The three main characters in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, all Black men living in apartheid South Africa, each have two identities: the official identity that South Africa’s white-supremacist state imposes on them, and the personal identity they derive from their sense of self. The play illustrates how racist official identities encroach on and damage Black South Africans’ personal identities. One character, Styles, worked in an automobile factory for six years; his supervisor Bradley, a white South African, used racial slurs to refer to Black people and called them “monkeys.” Eventually, Styles internalized the image of himself as a “circus monkey” and started referring derisively to himself in that way. It was only when he quit working in the factory and became a self-employed photographer that he considered himself a “man.” Another main character, Sizwe Bansi, considers himself first and foremost a husband and father—meaningful personal identities. Yet because apartheid South Africa has imposed on him an official identity as a Black resident of King William’s Town—an oppressive, racist official identity that his passbook enforces—he is not legally allowed to move in search of work to support his family. It is only when Sizwe switches passbooks with a dead man, symbolically “killing” his official identity, that he has a chance of supporting his family and thus protecting his personal sense of self. Finally, Sizwe’s acquaintance Buntu is likewise a husband and father—yet due to Buntu and his wife’s difficult work and financial situations, which their (implicitly white) employers and apartheid law impose on them, they rarely see each other or their child. Thus, the play suggests that the official identities apartheid imposed on Black South African people robbed them of a sense of self and, in so doing, alienated them from the personal identities that gave meaning and purpose to their lives.
Official Identity vs. Personal Identity ThemeTracker
Official Identity vs. Personal Identity Quotes in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead
STYLES: That was my moment, man. Kneeling there on the floor . . . foreman, general foreman, plant supervisor, plant manager . . . and Styles? Standing!
STYLES: ‘Gentlemen, he says that when the door opens and his grandmother walks in you must see to it that you are wearing a mask of smiles. Hide your true feelings, brothers. You must sing. The joyous songs of the days of old before we had fools like this one next to me to worry about.’ [To Bradley.] ‘Yes, sir!’
STYLES: I took a good look at my life. What did I see? A bloody circus monkey! Selling most of his time on earth to another man. Out of every twenty-four hours I could only properly call mine the six when I was sleeping. What the hell is the use of that?
STYLES: This is a strong-room of dreams. The dreamers? My people. The simple people, who you never find mentioned in the history books, who never get statutes erected to them, or monuments commemorating their great deeds. People who would be forgotten, and their dreams with them, if it wasn’t for Styles. That’s what I do, friends. Put down, in my way, on paper the dreams and hopes of my people so that even their children’s children will remember a man . . .
STYLES: You must understand one thing. We own nothing except ourselves. This world and its laws, allows us nothing, except ourselves. There is nothing we can leave behind when we die, except the memory of ourselves.
STYLES: Here he is. My father. That’s him. Fought in the war. Second World War. Fought at Tobruk. In Egypt. He fought in France so that this country and all the others could stay Free. When he came back they stripped him at the docks—his gun, his uniform, the dignity they’d allowed him for a few mad years because the world needed men to fight and be ready to sacrifice themselves for something called Freedom […] When he died, in a rotten old suitcase amongst some of his old rags, I found that photograph. That’s all. That’s all I have from him.
STYLES: Always helping people. If that man was white they’d call him a liberal.
MAN: I don’t want to leave Port Elizabeth.
BUNTU: Maybe. But if that book says go, you go.
MAN: Can’t I maybe burn this book and get a new one?
BUNTU: Burn that book? Stop kidding yourself, Sizwe! Anyway, suppose you do. You must immediately go apply for a new one. Right? And until that new one comes, be careful the police don’t stop you and ask for your book. Into the Courtroom, brother. Charge: Failing to produce Reference Book on demand. Five rand or five days.
BUNTU: I’m also married. One child.
MAN: Only one?
BUNTU: Ja, my wife attends this Birth Control Clinic rubbish. The child is staying with my mother.
[Our man is amiably drunk. He addresses the audience.]
MAN: Do you know who I am, friend? Take my hand, friend. Take my hand. I am Mister Bansi, friend. Do you know where I come from? I come from Sky’s place, friend. A most wonderful place. I met everybody there, good people. I’ve been drinking, my friends—brandy, wine, beer . . . Don’t you want to go in there, good people? Let’s all go to Sky’s place.
MAN: It will tell you in good English where he stays. My passbook talks good English too . . . big words that Sizwe can’t read and doesn’t understand. Sizwe wants to stay here in New Brighton and find a job; passbook says, ‘No! Report back.’
Sizwe wants to feed his wife and children; passbook says, ‘No.’
MAN: [Turning away from Buntu to the audience.]
What’s happening in this world, good people? Who cares for who in this world? Who wants who?
Who wants me, friend? What’s wrong with me? I’m a man. I’ve got eyes to see. I’ve got ears to listen when people talk. I’ve got a head to think good things. What’s wrong with me?
[Starts to tear off his clothes.]
Look at me! I’m a man. I’ve got legs. I can run with a wheelbarrow full of cement! I’m strong! I’m a man. Look! I’ve got a wife. I’ve got four children. How many has he made, lady? [The man sitting next to her.] Is he a man? What has he got that I haven’t . . . .?
MAN: [handing it over]. Take it, Buntu. Take this book and read it carefully, friend, and tell me what it says about me. Buntu, does that book tell you I’m a man?
[Buntu studies the two books. Sizwe turns back to the audience.]
That bloody book . . . ! People, do you know? No! Wherever you go . . . it’s that bloody book. You go to school, it goes too. Go to work, it goes too. Go to church and pray and sing lovely hymns, it sits there with you. Go to hospital to die, it lies there too!
BUNTU: It’s your only chance!
MAN: No, Buntu! What’s it mean? That me, Sizwe Bansi . . .
BUNTU: Is dead.
MAN: I’m not dead, friend.
BUNTU: We burn this book . . . [Sizwe’s original] . . . and Sizwe Bansi disappears off the face of the earth.
BUNTU: When the white man sees you walk down the street and calls out, ‘Hey, John! Come here’ . . . to you, Sizwe Bansi . . . isn’t that a ghost? Or when his little child calls you ‘Boy’ . . . you a man, circumcised, with a wife and four children . . . isn’t that a ghost? Stop fooling yourself. All I’m saying is be a real ghost, if that is what they want, what they’ve turned us into.
BUNTU [angry]. All right! Robert, John, Athol, Winston . . . Shit on names, man! To hell with them if in exchange you can get a piece of bread for your stomach and a blanket in winter.