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Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

Statements: 3 Plays

identity oppressed town life

a play by Athol Fugard, performed in 1972, published in Statements: 3 Plays (1974). Styles, a photographer in the South African town of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, sees the studio of which he is the proprietor as a ‘strong room of dreamers’, and his vocation as the immortalization of the simple people who are never mentioned in the history books and who ‘never get statues erected to them’. One such simple dreamer, who identifies himself as a Xhosa named Robert Zwelinzima (the surname means ‘suffering land’), wanders into his studio; persuaded by Styles to commission more than the one photograph he originally required, he dictates a letter to the wife he has left behind, in which the secret of his identity is revealed. Sizwe Bansi, as he was originally called, came to the town in search of work but, because he did not have the necessary papers, was ordered to leave. During a night of drunken revelling with a friend, he came across the corpse of the man whose identity he has now assumed. Through the night-long crisis of consciousness he has undergone, Bansi—or Zwelinzima—becomes aware of the plight of the urban worker and the internal migrant in a South Africa oppressed by the laws of apartheid. Names are interchangeable, jobs almost impossible to find, and life cheap. Bansi's loss of name and identity serves as a metaphor for the slow erosion of a way of life, and the story of his success is a story of compromise, pain, and loss of self; the only path available to the oppressed and deprived is that of subterfuge and trickery.

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