his preexisting poverty (he couldn’t afford to buy potatoes to resell) and by racist apartheid laws represented by his passbook (no authorities would give him a license to sell potatoes). The only work available to Sizwe is poorly paid and physically dangerous mining work, highlighting the limited options and economic exploitation suffered by Black South Africans under apartheid.
Struck by Sizwe’s desire to live, Buntu sits down and questions Sizwe about his wife Nowetu and his children. He learns that Sizwe has three sons and a daughter and his wife Nowetu can’t work because their home is too rural to have job opportunities. Buntu shares that he and his wife have just one child because his wife is on birth control and that the child stays with Buntu’s mother. Though Buntu is from Port Elizabeth, he had a difficult time getting the stamps in his passbook that allowed him to get a job and a house.
Though Buntu seems better off than Sizwe, this passage reveals they have similar problems. Both men are separated from their wife and children due to economic concerns: Sizwe has left his family to look for work because his hometown has no job opportunities, while Buntu rarely sees his wife and lives apart from his child due to his and his wife’s demanding work schedules. Sizwe and Buntu’s shared problems show how the racist official identities imposed on them by the government, represented by the passbook system, inhibit their attempts to live out personal identities of “husband” and “father.”
Sizwe asks, “Why is there so much trouble?” Buntu tells him about a speech a preacher gave at a funeral Buntu attended in a rural area for a man named Outa Jacob. The preacher explained that Outa Jacob had worked for the same Baas for a long time, but when that Baas died, the Baas’s son fired him. Outa Jacob went to work at another farm, but the farmer’s wife and Jacob’s wife had some conflict, and Outa Jacob had to seek work elsewhere. Yet because of poor farming conditions, farmers weren’t hiring. This pattern continued until Outa Jacob died. Buntu concludes: “The only time we’ll find peace is when they dig a hole for us and press our face into the earth.” Buntu asks whether Sizwe has heard of “Sky’s place.” When Sizwe says no, Buntu suggests they go and offers to pay Sizwe’s tab. Buntu exits.
The word “Baas” is Afrikaans for “boss.” Buntu’s story of Outa Jacob suggests that white South African bosses will overwork, exploit, and discard Black South African workers from those workers’ births until their deaths. Black South Africans’ only chance for “peace” is in a grave “hole” with their faces “press[ed] [...] into the earth,” a horrible image of stasis and suffocation hinting that a supposedly peaceful death is really just a defeat. This story both emphasizes white South Africans’ economic exploitation of Black South Africans and reveals that Buntu is pessimistic about the situation ever changing.
Alone onstage, Sizwe narrates his letter to Nowetu again, explaining how even mentioning Sky’s place hurts his head, how the place served “first-class booze,” and how the staff called him “Mister Bansi.” Remembering this, Sizwe laughs.
In various ways at various times, South African apartheid law restricted the sale of alcohol to and by Black people. The audience can infer that Sky’s place is a “shebeen,” an establishment selling alcohol without a license to a township clientele—otherwise it would not be selling “first-class booze” to a Black South African man. Previously, the play has suggested that its characters have both personal identities and official identities imposed on them by the apartheid government. Sky’s place gives Sizwe the polite name “Mister Bansi,” suggesting yet another identity—identity that is neither personal nor official but dependent on social context. Sizwe’s amusement at the polite “Mister Bansi” identity suggests that he isn’t used to being treated respectfully.
In a flashback, Sizwe is standing outside Sky’s place, drunk. He offers the audience his hand, introduces himself as Mister Bansi, says he comes from Sky’s place, and invites the audience to follow him inside. Then he starts yelling for “Mr Buntu.” Buntu enters a little tipsily, looks at the audience, and asks where Sizwe met them. Sizwe claims he just stumbled upon them. Sizwe and Buntu discuss what a good time they’ve had. At one point, Buntu calls Sizwe “Sizwe.” Sizwe acts offended, claiming Sky’s place has turned him into “Mr Bansi.” With joking good humor, Buntu apologizes and calls Sizwe Mr. Bansi.
In this scene, Sizwe and Buntu notice and talk about the audience. Once again, by “breaking the fourth wall,” the play emphasizes that its tale of injustice under apartheid exists in the same reality as anyone comfortably watching the play from theater seats. Sizwe’s desire to be “Mr Bansi” indicates his unhappiness with his present identity, perhaps subtly implying a desire to be someone else and thus suggesting why Sizwe later becomes “Robert.”
Buntu tells the audience that in Sky’s place, a Member of the Advisory Board asked Sizwe his thoughts on “Ciskeian Independence” because Sizwe’s from King William’s Town. Sizwe cuts in to call Ciskeian Independence “shit.” Then Buntu laughingly recalls another man who asked whether “Mister Bansi” was in Port Elizabeth on “official” business. Sizwe insists that he will remain in Port Elizabeth.
Ciskei was a “Bantustan,” an area within South Africa that the apartheid government reserved for indigenous Black Africans and to which it attempted to forcibly move some Black South Africans living elsewhere in the country. “Ciskeian Independence” likely refers to South Africa’s 1972 declaration that Ciskei was a separate, self-governing indigenous nation within South Africa. When Sizwe calls Ciskeian Independence “shit,” he may be suggesting that it is a ploy by the South African government to segregate the nation further and to keep Black South Africans from getting jobs in urban areas. Buntu thinks the question about whether Sizwe’s business is “official” is funny because Sizwe is in Port Elizabeth illegally—which is as unofficial as it gets. Sizwe’s insistence that he’ll stay in Port Elizabeth indicates that he means to defy the law.
Buntu checks his watch, suggests they go home, and asks Sizwe to lead. Sizwe asks whether Buntu is implying Sizwe can’t figure out the way. Buntu denies this. Sizwe heads off in the wrong direction. After Buntu corrects him, Sizwe manages to go the right way for a while but then gets turned around again. Buntu asks Sizwe to stop for a moment so he can urinate. Bantu exits but sprints back a moment later, telling Sizwe they need to leave. He explains that while he was urinating on what he thought was trash, he realized it was a bloody corpse that tsotsis must have murdered.
Though Sizwe believes he can navigate around Port Elizabeth, he can’t—at least not when he’s been drinking—which suggests that his dream of becoming an urban worker may still be far from reality. “Tsotsi” is a South African slang term for a gang member; the playwright Athol Fugard published a novel called Tsotsi in 1980. When Buntu and Sizwe suddenly encounter a corpse, the play suggests that economic deprivation has made the township dangerous.
Sizwe, hesitating, tells Buntu they should go to the police. Buntu says if Sizwe, “drunk, passbook not in order,” goes to the police, they’ll pin the murder on him. When Sizwe pleads with Buntu to at least bring the corpse home, Buntu says he doesn’t want to lug a corpse around at night and doesn’t know where the man lived. Sizwe points out that the man’s passbook will have his address. After pausing unwillingly, Buntu goes to fetch the passbook.
Buntu believes the police will assume Sizwe is a murderer simply because he is a Black man who has been drinking illegally and who doesn’t have the right documents. This belief suggests that another quasi-official identity or stereotype the white-supremacist state has imposed on Black South African men is “criminal.” It also suggests that documents like passbooks, far from showing who marginalized people like Sizwe really are, can lead to their being misunderstood and unfairly punished. Despite the threat from the police, Sizwe still wants to do something for the murdered man—revealing the nervous Sizwe’s compassion and courage.
While Buntu is gone, Sizwe notes that his passbook, like the dead man’s, “talks good English,” forbidding him to live where he wants or get a job to feed his family. As Bantu returns with the dead man’s passbook, Sizwe laments that when the authorities first required the passbooks, they suggested the passbooks would be helpful to people. Bantu reads aloud from the passbook, saying the dead man’s name is “Robert Zwelinzima,” a Xhosa man who’s currently unemployed but has a permit to look for work in the area.
Though the passbook is inert paper and Sizwe is a living man, Sizwe personifies the passbook as a speaker that can talk better and more powerfully than he, so powerfully that it can thwart Sizwe’s dreams of finding employment and supporting his family. Sizwe’s personification of the passbook emphasizes how the official identity it represents can damage and overwrite Black South Africans’ personal identities and senses of self. The dead man’s name is Robert Zwelinzima, the name Sizwe gave Styles earlier in the play—suggesting that Sizwe is going to take on the dead man’s identity. “Xhosa” is an indigenous African ethnic group common in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, where both Sizwe’s hometown and Port Elizabeth are located.
When Buntu sees that the dead man lived in “Single Men’s Quarters,” he refuses to go there at night. As Sizwe doesn’t understand what Single Men’s Quarters are, Buntu explains it’s a barracks-like living situation where it will be impossible to find the dead man’s room and where the other lodgers may beat them up. He tells Sizwe he’s going to return the passbook to the man’s body, and then they’re going home. Sizwe asks whether Buntu would leave Sizwe’s corpse in an alley covered in urine if tsotsis stabbed him to death. Buntu stops heading back toward the corpse. Sizwe claims that he no longer gives “a damn about anything” and wishes he were dead.
Sizwe’s question to Buntu about whether Buntu would treat his corpse in the same way he’d treat this stranger’s hints at Sizwe’s moral worldview. Sizwe seems to believe they have a duty to the dead man as a fellow human being even though he’s a stranger to them, so that it would be as horrible for them to ignore his corpse as it would be for Buntu to ignore his friend Sizwe’s corpse. This belief in turn suggests that the apartheid government’s repressive official identities, symbolized by the dead man’s passbook, is warping Buntu and Sizwe’s moral responses and senses of self by making them afraid to do anything about the corpse. It may be disgust at this oppressive, warping context that makes Sizwe claim he no longer gives “a damn” and wants to die.
Sizwe asks the audience who treats other people well or desires other people anymore. He asks whether there’s something wrong with him, since no one seems to want him. Fiercely removing his clothing, he declares he’s a man, smart and physically strong, who has fathered four children. Pointing at a male audience member, Sizwe asks the woman next to him how many children he has and whether he’s a man. Buntu walks to Sizwe, holding the dead man’s passbook, and asks to see Sizwe’s. Sizwe, giving Buntu his passbook, asks whether it says Sizwe’s a man. Turning to the audience, Sizwe laments how the passbook follows you everywhere, even to church and to the hospital when you’re dying.
Sizwe not only acknowledges the audience’s existence but challenges them to consider whether they’re any more deserving of respect or human dignity than he is. By directly addressing the audience, Sizwe forces them to think about how they have suffered or benefited from the racial and economic hierarchies that the play represents. When Sizwe asks Buntu whether his passbook says he’s a man, meanwhile, Sizwe seems to suggest that the apartheid-imposed official identities passbooks represent damage not only personal identities like “father” and “husband” but even very general categories of belonging like “man” or “human being.” In simple terms, Sizwe recognizes that apartheid’s passbook system dehumanizes him.
Buntu picks up Sizwe’s clothing and orders Sizwe to follow him. Back at Buntu’s house, Sizwe watches Buntu tear the photos from each passbook and glue them into the wrong passbook. Alarmed, Sizwe tells Buntu to stop, but Buntu says it’s Sizwe’s “only chance.” The police will find the corpse the next day without a passbook and never identify him; meanwhile, Sizwe can take on the corpse’s identity and get a job at Feltex, where Buntu has a connection. When Sizwe tells Buntu he doesn’t want to “lose [his] name,” Buntu retorts that, if so, he’d better start walking to King William’s Town now. When he’s back, he can “cough [his] bloody lungs out with Ciskeian Independence.”
Although previously Buntu has criticized and dismissed Sizwe’s dreams, in this passage he tampers with official identity documents to give Sizwe a “chance”—revealing that despite his pessimism, Buntu has desperately wanted to help Sizwe and resist apartheid all along. Sizwe is afraid of losing his “name,” which suggests that he fears his personal identity depends on his official identity, his passbook—without an official identity, he may lose who he is. Buntu responds by pointing out what keeping his official identity entails: rural living, unemployment, and possible forcible relocation to Ciskei. Interestingly, both Buntu and Sizwe seem to take it for granted that the white authorities won’t notice a different person is going by the name Robert Zwelinzima, which implies that white authorities are only tracking official documents and don’t really understand or care about Black South Africans’ reality.
Sizwe asks what will happen to his wife, Nowetu, and their children if he’s dead. Buntu says Nowetu can marry the new Robert Zwelinzima, who will finally be able to support the children. When Sizwe admits he’s scared to be “another man’s ghost,” Buntu says living under white control with a passbook in a place where white children can call him “boy” already makes him a ghost—so he might as well exploit his ghostliness.
Buntu says that living with a passbook in a country where every white person, including white children, can treat you with disrespect has made Sizwe a “ghost”—which implies that an oppressive official identity like “Black South African under apartheid,” represented by the passbook, can so damage people’s personal identity or sense of self that it figuratively kills them and turns them into ghosts. Given this awful situation, Buntu believes that Sizwe should take advantage of his damaged sense of self to become someone else, someone with more opportunities.
Buntu sees that he has partially persuaded Sizwe and acts out a scene in which a white man at Feltex is handing out pay packets to workers named John Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Fats Bokhilane. Finally, Buntu calls out Robert Zwelinzima, gives Sizwe an “imaginary pay-packet,” and urges him to open it. Then he mimes tearing it open himself and counts out the money.
John Kani and Winston Ntshona are the names of the actors who performed in the original production of Sizwe Bansi is Dead. Fats Bokhilane was another actor in the same troupe as Kani and Ntshona, the Serpent Players, who worked with playwright Athol Fugard. By including actors’ real names in its script, the play again makes the audience confront the fact that they inhabit the same reality as the economic and racial oppression the play represents. Meanwhile, Buntu tries to clinch his persuasion of Sizwe by acting out a pay-day, a tactic that emphasizes both the power of acting and the centrality of economic deprivation to Sizwe’s life and motivations.
Now Buntu pretends to be a salesman at Sales House and asks Sizwe’s name. Sizwe says his name is Robert Zwelinzima. Then Buntu asks for his address, workplace, income, and Native Identity number. When Sizwe can’t remember the Native Identity number, Buntu grabs the dead man’s passbook, reads the number aloud, and makes Sizwe repeat it aloud after him. Afterward, Buntu again pretends to be a salesman asking for a customer’s Native Identity number. Sizwe haltingly reproduces the dead man’s number. Buntu is pleased.
A Native Identity number is a unique number included in a passbook to distinguish a particular passbook holder from all other passbook holders. That Sizwe can simply memorize another man’s Native Identity number and thus assume his identity shows how official identities don’t track personal characteristics or essences and how official documents may actively misrepresent the reality of marginalized people.
Now Buntu pretends to be a preacher at a sermon Sizwe is attending wearing a new suit. Buntu gives a sermon while Sizwe interjects “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” After the sermon is over, Buntu approaches Sizwe and asks for his name, address, and Native Identity number so he can register for the church’s burial society. Sizwe again manages to reproduce Robert Zwelinzima’s name, address, and Native Identity number, albeit with difficulty.
Earlier in the play, Sizwe lamented that the official identity represented by his passbook followed him everywhere, even to church. Now he and Buntu are acting out Sizwe’s future impersonations of another man at church. On the one hand, this scene is liberating: it shows Sizwe breaking free of his passbook’s oppressive control of his behavior and limitation of his options. On the other hand, he hasn’t broken free of the system—a passbook still follows him to church—but merely subverted the system through identity theft. Thus it isn’t clear to what extent Sizwe’s new identity fulfills his dream of being free from his passbook and to what extent it constitutes another form of damage to his sense of self.
Finally, Buntu pretends to be a policeman and seizes Sizwe from behind. When Sizwe looks scared, Buntu tells him to affect a blank face. Then he questions Sizwe about his name and workplace and demands his passbook. Sizwe says he’s Robert Zwelinzima and works for Feltex, then he hands over the passbook. When Buntu has examined the passbook and handed it back, Sizwe agrees to become Robert Zwelinzima. Buntu says that Sizwe has to do this if he wants to live. When Sizwe says he’s dead, Buntu jokes that this means the real Robert Zwelinzima is alive.
Sizwe conceives of becoming Robert Zwelinzima as a death. Thus the play discourages the audience from interpreting Sizwe’s theft of Robert’s identity as a straightforward victory: Sizwe gains options and economic agency from taking Robert’s passbook, but he also loses some pride or sense of self. Thus the play suggests that the apartheid system needs to be overthrown, not merely tricked or subverted, in order for Black South Africans to have truly good options.
Getting serious again, Buntu says that if he had the chance to achieve his heart’s desire and help his wife and children, he’d give up his name. Sizwe asks whether he means it. Buntu says he might keep his name if he didn’t have anyone else to support, but not if he had a wife and four children who needed him: “no, Sizwe,” says Buntu. When Sizwe tells Buntu to call him Robert, Buntu says: “All right, Robert, John, Athol, Winston . . . Shit on names, man!” He says names mean less than food or shelter or fulfilling one’s manly obligations. Moreover, he doesn’t think they can have pride in their original names if that means accepting white racism and degradation.
Yet again, the script mentions the names of the original productions’ actors, “John” and “Winston”; this time, it also mentions the playwright, “Athol.” By suggesting that John, Winston, and Athol exist in the same reality as Robert, Sizwe, and Buntu, the play argues that the political situation it represents is essentially true, even if it represents that situation using fictional characters. By claiming that individual names matter less than preserving one’s life and supporting one’s family, meanwhile, Buntu argues that individual identity matters less than survival, familial obligations, and the rejection of white supremacy.
Buntu tells Sizwe that the original Robert Zwelinzima’s soul is wishing them success. Sizwe asks how long the charade can last. Buntu says it can last as long as the police don’t fingerprint him. Sizwe says he’ll be caught eventually: “A black man stay out of trouble? Impossible, Buntu. Our skin is trouble.” When Buntu points out that Sizwe desired this, Sizwe agrees he does. Buntu, exhausted, wishes Sizwe luck and leaves.
On the one hand, Buntu and Sizwe seem sure that no white authority will notice Sizwe isn’t Robert; this certainty suggests that the white authorities don’t care about Black individuality and rely on faulty official documentation to represent Black reality to them. On the other hand, when Sizwe says “our skin is trouble,” he seems to predict that the police will eventually realize who he is, not because they’ll notice he isn’t Robert, but just because they’ll eventually arrest him for something and fingerprint him. This prediction suggests that the white apartheid state foists an official or stereotypical identity of “criminal” on Black South African men that they cannot escape even by taking on a different individual identity. Thus the play suggests that Sizwe’s aspiration to gain employment and support his family may turn out to be a pipe dream, even now that he temporarily has an identity with permission to work in Port Elizabeth.
Sizwe examines his new passbook and pockets it. Then he finds the walking stick, newspaper, and pipe elsewhere and resumes narrating the letter to Nowetu. He tells her he’ll come home for Christmas, that he’ll bring the family to Port Elizabeth to visit if he can get a Lodger’s Permit, and that he’ll be sending her money every week if things work out. He finishes the letter. Then he resumes posing as he did for Styles’s “movie.” Back in Styles’s studio, Styles looks at Sizwe through his camera, asks for one more photo, and tells Sizwe to smile. The camera flashes.
By ending with a photo, symbol of dreams and aspirations, the play suggests that Sizwe’s dreams have at least temporarily come true. Yet by never representing Sizwe’s reunion with his family, the play leaves ambiguous whether identity theft will get Sizwe all he wants—namely, the ability to support and live with his family—or whether apartheid’s racial oppression will catch and crush him before that happens.