Summary and Themes in Athol Fugard Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

Summary and Themes in Athol Fugard Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

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Bio-Data of Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard was born on June 11, 1932, in Middleburgh, a small village in the Karroo district in South Africa. When he was three years old, the parents moved him to Port Elizabeth, an industrial city on the Indian Ocean coast where Fugard was to spend and on, most of his life, and where he was to set most of his plays. Fugard began his higher education studying motor mechanics at the technical college, but he transferred to Cape Town University to study philosophy and social anthropology.

After three years, he quit school, deciding instead to hitchhike up the African continent. He became a merchant seaman in North Africa and spent two years sailing around the Far East. In 1956, she returned to Port Elizabeth and found a job writing news bulletins for the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation. In the same year, 1956, he married Sheila Meiring, an actress. Together they started an experimental theatre group for which Fugard wrote plays.

In 1958, the couple went to Johannesburg, where Fugard secured a clerical position in the native commissioner’s court. It was while in Johannesburg that he made his first black friends and became fully aware of the extent of the racial problems of his country. Fugard drew on his experience in the slums of Johannesburg to write the following plays:

The Blood Knot (1961), A Lesson From Aloes (1978), Master Harold (1982), The Road to Mecca (1984), My Children My Africa (1989)SieweBansi is Dead (1974), Hello and Goodbye (1969) Boesman and Lena (1969), A place with the Pigs (1987).

  Summary and Themes in Athol Fugard Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

Summary  of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

Sizwe Bansi is Dead is a play that depicts the ugly treatment of black south Africa who suffers discrimination, oppression, subjugation, exploitation, and humiliation under the apartheid, a system that was legalized in the country from 1948 to 1994. During the apartheid system, South Africans were classified by race white, black, Indian, or “colored,” meaning mixed race. Residential areas were segregated such as schools and hospitals. In the same vein, the author states that interracial marriage prohibited interaction between racial groups, and this make the system difficult through a series of regulations that governed most aspects of their daily life. Even cultural events, such as plays, were not immune because of the effects of apartheid.

The play opens in the photography studio of a man named Styles. The studio is located in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The story revolves principally around two men, Styles, and Sizwe who in their discussion talks about their experiences in the hands of the obnoxious system that is apartheid and how they are able to surmount its hardships, maltreatment humiliation, exploitation, and disillusionment. Styles, a photographer reveals his new status as a man who can afford the luxury of a newspaper which a few years back he did not dream of.

In a rather entertaining dramatic monologue, the effect of apartheid is captured vividly in the narration of events and his years as a labourer, with particular reference to Henry Ford’s visit. He recounts the deceit and hypocrisy of the white bosses, all to the detriment of the blacks, and the pain and torture the blacks go through in order to live and survive. Yet, they are forced to wear a false smile, in order to hide their sorrow. For instance, Style says, ” hide your true feelings bothers, the joyous songs of the days of old before we had fools like this one next to me to move about”(xxiv).

The above portrays a clear picture of the level of humiliation black South Africa pass through.  Moreover, as soon as Sizwe walks into Styles’ studio to take a photograph meant for his family back home in King Williams Town to notify them of his new employment status, a new tempo in the development of the play was ignited.  Since he comes from King Williams Town to Port Elizabeth, to look for employment, he did not have such a valid record card on one of such raids. He says:

I was in big trouble. I was staying with Zola. But one night as I was sleeping on the floor, I heard some noises and when I looked up I saw torches shining in through the window. Then there was a loud knocking on the door. When I got up Zola was there in the dark. He was trying to whisper something. I think he was saying I must hide, so I crawled under the table. The headman came in and looked around and found me hiding under the table and he dragged me out. I was just wearing my pants. My shirt was lying on the other side. I just managed to grab it as they were pushing me out. I finished dressing in the van. They drove straight to the administration office (23).

The forgoing shows the level of discrimination, exploitation, disillusionment, and dehumanization the blacks pass through at the hands of the whites. In the same vein, the consequence of that offense was his immediate endorsement back to King Williams Town, for the purpose of further repatriation to his home district. However, the grim portrait of Apartheid in South Africa is painted right from the opening of the play, with Styles’ narration of Mr. Ford’s visit and the horrifying experiences of the blacks in the hypocritical hands of their white bosses.  Style says:

It was a Thursday morning. I walked into the plant. Everything was quiet! Those big bloody machines that used to make so much noise made my head go around. Silent! Went to the notice board and read: Mr. Ford’s visit today. General Forman Mr. ‘Baas’ Bradley. Called us all together ‘Listen, boys, don’t go to work on the line. There is going to be General Cleansing first (4).

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All work is surprisingly suspended for the purpose of yet another surprise of a tasking sanitation exercise that perhaps, never took place in all his six years of service in the factory only to impress the august visitor…as if that was not enough, he was further instructed. Tell all the boys that they must now go to the bathroom and wash clean (6).

Styles yet inform us thus: When we finished washing, they gave us towels, three hundred of us, men. We were so clean and we also felt shy.  From there, they took us to the general store. In the next door, there are brand new tool bags, a set of spanners, a shifting spanner, torque wrench – all of their brand new – and because I worked in the dangerous test section I was also given a new asbestos apron and fire-proof gloves to replace the one I had lost about a year ago.  I walked back heavy to my spot as an Armstrong on the moon (6).

Styles is further instructed to tell the ‘boys’ to look happy as soon as Mr. Ford arrives and to slow the pace of work further in order to allow them to sing and smile in the process. He delivers it more contemptuously:

Gentlemen he says 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 (7).

In another instance Style says, Gentlemen, we must remember that, when Mr. Ford walks in, we are South African monkeys, not American monkeys. South African monkeys are better trained (7). The author presents the pain, torture, humiliation, and oppression which that black men go through in order to survive. The blacks’ horrifying experiences and the hypocrisy of the whites are, therefore, brought to an ironical climax in the vehemence with which the black workers were ordered back to their duty posts by their white bosses, immediately after the visitor departed, to make up for production loss of their sham display. Styles inform us that: It ended up with us working harder that bloody day than ever before (9).

Ironical, the author shows the level of economic exploitation in Apartheid is the fact that the search for the employment opportunity for the Blackman can only fetch him menial and dangerous jobs which, besides being his exclusive reserve, attract only meager wages which he had little or no option if he must exist. The Blackman’s economic dilemma is therefore further captured in Sizwe’s apprehension and frustration when Buntu recommended the mines job to him. He responded in apparent dismay: I don’t want to work in the mines. There is no money there. And it is dangerous, under the ground. Many black men get killed when the rocks fall. You can die there (26).

The 48 years old man’s experience also speaks volumes of the oppression and economic exploitation of black in South Africa. He could only get promoted in his working place strictly on the basis of the presentation of an ‘education’ certificate, despite his old age and long years of service. Yet, the system is such that would have completely deprived him of the opportunity of going to school as a child or in his youth, either because he did not have the opportunity or his parents were not disposed of.

What else could have explained such a senseless and inconsiderate condition and calculated attempt to deprive the old man of his right if not for sheer oppression and mindless exploitation? He barely overcomes the confusion that assailed him in that process when Styles prods him with further questions and suggestions that provoke him amid a freezing jaunty poise, to relive before the audience, all the horrible experiences that “killed’ him, as he captures them in his letter to his wife.

The author, therefore, narrates this traumatic experience that the blacks pass through. Furgard critically exposes the ugly brutality that Buntu is introduced; to Sizwe as he narrates his horrible police raid experience and the consequent reality of his endorsement that makes him vacate Port Elizabeth where he has come to seek greener pastures within three days, back to King Williams Town, from where he came, without the hope of any job. He does not have any right to stay in Port Elizabeth, yet he is reluctant and apprehensive to leave. However, Buntu takes great pain to analyze to him the reality of the ugly situation of apartheid he invites him on a drinking spree, to relieve him of the tension and anxieties of his experience.

As they return from this outing, they encounter a corpse that turns out to be that of Robert Zwelinzima. Buntu then asks him to change his identity to Robert Zwelinzima this ensues the whole trauma of argument and persuasion, and ‘indoctrination’ to grab a new chance of survival, in transposing his passport with that of the dead man; so that he dies as Sizwe Bansi, to live as Robert Zwelinzima, from where the play derives its title, Sizwe Bansi is Dead.

 Themes in Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead

The theme of Identity

The primary theme of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead is identity. The quest for or changing of identity deeply affects each of the major characters. For Styles, identity means several things. First, Styles is able to forge a new identity as a photographer; previously, he had worked on the line at the Ford Motor Company, which was not a satisfying identity for him. Secondly, through his work, Styles is able to record the identity of his patrons. By taking photographs of common people, they are not lost to history, and their descendants will remember them.

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In addition, Sizwe Bansi’s identity issues are more problematic. His passbook, essentially his identity has disappointed him. He does not have the proper documentation to stay in Port Elizabeth and look for a job to support his family. The stamp in his passbook says that he must report to a bureau in his home of King William’s Town within three days. Sizwe stays with Buntu, a friend of a friend. After a night of drinking, they come across a dead man and take his identity book. It is Buntu’s idea that Sizwe Bansi takes on the identity of the dead man, who has the proper documentation to work. This potential change of identity troubles Sizwe Bansi: his children have his name; he is unsure what would happen to his wife and children. He get into serious trouble with the authorities if the switch is discovered. Yet to ensure his family’s survival, Sizwe Bansi reluctantly becomes Robert Zwelinzima.

Racial discrimination

Racial discrimination is treating a person or particular group of people differently, especially in a worse way than the way in which you treat other people, because of their skin colour. The Group Areas Act, Act No 41 of 1950 was intended for the compulsory residential separation to prevent the black population from entering white affluent areas. It is a form of oppression. Racial laws prohibited interracial marriages between black and white people which was meant to segregate black and white races. Racial segregation, as seen in South Africa under Apartheid leads to frustration and anger which “ultimately destroys the self-worth” (Fisher, 2014) of a person.

Courage that Styles, Sizwe, and Buntu, rather than living under a false identity to make their existence more bearable, still think that they should fight against oppression and strive to overthrow the foreign rule. In the play Sizwe Bansi is Dead, the “Group areas act” as a form of racial discrimination, restricting Sizwe to King William’s town only where they are no job opportunities. His passbook identification did not permit him to work freely in Port Elizabeth. Black people were only allowed to stay in a town designated for white people on condition that they provide labour for the white race. Buntu tells Sizwe about the effects of the oppressive passbook laws, “Who is going to lend money to somebody endorsed to hell and gone out in the bush” (p. 173).

Black people were discriminated against for land, political freedom, education, and labour inequality. Under the labour inequality laws, specific job reservations of occupations were made for ethnic groups with whites getting the best jobs. This law protected poor whites as a way of racial discrimination. In the play Sizwe Bansi is Dead, Sizwe had the option to go and work at the mines where a job seekers permit was not required, but he feels that “I don’t want to work on the mines. There is no money there. And it’s dangerous, under the ground. Many black men get killed when the rocks fall. You can die there.” (p.174).

In another event, Outa Jacob worked on farms from this district down to the coast and north as far as Pretoria. I knew him. He was a friend. Many people knew Outa Jacob. For a long time, he worked for Baas van der Walt. But when the old man died his young son Hendrik said: ‘I don’t like you. Go!’ Outa Jacob picked up his load and put it on his shoulders. His wife followed. He went to the next farm . . . through the fence, up to the house … : ‘Work, please, Baas.’ Baas Potgieter took him. He stayed a long time there too until one day there was trouble between the Madam and his wife. Jacob and his wife were walking again. (p. 175)

The Pass Laws Act of 1952 required black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry a passbook (Landis, 1957). The passbook experience was meant to eliminate black people from all economic opportunities because most could not read. Sizwe is troubled about his misunderstanding of the message in the passbook he carried every day. Sizwe shows this when he speaks to Buntu: “…My passbook talks good English too….big words that Sizwe can’t read and doesn’t understand” (p. 180).

The theme of Family

The importance of family is another theme in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead. For instance, Styles believes that the photographs he takes will link families through generations; moreover, they allow descendants to see what their ancestors looked like. He says that his best business comes from family groups because their sheer numbers guarantee lots of copies sold.

 Characterization in Fugard’sSizwe Bansi Is Dead

Sizwe Bansi

He is the protagonist of the play, he is also known as Robert Zwelinzima and The Man. He is a young African man with a wife and four children the author portrays how he is disillusioned, oppressed, humiliated, and discriminated against when he comes to Port Elizabeth from his home in King William’s Town to look for work and to better his life but he is disillusioned because of skin clour.

In the same vein, he is refused an official permit and is told to leave the town in three days. In the letter, Sizwe tells his wife that SizweBansi is dead. He writes that when he arrived in Port Elizabeth from their home in King William’s Town, he stayed with a friend named Zola who tried to help him find a job.

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His employment search was unsuccessful as a result; he is told by the authorities that he must leave in three days. He then went to stay with his Sizwe friend Zola. When he finds the body and identification papers of the dead man, he, therefore, assumes the man’s identity in order to stay in Port Elizabeth and to enable him to find a better job to cater for his family. It is not an easy decision as he worries about the loss of his identity and what it means. When he goes into Style’s studio to get his picture taken and announces his name is Robert Zwelinzima, it reflects his acceptance of his new identity.


Buntu is another major character in the play. He is the friend who convinces Sizwe to assume the dead man’s identity. He goes into an alley when Sizwe is noticed to live in three days. He takes him out to relieve the ugly experience they pass through, there he finds a dead man. Sizwe wants to report the body to the police, Buntu nixes the idea, but he retrieves the dead man’s identity book to find his address. Buntu finds that the man, named is Robert Zwelinzima, with a work-seekers permit.

According to the author, the very thing that Sizwe needs is to stay in Port Elizabeth. After the drink, they take the book to Buntu’s house; Buntu then switches the photographs in the books. He proposes that they burn Sizwe’s book, effectively making him dead, and tp have Sizwe adopt the dead man’s identity so he can stay in Port Elizabeth. Sizwe is unsure about the plan; in particular, he worries about his wife and children. Buntu contends that they can remarry. After much discussion, Sizwe agrees to the switch.

Buntu takes great pain to analyze to Sizwe the reality of the ugly situation of apartheid and how their fellow blacks are humiliated, oppressed, discriminated and subjugated without pity. He also invites him on a drinking spree, to relieve him of the tension and anxieties of his experience. He is a good man and a generous friend. He lets Sizwe sleep on his couch; takes him out for drinking and helps him find a way to stay in Port Elizabeth town. After Sizwe assumes the dead man’s identity, Buntu helps Sizwe find a decent job.


A style is the owner of a photography studio in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He is courageous enough to quit a steady job and start his own business, which was difficult for a black man at that time. He enjoys his work because it gives people a personal history and record of their lives. Styles take pictures of all kinds of people from families to individuals.

Styles in Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead

The first person’s Point of View

This point of view tells a story in the first person, using a first-person pronoun, such as “Iwe”. The narrator is the one who experienced or witnessed the events he or she narrates. Through this point of view, Fugard creates intimacy between the readers and the characters in the novel.


In Sizwe’s letter to his wife, he says:

“After a week with Zola, “I” was in trouble. The headman came around and after a lot of happenings which I will tell you. I see you; they put a stamp in my passbook which said I must leave Port Elizabeth at once in three days’ time. I was very much unhappy, Nowetu”(22).

Foregoing, it is Sizwe who experienced racial discrimination and oppression during his trip to Port Elizabeth.

Simile: This is a figure of speech that allows the comparison of two that are unrelated with the use of “like” or “as”.There is a profuse use of similes in this novel. The following examples are:

Gentlemen, Style 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 (7).


This is the direct comparison of two objects without the use of as and like.


Gentlemen, Style says, we must remember, when Mr. Ford walks in, that “We are South Africa Monkeys”(7).

Styles, you are a bloody monkey (9).


This is the transfer of human qualities or attributes to inanimate objects.

A voice came out of the crowd” (7). He is a bigger fool than Bradley, says Style.

Expository Narrative Method

The use letter narrative method is perceptible in the framework of the novel. For instance, when Sizwe left for Port Elizabeth, he writes to his wife:

Dear Nowetu,

I have got wonderful news for you in this letter. My troubles are over, I think. You won’t believe it, but I must tell you. Sizwe Bansi, in a manner of speaking, is dead! I will tell you! You what I can. As you know, when I left the railway compound! Went to stay with a friend of mine called Zola. A very good friend, Nowetu. In fact, he was even trying to help me find –the same job. But that’s not easy, Nowetu, because Port Elizabeth is a big place, a very big place with a lot of factories but also a lot of people looking for a job like me. They are so many men, Nowetu who have left their places because they are dry and have come here to find work (22).


It is a statement of fact in the negative to express a concept or idea. It is usually expressed with negative adverbs like “not’’ “no”


Buntu: “a fool who is not taking his chance”(37)

Mr. Harrison

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