Review: Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

The South African play about a passbook swap explores freedom, identity and what it means to be a man.

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Young Vic Theater

Friends, I bring you great news. Contrary to what you might have assumed from the title of the play, Sizwe Banzi is in fact not dead after all, but very much alive and well in London. In extremely fine fettle, even. Not bad for a man reputed to have been dead for some 42 years, since this momentous, life-affirming play was first performed in Cape Town in 1972!

Let me explain. A production of the provocatively entitled Sizwe Banzi Is Dead by the white South African playwright Athol Fugard—about the eponymous Sizwe Banzi and his struggle to obtain a valid work permit during the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa—is currently being staged at the Young Vic theater in London, expertly directed by Matthew Xia.

Here, both play and production are tours de force. Spellbindingly poetic, intensely comical and deeply tragic in turns, Athol Fugard’s masterpiece, like all truly great art, seamlessly unites the specific and the universal. It is a play of colossal humanity, which on so many levels magisterially probes the darker recesses of the human condition, in all its majesty and meaninglessness.

In a thought-provoking device designed to re-create the dehumanizing strictures of apartheid-era South Africa, on entry to the theater the audience is directed by signs in Afrikaans and English (rigorously enforced by a policeman) to divide into white and nonwhite. Thus, duly segregated, they sit apart for the duration of the performance.

Set in 1972 in New Brighton, a township of Port Elizabeth, the play centers on Styles, who has opened his own photographic studio in an African township. Sizwe Bansi, a migrant laborer pretending to be one Robert Zwelinzima, comes to him for a photograph to send back to his wife, whom he has left behind in the Ciskei while he illegally looks for work in Port Elizabeth. We the audience then see the back story.

After a night on the town with his friend Buntu, Sizwe Banzi, whose passbook gives him only three days to find work before being deported, stumbles upon a corpse with a passbook that identifies the dead man as one Robert Zwelinzima, and that also contains a valid work seeker’s permit. Buntu suggests that Sizwe and Robert swap passbooks, thus “killing off” Sizwe Banzi and giving him a new identity. This will enable him to get a job at the local factory and in so doing, provide food for his wife and family. After an initial reluctance, in which he clings to his name and identity, Sizwe duly agrees to “become” Robert, passionately stating, “S--t on names—if in exchange you can get a bit of bread.”

Tonderai Munyevu as Styles-Buntu, played with great comedic verve and scintillating ebullience, is simply breathtaking. Sibusiso Mamba as Sizwe Banzi is the perfect thespian foil—humane, emotional and flawed, but intensely likeable.

The remarkable power, beauty and artistry of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead is that it is not just about photography, passbooks, work permits and apartheid-era injustices. It is about something far deeper. Man’s inhumanity to man is but a potent backdrop for profound existential questions about what it means to truly be a man and about what it means to truly live. It deals with the struggle for freedom and the assertion of human dignity in the face of oppression, but it is also a metaphysical inquiry into the nature of human identity. Does Sizwe Banzi’s identity card really define who he is? With a self-esteem brutalized by apartheid indignities, can he sacrifice his name and what it represents in order to assume another man’s identity, and in so doing defy the system? In a humanistic clarion call espousing the brotherhood of man, Sizwe trenchantly asks, “What’s happening in this world, good people? Who cares for who in this world?”

The profession of township photographer, as embodied and articulated by Styles, becomes a tool of existential affirmation, where the dreams and hopes of the poor, the oppressed, of those who are not the great men and women of history and who are effectively destined for oblivion, are thereby recorded for posterity in black and white. In a scene of great pathos, Styles speaks of the importance of documenting our existence as human beings before we finish our terrestrial sojourn, and of recording and validating, to quote Gray’s Elegy, “the short and simple annals of the poor.”

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