Sizwe Bansi Is Dead
ATHOL FUGARD 1972
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was written in collaboration with two African actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, both of whom appeared in the original production. It made its debut on October 8, 1972, in Cape Town, South Africa. The play made its British debut a year or so later and won The London Theatre Critics award for the best play of 1974.
The genesis of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead can be traced to Fugard’s experiences as a law clerk at the Native Commissioner’s Court in Johannesburg. At that time it was required that every black and colored citizen over the age of sixteen carried an identity book that restricted employment and travel within in the country. In court, Fugard saw the repercussions of this law: blacks were sent to jail at an alarming rate. Although these restrictions are specifically South African, critics have noted that the play’s greater theme of identity is universal. Critics and scholars have also observed that Sizwe Bansi Is Dead contains elements of absurdism, especially its sparse setting and surreal subject matter.
Fugard was born in Middleburg, Cape Province, South Africa, on June 11, 1932. When Fugard was three years old his family moved to the diverse city Page 221 | Top of Articleof Port Elizabeth. Growing up, Fugard was keenly aware of the racial divisions in the city and their economic and social consequences. Fugard attended the University of Cape Town on a scholarship, where he studied philosophy and social anthropology. In the middle of his senior year, he dropped out of college and became a sailor. Fugard was the only white crew member on the ship for two years, an experience that eliminated his racial prejudice.
When he returned to South Africa in 1956, he met and married Sheila Meiring, an actress. Fugard wanted to be a novelist—indeed he finished a manuscript—but watching his wife audition for plays, Fugard became interested in the theater too. They formed the Circle Players in Johannesburg.
In 1958 he took a job as a clerk with a local court to support his family. There, Fugard saw racial injustice firsthand. He also became friends with black people and saw their living conditions. This experience inspired his first play, No-Good Friday, which was performed privately for white audiences. In 1959 he and his wife went to London to gain more theatrical experience. Within a year, they returned to South Africa and he wrote the first of his so-called “Port Elizabeth plays,” The Blood Knot.
In 1962 five Xhosa tribesmen approached Fugard wanting to start a theater company. After some initial reluctance, Fugard formed the Serpent Company, which became the first successful nonwhite theater company in South Africa. On account of this success, several members of the company were arrested. In 1967 Fugard’s passport was withdrawn by the South African government (it was returned in 1971), yet he continued to write plays exploring the implications of apartheid in South Africa.
During this time period, Fugard wrote his most successful play, Boesman and Lena(1960). Performed both Off-Broadway and in London, the play garnered international praise. In the early 1970s Fugard experimented with developing scripts in improvisational theater format. The best-known result was Siswe Bansi is Dead(1972).
In the early 1980s Fugard became associated with the Yale School of Drama, which hosted the first production of Master Harold and the Boys. Widely acclaimed, this play was representative of Fugard’s autobiographical period, which continued into the 1990s. In 1999, Fugard wrote The Captain’s Tiger, which explores some of his early writing experiences. Today, he splits his time between the United States and South Africa.
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead opens in the photography studio of a man named Styles. The studio is located in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. After reading a newspaper article on an automobile plant, Styles tells a humorous story to the audience about an incident that occurred when he worked at Ford Motor Company.
Styles continues to read the paper and talks about his photography studio. His musings are interrupted when a customer, Sizwe Bansi, arrives. Sizwe asks to have his picture taken, but when Styles asks him for his deposit and name, Sizwe hesitates. Sizwe says his name is Robert Zwelinzima. Styles asks Sizwe what he will do with the photo, and Sizwe tells him he will send it to his wife. When the picture is taken, the moment is frozen into what the photograph will look like. It comes to life and Sizwe dictates the letter to his wife that will accompany the photo.
In the letter, Sizwe tells his wife that Sizwe Bansi 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 Sizwe find a job. His employment search was unsuccessful; as a result, he was told by the authorities that he must leave in three days. Sizwe went to stay with Zola’s friend, Buntu.
Sizwe Bansi is Dead returns to present time. Staying at Buntu’s house, Sizwe tells Buntu about his problems—unless a miracle happens, he will have to leave town in three days. Buntu is sympathetic to the problem and suggests he work in the mines in King William’s Town. Sizwe rejects the idea as too dangerous. Buntu decides to take Sizwe out for a treat at Sky’s place, a local bar.
The focus switches back to Sizwe as he continues to compose the letter to his wife. He describes his experiences at Sky’s Shebeen, where he was served alcohol by a woman in a respectful manner.
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead shifts to the outside of Sky’s after Sizwe and Buntu have been drinking. Buntu decides that he needs to get home to go to work tomorrow. He goes into an alley to relieve himself and finds a dead man there. 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 Robert Zwelinzima, has a work-seeker’s permit—the very thing that Sizwe needs to stay in town. They take the
book. At Buntu’s house, Buntu switches the photographs in the books. He proposes that they burn Sizwe’s book—effectively making him dead—and 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.
Sizwe finishes dictating the letter to his wife. In it, he tells her that Buntu is helping him get a lodger’s permit. The scene shifts back to Styles’ photography studio; Sizwe is getting his picture taken.
The protagonist of the play, Sizwe (also known as Robert Zwelinzima and The Man) is a young African man with a wife and four children. He has come to Port Elizabeth from his home in King William’s Town to look for work and a better life. Unfortunately, he is refused an official permit and is told to leave town in three days.
When he finds the body—and identification papers—of the dead man, Sizwe assumes the man’s identity in order to stay in Port Elizabeth. It is not an easy decision for him: he worries about the loss of his identity and what it means. When he goes into Styles’s studio to get his picture taken and announces his name is Robert Zwelinzima, it reflects his acceptance of his new identity.
Buntu is the friend who convinces Sizwe to assume the dead man’s identity. He is a good man and generous friend: he lets Sizwe sleep on his couch; takes him out drinking; and helps him find a way to stay in town. After Sizwe assumes the dead man’s identity, Buntu helps Sizwe find a decent job.
See Sizwe Bansi, Robert Zwelinzima
Styles 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 takes pictures of all kinds of people from families to individuals.
See Sizwe Bansi, The Man
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 was 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. Second, 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—their descendants will remember them.
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.
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 take 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 he could 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.
In Sizwe Bansi is Dead, one’s true identity is knowing who you are—not what your name is.
The importance of family is another theme of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead. 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.
Sizwe Bansi has come to Port Elizabeth to find work to support his wife and four children. He goes as far as to take on a dead man’s identity to make
sure he can stay in the city and find a decent job. He has his photograph taken at Styles’ studio to show his wife that he is still the same man.
Buntu’s family situation—his wife is a domestic who only spends weekends at home, and his child lives with his or her grandmother—allows him to take in Sizwe and help him with his problems. Buntu treats him like family.
Limitations and Opportunities
Though both Sizwe Bansi and Styles (as well as Buntu) are limited by circumstances—such as racism—they are able to seize opportunities for positive change.
For example, Styles felt stifled and overworked at the auto plant. During the Christmas shutdown, he finds out about a room near a funeral parlor and gets permission to use it as a photography studio. Now, unlike many of his peers, Styles owns his own business. He is independent.
With Buntu’s help, Sizwe also takes advantage of opportunities. He cannot stay in Port Elizabeth to find work because his identity book has restricted his movements. When he finds a dead man in an alley, Buntu picks up the dead man’s identity book.
After reviewing Sizwe’s options, Buntu suggests that he take on this man’s identity so Sizwe can stay and find a job in Port Elizabeth. Though Sizwe’s options have been limited by apartheid, taking on the dead man’s identity gives him the
opportunity to make a decent living and support his family.
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead is set in New Brighton (an African township) in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1972. The action of the play takes place in three locations. The first is Styles’s photography studio located near a funeral parlor, where Sizwe Bansi (as Robert Zwelinzima) gets his picture taken.
The second is Buntu’s house, where Sizwe stays when he has nowhere else to go in Port Elizabeth. The last setting is the streets of New Brighton outside of the local bar. This is where Buntu discovers the dead body of Robert Zwelinzima.
Each of these settings emphasize the fact that these characters inhabit a certain part of South African society that places limits on the movements of its African citizens.
Monologue/Stream of Consciousness/Improvisation/Transitions
Large parts of the one-act Sizwe Bansi Is Dead consist of stylized monologues.
In the original production, the actor who played Styles, John Kani, was allowed to improvise his opening stream-of-consciousness monologue. As the script calls for Styles to read from and comment on a newspaper, actors who play the role sometimes update it to reflect topical concerns of his location at the moment. These touches allow Sizwe Bansi Is Dead to stay relevant.
Styles’s long monologue also introduces the themes of the play. In revealing some of his life story (how he came to own the photographic studio) and his opinions (how the photographs he takes allow the common person to leave something of themselves behind), Styles reflects on the results of apartheid.
Sizwe Bansi and Buntu’s monologues have different forms and purposes. Sizwe’s monologue is in the form of a letter to his wife, who lives in King William’s Town. Fugard uses the letter to give background to the story.
For example, in the beginning of the letter, Sizwe tells his wife that “SizweBansi, in a manner of speaking, is dead!” He chronicles the raid at his friend Zola’s and how he came to stay with Buntu.
The action shifts to Buntu’s house and Sizwe’s arrival there. Sizwe Bansi’s letter gives Sizwe Bansi Is Dead structure and organization. Each segment after the beginning of the letter is set up by such a Sizwe monologue.
Buntu’s monologues are more traditional. Most of them occur at his house, when Sizwe is analyzing his problem and proposing feeble solutions. Buntu counters every one of Sizwe’s ideas and chronicles long stories about recent events in his own life that are relevant.
In 1972, South Africa had a system of repressive apartheid; segregation occurred socially, economically, politically, and culturally. For years, black Africans and “coloureds” (the South African term
for those of mixed race) had been the overwhelming majority, yet their rights and opportunities were severely restricted by the white minority.
From the beginning of the twentieth century, the white minority in power restricted ownership of land, education, employment, and movement within South Africa. Races were not allowed to intermarry. Many blacks lived in crowded areas and could not live in the same areas as whites. Blacks and coloureds were paid less than their white counterparts. The white-controlled government tried to restrict all dissent by whites and blacks.
Yet there seemed to be some positive progress in 1972. Three black homelands—Bophuthatswan, Ciskei, and Lebowa—were given self-governing territory status within South Africa. This move was supposed to promote self-government, which meant that each territory could have their own cabinet, legislative assembly, official language, flag, and national anthem.
The South African government was trying to geographically consolidate black homelands. Yet such events were seen as empty, politically suspect gestures by much of the world.
In 1973 new forms of black resistance, including the burgeoning Black Consciousness Movement, became prominent in South Africa. Black trade unions staged a number of strikes. They demanded higher wages (the disparity in wages between whites and blacks was about five to one) and better working conditions. The strikes publicized the situation in South Africa worldwide, starting a backlash against the brutality and inhumanity of apartheid. The United Nations General Assembly declared the system of apartheid a “crime against humanity.”
The initial audiences of Sizwe Bansi is Dead were the black audiences who saw the production at the Space in Cape Town, South Africa. Although the play was popular, many audience members left during the opening monologue when they discovered the subject matter—they feared the police would raid the theater.
When Sizwe Bansi made its American debut on Broadway in 1974, critics generally praised the play and its exploration of controversial topics. For example, Jack Kroll of Newsweek contended: “What Fugard, 42, and his astonishing collaborators have created is theater of unique dramatic impact and
crucial significance in its relationship to reality—the Kafkaesque reality of South Africa.”
On Broadway, the play was performed with another Fugard one-act piece, The Island. Many reviewers compared the two plays. Harold Clurman of The Nation maintained that “Athol Fugard’s two one-act plays Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island are important—not simply because they provide an insight into the life of blacks in South Africa but because in the writing and in acting they are examples of original theatre.”
Brendan Gill of The New Yorker provided another perspective on the play. He asserted: “Sizwe Bansi is, in formal terms, scarcely a play at all; rather, it is an explanation and an indictment. It renders with impassioned eloquence the feelings engendered by the social injustice practiced under law in South Africa.”
Other critics agreed that the unconventional aspects and profound political statements were quite powerful. Gerald Weales of Commonweal maintained, “These two plays are the most exciting things that I have seen in any theater for a long time.” Weales contended that the play’s “triumph lies not in any social or political message, but in the fact that they have imposed life on the stage at the Edison. It is not plot, nor situation, nor even character in the conventional sense that is communicated by these plays, but a quality of being.”
Another critic, Catharine Hughes, concurred: “I doubt very much that most people would consider Sizwe Bansi and The Island’good plays.’ They are not. But they are powerful, moving, compassionate theatrical experiences.”
Many of the critics who liked the play commented on the power of the lengthy opening monologue. Clurman praised the stream-of-conscious-ness technique: “It conveys a vivid impression of what it means for a black man to be working in such a place as a South African factory.”
Kroll of Newsweek saw something more. He stated: “It opens with an amazing monologue by John Kani in which he becomes all by himself the protean black man of South Africa, the most omnipresent invisible man in the world, the 15-million-faced disinherited man who has been debriefed of his humanity by a total bureaucracy that shrinks him down to a rogues-gallery head in a passbook.”
There were some dissenters among American critics. Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic Page 227 | Top of Articlebelieved that was potential in the production, but that it ultimately failed: “Both plays are drawn from the innermost feelings of three gifted and committed men. So it’s something more than sad to report that, for me, both plays are disappointing.” Regarding the play’s premise, Kauffmann asserted: “Now this might make a good ironic short play of 30 minutes or so. But it begins with a very long monologue, about two-fifths of the play. Buried in this ramble are a few glints of relevance, but mostly it seems a consciously theatrical attempt by addressing the audience and bringing members of it up on the stage briefly—devices by now so familiar that their triteness works against the freshness that it’s aimed at.”
Russell Vandenbroucke in his book on Fugard, Truths the Hand Can Touch, concurred that Sizwe Bansi was problematic. He maintained: “Despite this process of refinement, the major inadequacy of the text remains its repetitiveness. Consequently, a fairly short play ’feels’ rather bulky. The drunk scene and Bansi’s disorientation last too long. . . [S]o much factual information is imparted that the text becomes overburdened and briefly threatens to become a general survey of living conditions for blacks in South Africa.”
Annette Petruso is a freelance author and screenwriter in Austin, TX. In the following essay, Petrusso discusses the role of photography in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead.
Athol Fugard has maintained that the genesis of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead lies in an unforgettable photograph he saw hanging in a studio window. It was of a South African black man wearing his best suit and an angelic smile. He carried a pipe, a walking stick, and a newspaper.
Styles is selling Bansi dreams of more than what is currently available to him under apartheid. Styles’s photograph is made up of several lies about Bansi, though the man’s face can never hide the truth of his life.
Something about this photography spoke deeply to Fugard, and his collaborators on the play, actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani. They speculated on the man’s life as they wrote the play. Thus, Sizwe Bansi is Dead is built on a picture, a concrete illusion of reality. The story is driven by issues of control—or the lack thereof—over one’s life and one’s photograph. This essay explores how these ideas are expressed in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead.
The man who seeks some measure of control over his life is Sizwe Bansi. He has come to Port Elizabeth to get a better job to support his family. In Bansi’s hometown of King William’s Town, there are few opportunities other than the mines. Bansi equates such a job with death. When the place he is staying at is raided, the authorities discover his passbook is not in order. He does not have the proper paperwork to be looking for a job in Port Elizabeth. Bansi has three days to report to a government office in King William’s Town.
With the help of a friend of a friend named Buntu, Bansi tries to find a way to avoid deportation. After an evening of drinking, the two men stumble across a dead man whose passbook is in order. Buntu gets the idea to solve Bansi’s problem by having Bansi take over the identity of the dead man, Robert Zwelinzima. Bansi resists, but ultimately sees the benefits of the plan. He takes over Zwelinzima’s identity with a mere photograph. Buntu switches the men’s identity by pasting Bansi’s photograph in Zwelinzima’s passbook. If Bansi gets into any trouble, the authorities could discover the deception when fingerprints are compared. It is a risky solution to Bansi’s problem. Yet the photograph is all the identity Bansi needs to find work.
This identity switch gives him a new lease on life. To explain what has happened to his wife, Bansi goes to a photographic studio run by Styles to have his picture taken and sent to her. By this time, the switch has paid off. Bansi has found a job working for a company called Feltex and has a new suit. Yet the photograph Styles takes reveals that the control Bansi has over his life is just an illusion in many ways. As a photographer, Styles has several contradictory aspects. Throughout his opening monologue, Styles talks about the power of photographs, or “cards,” as he calls them. At one point, he says, “You must understand one thing. We own nothing except ourselves. This world and its laws allow us nothing, except ourselves. There is nothing we can leave behind when we die, except the memory of ourselves.”
Yet Styles insists on placing Bansi/Zwelinzima in a false pose for the photograph. He makes him put
on his new hat and hold his new pipe, but pushes the issue when he gives Bansi a lit cigarette to hold in the other hand. Styles flatters Bansi by telling him that he will soon be chief messenger at Feltex. To emphasize the matter, he pulls down a backdrop that is a map of the world—a world that illiterate Bansi does not know much about. Excited by his work, Styles convinces Bansi to pose for a second picture. The backdrop is the city of the future, and Styles tells Bansi he could be the head of Feltex in this city. Styles poses Bansi with a walking stick and a newspaper (though Bansi insists he cannot read) as he poses him walking in this city of the future.
These poses could be interpreted several ways. Styles wants to sell photographs, so boosting Bansi’s ego makes for a larger sale. Yet there is more going on here: Styles is selling Bansi dreams of more than what is currently available to him under apartheid. Styles’s photograph is made up of several lies about Bansi, though the man’s face can never hide the truth of his life. Styles can relate to Bansi’s situation. Like Bansi, Styles once held a low-paying job, but better than most; in fact, he worked in a Ford factory before opening his studio. During his monologue, he tells a story about an experience he had there. Henry Ford II, one of the executives at Ford Motor Company, was scheduled to visit the plant. The workers had to prepare for the visit: safety measures were put in place; lines and words were painted on the floor to mark dangerous areas; and each of the workers were forced to take showers and were given new uniforms. For Mr. Ford’s benefit, the line would be slowed down and the men were instructed to sing. Yet when Mr. Ford finally made his appearance, it took all of a few seconds. He took three strides out of his car and three strides back to it. All this preparation is parallel to the process of posing Bansi for his picture. The effect is a superficial change, yet Bansi’s picture lasts forever. The photographer appreciates his power—he has learned the importance of image well.
Because Styles is an independent businessman, he knows he has more control over his life than most men of his race do in South Africa. To gain control, he had decided to become a photographer and looked for a place to set up shop. After getting permission to take over the space, Styles had to solve some problems. The place was a mess and infested with cockroaches. He had to control the cockroaches with some help of a cat, after a product called “Doom” failed him. These concerns were superficial in many ways, but shop had to look presentable to customers so that Styles could sell dreams to people who wanted them.
Styles makes money off the very things that oppress his customers. The stage directions call for his sign to read “Styles Photographic Studio. Reference Books; Passports; Weddings; Engagements; Birthday Parties and Parties. Prop.—Styles.” The first thing on this list is reference books, another name for the passbooks that cause Bansi’s problems Page 229 | Top of Articlein the first place. Styles is a businessman in a difficult environment. Yet the fact that he contributes to his people’s oppression this way is ironic, though necessary. Of these pictures, Styles says “I sit them down, set up the camera—’No expression, please.’—click-click—’Come back tomorrow, please.’” There is no posing, no playing with the truth in these pictures. Styles knows that his clientele have to get these photographs somewhere. He never says another word on the subject because he is more interested in making a record of people who will not be remembered any other way.
Throughout the text of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, death is a recurring theme. Bansi gets a chance to stay in Port Elizabeth because of a dead man. Bansi worries about losing his identity as Sizwe Bansi, implying that part of him might die. Indeed, in the letter to his wife that will accompany Styles’ photograph of him, Bansi writes “Sizwe Bansi, in a manner of speaking, is dead!” Yet a photograph pasted in the dead man’s passbook gives Bansi a new life. Styles often talks about photographs as the only way common people will be remembered by their descendants after death. He describes one photograph he took of a family comprised of twenty-seven members. The experience of taking the picture was frustrating to him. When the eldest son returned for the photographs a week later, he told Styles that his father had died two days after the sitting. This had a big impact on Styles.
While death cannot be controlled, a person’s image in a photograph can be—even if it is not completely honest. Styles points to a picture of his father dressed in a uniform from his days fighting in World War II. Styles reflects, “That’s all I have of him.” What his father wears in the picture and how he is posed does not matter: it is the photograph itself that counts.
Source: Annette Petruso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.
In the following essay, Brink explores the difficulties encountered by a playwright addressing social, political, and ideological problems in an artistic, moral, and existential arena.
In the play Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, which was “devised by” Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, Sizwe Bansi is stranded without a work
permit in Port Elizabeth. The only solution to his dilemma is summarized in Kafkaesque terms by his benefactor Buntu:
You talk to the white man, you see, and ask him to write a letter saying he’s got a job for you. You take that letter from the white man and go back to King William’s Town, where you show it to the Native Commissioner there. The Native Commissioner in King William’s Town reads that letter from the white man in Port Elizabeth who is ready to give you the job. He then writes a letter back to the Native Commissioner in Port Elizabeth. So you come back here with the two letters. Then the Native Commissioner in Port Elizabeth reads the letter from the Native Commissioner in King William’s Town together with the first letter from the white man who is prepared to give you a job, and he says when he reads the letters: Ah yes, this man Sizwe Bansi can get a job. So the Native Commissioner in Port Elizabeth then writes a letter which you take with the letters from the Native Commissioner in King William’s Town and the white man in Port Elizabeth, to the Senior Officer at the Labour Bureau, who reads all the letters. Then he will put the right stamp in your book and give you another letter from himself which together with the letters from the white man and the two Native Affairs Commissioners, you take to the Administrative Office here in New Brighton and make an application for a Residence Permit, so that you don’t fall victim of raids again. Simple.
The problem is that Sizwe Bansi knows no white man to start with. In the circumstances, Buntu’s evaluation of the situation is straightforward: “There’s no way out, Sizwe. You’re not the first one who has tried to find it. Take my advice and catch that train back to King William’s Town.”
However profound the personal implications for Sizwe Bansi may be, the problem as formulated by Buntu appears to be a purely social one. Within moments, however, another dimension grows from it. When Buntu suggests, as the only other “way out,” a job on the mines, Sizwe refuses point-blank. “You can die there.” Whereupon Buntu, prompted “into taking possibly his first real look at Sizwe,”
remarks, “You don’t want to die.” And Sizwe affirms, “I don’t want to die.”
The statement is echoed in Antigone’s acknowledgment in The Island that “I know I must die,” and in the resignation to “a susceptibility to death” in Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act. This is Unamuno territory: “The man of flesh and bone; the man who is born, suffers, and dies—above all, who dies.” The man who dies and who does not want to die. It is also Camus territory, as we know from Fugard’s illuminating Notebooks, and from Dickey and many other commentators. It is not irrelevant to note that, according to Walder, one of the Serpent Players’ major productions, only months before Sizwe Bansi, had been Camus’ Les Justes.
Much of the impact of this moment in Sizwe Bansi derives from the way in which it represents an interface between the play’s two key dimensions: the sociopolitical and the existential. Sizwe Bansi has long been recognized not only as “an indictment of the depravity and inhumanity of apartheid,” but also as a “watershed” of a “new theatre” in South Africa. Stanley Kauffmann even dismissed the play as “superficial” because it was, he believed, “only about the troubles of South Page 231 | Top of ArticleAfrican blacks.” On the other hand, it is well known that Fugard himself has always aimed at transcending the “merely” sociopolitical. Significantly, in the seven-page introduction that precedes the three Statements plays, he concerns himself with some of the dramaturgical and philosophical problems he confronted in them, without a single reference to their ideological or sociopolitical context.“Facts,” writes Fugard in a characteristic pronouncement, “are flat and lacking in the density and ambiguity of truly dramatic images.” In a corroborating passage John Kani provides a cameo of Fugard as director, trying to outwit the censors: “Find a simpler statement. Disguise this statement. That is politics. Try and find the artistic value of the piece.”
In the present post-apartheid era it is perhaps time to take a more dispassionate look at some problems illuminated by Sizwe Bansi Is Dead: not only the interaction between sociopolitics and theatre within a given text, but the dilemma of the writer as a person with both artistic integrity and a social conscience. Or, in terms of Fugard’s own explanation of his improvisational technique in his preface to the play. “The basic device has been that of Challenge and Response”: the problem of reacting to an ideological and/or political challenge (apartheid and the struggle for liberation) with a response on a different level altogether—theatrical, existential, and moral.
In several interesting respects N. Chabani Manganyi provides an early articulation of the terms of the problem:
Sisyphus is the absurd hero. Pushing the rock uphill is the price I pay. .. for what? I am not Camus, nor am I the West. I the black Sisyphus am social—not metaphysical. It is the social which constitutes the horizon of my futile labour. Going downhill I come face to face with the social—my tormentors. I make the only logical jump I know, i.e. ignoring suicide in favour of something so painfully pragmatic—murder.. .. I did not participate in the rebellion of the West. Yet I carry the burden of the questions they raised.
With reference to Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, Manganyi highlights “the interface between personal troubles and public issues,” concluding that “It is the personal troubles, the individual destinies, that add a dimension to the problem of the historically extreme situation.” In this context the artist occupies a special position through his preoccupation with “images” rather than “action.” As Manganyi notes, the artist’s “first solution for the problem of subordination and its consequent violent and rebellious impulse is symbolic rather than actual. He responds at a more primitive level by
placing his whole weight behind ritualisation on a symbolic level in the place of a real murder as a social act.”
Sizwe Bansi opens with a now-famous improvisation by the character Styles (a photographer) on themes provided by whatever news is topical on the day and in the locality of the performance. We know that this improvisation, which in the printed version of the play covers about fifteen pages and in the filmed version about thirty minutes, sometimes stretched to as much as an hour and a half once John Kani was in his stride. Whatever the importance of this variable introduction of political satire and reference in any given performance, its dramatic significance lies in its contribution to the definition of the character Styles and his history. And the mise en scene assumes a peculiar circular form which is of decisive importance for the reading of the play I am attempting to offer here. The play opens in the here and now of Styles’s photographic studio, where he finds himself, facing his audience, waiting for a customer to turn up. From this point Styles returns to his beginnings, his first job as a worker in the Ford Factory in Port Elizabeth, and traces the vicissitudes of his life along the route which will bring him back to this studio, as T. S. Eliot puts it in Four Quartets, to “know the place for the first time.” There is indeed, in Styles’s seemingly lighthearted excursus, an acknowledgment of Eliot’s proposal that “every moment is a new and shocking / Valuation of all we have been.” This interaction of “time past” and “time present,” in many respects the lifeblood of drama as a literary mode, establishes a base and a model for the further evolution of the play.
Undoubtedly the Styles story contains a strong and explicit political text: the lack of choices available to him as a black worker in a white-owned Page 232 | Top of Articlefactory; the dreary realities of job reservation, of group areas, of the whole complex of laws that define apartheid as a system; the futile pleasure derived from a momentary reversal of white and black roles (when Styles makes a fool of “Baas” Bradley by saying in Xhosa what cannot be said in English, by standing erect while the foreman is “kneeling there on the floor,” by “wearing a mask of smiles,” by changing the customary order of perception as a key to the racial power play at work in the scene—“We were watching them. Nobody was watching us”); the process of transformation into a self-made man with his own studio.
Below this explicit text there are signs of a more problematic ideological subtext. Two such signs are the economic choice implied in Styles’s evolution (which appropriates precisely some of the practices of apartheid that have proved most successful in establishing a society of haves and have-nots, exploiters and exploited), and the choice of language in the play.
The choice of private enterprise as a response to the dehumanization of the apartheid system is in itself significant. Consider a similar response by Sizwe Bansi when he thinks of “starting] a little business” as a “way out” of the vicious circle described by Buntu. The choice of private enterprise certainly goes against the ideological grain of black South African playwrights who define “the system” not only in terms of racial oppression, but most particularly in terms of economic exploitation. For example, Zakes Mda’s ex-soldier Janabari, in We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, says: “Serge, I have been trying to tell you that our wars were not merely to replace a white face with a black one, but to change a system which exploits us, to replace it with one which gives us a share in the wealth of this country.”
Language offers an even more subtle disturbance. Unlike Mda, Mbongemi Ngema, and other black playwrights, who readily incorporate African languages like Xhosa in their texts, Sizwe Bansi is written/performed almost exclusively in English—even, and particularly, in the factory scene, where “Baas” Bradley’s unilingualism in an environment where his workers poke fun at him in Xhosa is the source both of fun and of political power play. This is imperative, of course, if the play is performed for a white and/or foreign audience, otherwise the whole point of the scene will be missed. But in contextual terms it means that the play, at least in its published form, is aimed primarily, if not exclusively, at audiences from the dominant white culture. This would appear to place it outside the current of protest or struggle theatre. The implications are fascinating, especially in the light of Fugard’s often stated passionate concern for “a much more immediate and direct relationship with our audience.” Viewed in this light, the play becomes a doubly mediated interpretation of the “black situation,” through the collaboration of black and white writers and actors, to a primarily white audience. If this explains the “weighting” of the existentialist load of the text, may it not also result (I am perhaps playing the devil’s advocate here) in a concomitant compromise of the ideological text?
If so, it would explain something about the curious confusion of metaphors which arises from Styles’s account of his life’s journey. Upon first acquiring his studio he faces a problem of infestation by cockroaches, and the first remedy he reaches for is an insecticide, “The Mass Murderer! Doom!” Clearly, in this scene the cockroaches become a metaphor for the black masses infesting the white capitalist’s “condemned” premises. This becomes most evident in the failure of the attempt to “doom” the “pests.” But for the metaphor to work, Styles himself becomes, at least temporarily, allied to the forces of white repression. An even more convoluted situation arises when the failure of the first attempt to evict or kill the cockroaches is followed by a much more efficient method: a cat called Blackie does the job. Even if one resists the temptation to tread much further through this particular labyrinth of metaphors, Styles’s appropriation of the strong-arm tactics that traditionally characterized the apartheid regime sends some unexpected signals.
What marks the Styles circle above all else is his resort to role-playing, which is, interestingly enough, a strategy in any number of resistance plays by black writers in South Africa. Much more than a mere device to resolve the problem of tedium presented by straight narrative, role-playing operates within several systems of signification.
In the first place, role-playing extends the scope of the character’s involvement in the narrative. Instead of being merely this individual implicated in this situation (a photographer and ex-factory worker in his township studio), Styles becomes a crowd, reaching beyond the twenty-seven members of an extended family who turn up to have their photograph taken to a whole community (the township), a whole society (the blacks in South Africa). “The Page 233 | Top of Articlemost powerful moments in the Statements plays, their most memorable images, take us beyond the private pain in which [Fugard’s] own concerns are rooted,” says Walder, “to suggest the shape of suffering and hope for an entire community.” In this process the plurality already hinted at in Styles’s very name is actualized. This is the strategy through which Styles legitimizes his concern, not with himself as an individual or with other individuals, but with “the simple people, who you never find mentioned in the history books.” In short, his concern is identical with that of Brecht in Questions of a Reading Laborer:
Who built the seven-towered Thebes?
In the books we find the names of kings.
Did the kings lug the quarried rocks to the place?
And the often destroyed Babylon—
Who rebuilt it so many times? In which houses
In the gold-shimmering Lima did the build-
ers live?. . .
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid for the food?
So many reports.
So many questions.
Inhabiting the stage with a multitude of invisible yet highly significant people—a startlingly effective demonstration of Derridean presence of absence and absence of presence—Styles not only highlights the Camusian tenet Je suis, done nous sommes, but also proposes its converse: We are, therefore I am.
In the second place, role-playing makes it possible to represent the all-encompassing yet invisible System on the stage. The representation of the objects and victims of the System is inevitable and inescapable—that is what the play is “about.” But for the full effect of both their suffering and their possibilities of resistance to be communicated to the audience, the subjects of the System must also be represented. That is why Styles’s impersonation of “Baas” Bradley carries such peculiar weight. It demonstrates not only the existence and omnipresence of the System’s subject, but also the possibility of subverting him by appropriating him in a totemizing function. However, if this has a positive side, namely the discovery that “Baas” Bradley can be manipulated and dominated in this representation, it can also be read negatively. Even when he is not physically present he continues to inhabit the minds of his victims—who can only, through playacting, acquire a temporary ascendancy, because he is and remains there. After all, what does not threaten does not need to be exorcised. Through play-acting, and only through play-acting, can the actor, in the primary sense of “actant,” enter into a full understanding of the System, which helps to subvert it from the inside—even as it confirms it.
Representation of the System also bestows a function of relative power on the representer. Both as photographer and as narrator/producer, Styles captures, like a writer, “in my way, on paper the dreams and hopes of my people so that even their children’s children will remember a man”—a statement (and this is, one is constantly reminded, one of a triptych entitled Statements) which is confirmed by the camera’s flash at the very end of the play. But the statement, as we know from Fugard’s injunction quoted earlier, is offered in (distorted by?) disguise; and this is yet another function of play-acting in the text. This raises once again the question of the play’s potential for involvement in ideological discourse through acting as a response to a very specific sociopolitical challenge. Of course, disguise need not imply denial, rejection, or even repression. It may be an acknowledgment of a variegated or stratified reality. This would involve the primary facade adopted by black people in the face of apartheid, which Lewis Nkosi refers to as “the fantastic ambiguity, the deliberate self-deception, the ever-present irony beneath the mocking humility and moderation of speech.” It would also involve the demonstration of what Vandenbroucke calls “the facade as facade,” and thereby blur the boundaries between the political and the existential. Even so the question remains whether the disguise of the political statement through play-acting may not be seen as a withdrawal into the comparative safety of aesthetics. This problem will have to be returned to later, once the text has been scrutinized in greater depth.
Another fascinating ambiguity highlighted by the processes of role-playing involves the identification of apartheid (the ideology of oppression) with death (the existential experience of the neant), and of political survival with life. Many commentators have noted the play’s context of omnipresent death: the proximity of Styles’s studio to a funeral parlor, the extermination of the cockroaches, the death of the old man two days after posing for his photograph, the funeral of Outa Jacob, who accepts “the terms of his contract with God”, the death of Robert Zwelinzima, who literally provides Sizwe with a “Book of Life,” etc. The commentators have also noted the play’s concomitant insistence on, and even celebration of, the forces of Life. In the process of role-playing, the past itself is identified with death, and the theatrical act with (re-)incarnation—which Page 234 | Top of Articleaffirms the present as life, and opens the possibility of a future.
This, more than anything else, elucidates the importance of the Styles improvisation which introduces the play. For it is only in the process of drawing, with all its meanderings and ambiguities, the first circle of the play, the Styles circle, that the audience is conditioned to evaluate the second, which gives the play its title. Styles does not merely establish a prologue to the play, but rehearses the conditions for its interaction with the audience. He does not simply precede the narrative, but surrounds it and contextualizes it. Approached in this way, each of the two parts becomes a “dangerous supplement” to the other.
A second circle opens as Sizwe, significantly indicated in the text or theatre program as an anonymous “Man,” makes his appearance at the very moment when Styles appears to close his own. But as a result of what the spectator has already witnessed, the Sizwe circle is differently loaded. The strategy of the Styles circle had been to draw a cyclic life story, starting at the end (i.e., the narrative or theatrical present), then going to the most distant past, and proceeding back to the starting point. The Sizwe circle is not a simple repetition of this strategy, but is just as much the product of Sizwe’s narration as of Styles’s creative intervention. From the moment Styles greets Sizwe as “a Dream,” he at the very least co-invents and co-imagines Sizwe’s life. It is Styles’s evocation of a possible future for Sizwe, his conversion of Sizwe from a static image, a mere “card,” into a life, a “movie,” which makes the reinvention of the past possible. Interestingly enough, this also involves a transformation from straight narrative (Sizwe’s account of his life to Styles) via a transitional stage of slightly more highly charged dramatized narrative (the encounter with Buntu is acted out in front of the spectators, but still involves the telling of his story), to full-blown role-playing (the re-enactment of the scene where the dead body of Robert Zwelinzima is discovered, urinated upon, then robbed of its identity document).
The real point of the play’s discourse, and its interaction with both its sociopolitical and its philosophical context, is confronted in the final debate about the significance of adopting the dead man’s identity. If Styles demonstrates that survival as a “man” is possible only on the condition that the self-respect and the dignity of the individual is guaranteed, the argument presented by Buntu (who in the second circle represents a “role” played by the same actor who was Styles in the first) is that Sizwe’s only hope of survival lies in his renunciation of that dignity and self-respect embodied in his name. “Survival,” writes Fugard in his Notebooks,“can involve betrayal of everything—beliefs, values, ideals—except Life itself.”
It becomes, inevitably, a debate—the immemorial debate—about “having” and “being.” The nameless “Man” who “is” both the old Sizwe and the new Robert, appears to affirm the notion of an identity divorced from all processes of naming. And as Sizwe (who announces his own death almost as soon as he appears on the stage: because, in fact, his appearance is conditional upon that death) assumes more and more the role and the identity of Robert, a process as theatrically impressive as the transformation of Arturo Ui, the distinction between a “man” and a “ghost” becomes more and more pertinent. If a black man is dehumanized in the perception of whites to the point of becoming a mere number and a ghost, argues Buntu, then “All I’m saying is be a real ghost, if that is what they want.” Or, in other words, “What I’m saying is shit on our pride if we only bluff ourselves that we are men.”
If the spectator’s moral sympathies reside inevitably with Sizwe, who is reluctant to shed his notion of identity as the essence of a name, the Styles circle, which has established the processes of play-acting as the raison d’etre of the play itself, predetermines the outcome. Names, that first circle has demonstrated, are indeterminate and random: in fact, only by playing the game of the relative, which manifests itself as an endless series of versions and possibilities, is survival, and life itself, conceivable. But what, then, becomes of authenticity? And what becomes of the possibilities of authentic revolution or of any radical change in any given system? This is where a crucial problem of the play becomes obvious. Can one ever act oneself out of a given situation, or only ever more and more deeply and fatally into it?
The problem becomes even more complicated as one approaches the end of the second circle: Sizwe’s transformation into Robert Zwelinzima is complete, his letter to his wife is rounded off, his excursion into the past restored to the present. Simultaneously, he returns to the pose struck for the photograph Styles has set up. (Would it be over-indulgent to wonder whether this double unfolding of a life in a single moment—first Styles’s, now Sizwe’s—is a demonstration of the old belief that Page 235 | Top of Articlethis is what happens at the moment of death?) As Sizwe’s smile, which is an affirmation of life, is petrified into a photographic image, both circles of the play are rounded off—and closure means death. Surely it would not be far-fetched to see in this circular action a theatrical manifestation—and affirmation—of the closed circle of sociopolitics within which the action has been located and from which no exit is possible. The System, in the devastating formula proposed by Statements.. . , has “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” In this vicious circle the ancient hero as the man who conquers is reduced, at best, in the familiar Camusian terms, to the one who simply manages to endure.
All three Statements plays offer this image of closure. In Sizwe Bansi it resides in the circularity of the action, the confinement of Styles’s studio, the inescapable present to which all flights of recollection or the imagination return. In The Island it is encapsulated in the image of the island itself, from which none can escape. Even if John, whose sentence has been remitted, is to return to the outside world in three months’ time, the society he returns to embodies the deadly system that has created the island as prison. As in The Tempest, mainland and island are supplementary to each other, and life is inevitably rounded with a sleep. Ultimately, even if the play does hold out the hope of release for John in the future, the final action of the play is a repetition of the beginning: an endless running in a circle. In Statements... all the vicissitudes and open possibilities of life are forever frozen in half a dozen photographic images, in an implacable series of “statements”: “And then at the end as at the beginning, they will find you again.”
Moreover, through their presentation as a triptych with a common title, the plays interpenetrate one another: the photographs of Statements..., images of death, inform the images of life taken by Styles; the finality of the island image also rounds off Sizwe Bansi and Statements.. . ; the ancient play performed in The Island becomes a silent accompaniment to the action in all three, illuminating the ultimate acceptance of the fact that “Because life lives, life must die.”
The only way the System can be beaten, it would seem, lies in a denial of identity, in playing the game, in remaining fully within closure. If Sizwe confronts the world as a “new” man and challenges it on its own terms, he offers no hope, and no example, to anyone else. His confrontation cannot but remain a purely personal motion. If John leaves the island, his departure neither brings nor affirms freedom for anyone else—in fact, he is as much an exception to the rule as Sizwe, his “freedom stinks.” The condition of man is reduced to being “nothing.” Even when Buntu provides the means of survival it can never be more than temporary. Sizwe embraces it in the full knowledge that a black man cannot stay out of trouble: “Our skin is trouble.” The System is all-powerful and all-embracing; if Denmark’s a prison, then is the world one.
Yet the end of the play is not defeatist; the rounding of the circles appears to challenge the finality of absolute closure. Buntu’s last words to Sizwe are “See you tomorrow,” and in the final paragraph of his letter to his wife Sizwe undertakes “to send some more [money] each week.” Vandenbroucke even asserts that “Inasmuch as individual action can make a difference, Sizwe Bansi is far more hopeful and optimistic than the plays written solely by Fugard.” If there is justification for this it would have to be located in strategies to break the either/or deadlock of traditional approaches to ideology and existentialism, to politics and theatre. Most particularly, it would have to be located in strategies to escape from the aesthetic insularity of the rounded play, to break out of the deadly circularities of structure, to transcend the fate of the individual—those solitary males whose plight dominates the action of Sizwe Bansi, of The Island, and to a large extent even of Statements.. ..
The most obvious device, already broached in the discussion of role-playing, involves the peopling of the theatrical space of the play with a wide variety of representatives from the society which surrounds the action and the actors. In Statements... the policeman represents not only the System, the forces of law and order, but—notably through the statement of Mrs. Buys—the outside world which invades the lovers’ haven. In both the other plays the two central actors themselves re-present the absent multitude—all the more persuasive because in their invisibility they come to inhabit, to possess, the actors. In Styles and Sizwe, in John and Winston, as I have indicated above, an abstract System finds its local habitation and its name. The characters conjured up through the role-playing inhabit an intermediate space between actors and audience, moving in both directions, and thereby involving both. By the same token they go a long way toward fusing the “purely” political and the “merely” aesthetic.
One particularly pertinent strategy in the attempt to break out of the circle involves an appeal to the absent woman. This is illuminated by a crucial observation in Notebooks:“A sudden and clear realisation. .. of how, almost exclusively, ’woman’—a woman—has been the vehicle for what I have tried to say about survival and defiance.”
In Statements... , of course, the woman is physically present as “the other person on the floor.” Yet from the beginning, even before the intervention of the Immorality Act, the relationship between the play’s protagonists is in the process of breaking down (“Is there nothing any more we can do except hurt each other?”) If she represents an attempt toward human wholeness (“And he. . . And I. . . And we. ..”), it is the failure of this wholeness, through a progressive exclusion and denial of the woman by the man toward the end, that results in the irremediable bleakness of the outcome, a near-total darkness quite uncharacteristic of Fugard.
In The Island an accumulation of denigratory references to woman and the “place” of a woman (“You got no wife here. Look for the rag yourself’ “I’m a man, not a bloody woman”) runs parallel to expressions of lack and deprivation caused by her absence (consider especially the imaginary telephone conversation which concludes Scene One)—to be resolved in the crucial play-within-the-play which figures Antigone in the central role. If in Statements... it is the very presence of the physical woman that confirms the absence of femininity, the absence of woman becomes an overwhelming presence in The Island. The ultimate degradations are possible because the figure of woman is absent from prison.
This also happens, in different ways, in Sizwe Bansi. The Styles circle already anticipates it. Woman may appear to figure only as the provider of food (“Get the lunch, dear”), but she is also the guarantor of family cohesion and management: “Go to your mother.. .. Look after the children, please, sweetheart.” “Family” is a key word throughout the play. In the Styles circle the important role of woman is understated; but as soon as Sizwe enters she becomes the pivotal figure of the action. His experiences come to make sense, and to acquire an aim and a purpose, only by virtue of their all being interpreted in the letter to his wife Nowetu, which occupies the whole second circle of the play. Addressing himself to her in the distant King William’s Town, 120 miles from where he has ended up in his attempts to provide for her and the family, Sizwe literally reaches out from the confinement of Port Elizabeth. In perhaps the most poignant scene in the play, Sizwe strips off all his clothes to reduce himself to the barest existence of a poor fork’d creature—in which, like Shylock, he most acutely represents the whole of humanity. This is how he then defines himself: “Look at me! I am 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.” Being a man means having a wife, means acknowledging femininity as part of the self. It is his very absence from home, the family, his wife, that has resulted in all his present troubles. Eventual restoration and return to the absent Nowetu is the only resolution, and it is symbolically prefigured in the act of writing to her.
The importance of the subtext on male/female relations cannot be emphasized too much, most especially as it forms part of the interface that connects the existential and the political. Nowetu may represent the “female principle” as part of the existential experience, even possibly as part of a metaphysics of being—but she is also a black woman in a township suffering the degradations and deprivations imposed by apartheid. In the terms of Fugard’s Notebooks, Nowetu is both “woman” and “a woman.” In this respect, as in many others, the play does not represent an act of withdrawal from (sociopolitical) reality into the island of aesthetics, but rather the opposite: a demonstration of a new aesthetics as a plunge into Heideggerian “facticity” and an assumption of moral responsibility. Far from being “something out there,” Nowetu is very much, and very urgently, someone in here.
We have seen how role-playing in Sizwe Bansi can be read either as part of a mere statement (registering the past) or—worse—as an escape into the imagination. But play-acting transcends the mere recapitulation or remembering of the past: it is also a reshaping, a reinvention, of that past. Because “Who controls the past.. . controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Which is why at the very least role-playing represents the artist’s victory over whatever menaces him.
It is more than a pyrrhic or private victory. It represents, in fact, the most basic function of the writer in a closed society where “normal” artistic creation is inhibited and everything is politicized: the need to record, the need to bear witness. It is the primary reaction, which precedes all resistance. “To mark the paper,” insisted Winston Smith, Page 237 | Top of Article“was the decisive act.” This kind of “writing” implies a correction of “the conspiracy of silence” in South African history, in history generally. Unless one recognizes in this action, not a renunciation of sociopolitical action in favor of an aesthetic and/or existential response, but a highly charged confluence of the two, the often superficial debate about the efficacy of Sizwe Bansi will never proceed beyond the obvious.
Thanks to this strategy, Styles’s photography—like the creative collaboration of Fugard, Ntshone, and Kani that resulted in this text—transcends the level of mere recording or witnessing toward an act of the imagination which also has sociopolitical implications and repercussions. Because, through role-playing, not only the past is reinvented but the present (“reality” itself) is approached as invented, that is, as a version of the possible or the imaginable. What Styles does involves the recording of images: but it involves also the active stimulation, in fact the creation, of dreams. His studio becomes, in that much-quoted phrase, a “strong-room of dreams.” When Sizwe erupts into this space he is announced, not as a “customer,” but as “a Dream.”
This does not posit a simplistic binarity of “dream” versus “reality”: if dream is the mask of reality, or reality the acting-out of the dream, each is informed by the other. And if reality itself is acknowledged—as happened consciously in the theatre ever since Calderon’s La Vida Es Sueno—as imagination and fabrication (i.e., as version, or in postmodern parlance as text), it is, as Brecht would have it, not a fate to be endured but a fact which can be changed. Far from being a trap which ensnares its victim, the circle of the play is presented as a challenge to be responded to. In this lies much of the explosive revolutionary potential of the interaction between the existential and the ideological. Aesthetics here becomes an act of ideological choice—not of withdrawal but of immersion.
This reading of Fugard’s dramaturgy in Sizwe Bansi returns us to what he himself, at a time when he was a particularly enthusiastic exponent of Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, regarded as basic to the theatrical experience: an “immediate and direct relationship with our audience.” It means that for a more comprehensive evaluation of the interaction between aesthetics and politics we should look at the text as performance, i.e., as part of an experience that has no “outside” to it. In such a reading the audience assumes a vital importance. The narrative in the play may indeed present images of closed circles in which Buntu’s words reverberate ad infinitum: “There’s no way out, Sizwe.” But the act of confronting an audience with such images cannot but stimulate a response, and this in itself is already a breaking of the circle. In the narrowest sense of the word, the play can be read as the response by a group of artists to the challenge of a sociopolitical situation. In performance it is the play that acts as challenge to elicit a response from the audience. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows,” said Orwell.
In conclusion I note that, in one way or another, all South African writers under apartheid faced the same dilemma; but there were, inevitably, a wide variety of responses. In Zakes Mda’s play The Hill there is unmitigated gloom in the portrayal of the system of migrant labor as ultimately omnivorous. In The Road Mda presents violence as the only “way out” of the impasse of the System: the Laborer, driven beyond endurance, kills the Farmer. A more subtle end is that of We Shall Sing for the Fatherland: after their death from exposure, two veterans of the wars of liberation, forced into a futile life of deprivation in the margin of the “new” society, return as ghosts to haunt not only the park in which they died but the conscience of the audience. In this manner an all but direct appeal is launched to do something about the injustices that have survived racism to be perpetuated in capitalism.
One of the most forceful and exuberant plays from the Struggle is Woza Albert! by Mtwa, Ngema, and Simon. Going far beyond the statement of suffering under apartheid, it succeeds in combining political action with religious revivalism in appealing to the heroes of the past to replace the white man’s Christ and redeem their people.
Fiction, too, demonstrates the challenge of ideology to the artistic mind. As may be expected, apocalyptic writing by white writers has found the reconciling of political and moral conscience with Western aesthetics to be problematic. In many ways John Conyngham’s The Arrowing of the Cane is an archetype of the liberal dilemma: faced by the end of his familiar world, the spoiled scion of an English settler family, renouncing all hope of procreation, withdraws into his cellar and commits suicide after secreting the narrative of his end in a fissure which resembles a vagina. Here writing turns upon itself. A crack in a wall is hardly a cure for impotence. Wholly unlike Sizwe Bansi, Conyngham’s creative act celebrates its own white futility.
Nadine Gordimer’s response in July’s People is fascinating. With great skill she establishes both her white and black characters as acting on behalf of larger social groupings. The white Smales family, seeking refuge in the remote community of their erstwhile trusted servant as Armageddon is unleashed on the country, represent “their kind.” Their servant, July, represents “his kind.” The hut in which they all are sheltered becomes archetypal, the mother of all huts, the womb. However, when in the brilliantly ambiguous final scene Maureen runs out toward a helicopter, “whether it holds saviours or murderers,” it is presented as an utterly individual act—“like a solitary animal at the season when animals neither seek a mate nor take care of their young, existing only for their lone survival.” What is ultimately important here, however, is not the privacy or the immediacy of her choice, but the fact of it: that is, the discovery that the interregnum between the convulsions of the old world and the emergent new can only be transcended through an act of conscious and individual choice which opens the way to the future irrespective of what that future may be. The remarkable coincidence of private decision and public responsibility, of individual integrity and social commitment, resembles in many respects the same fusion of opposites in Sizwe Bansi.
J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K also explores the Final War, and also focuses on individual choice in an endorsement, complicated with irony, of Voltaire’s Cultivons notre jardin. But once again, however private and imaginary the final action, it transcends the purely personal—in this case because Michael K’s resolution implies the survival, not just of an individual, but of a set of values. These values are articulated only after Michael’s identification with all the poor naked wretches who bide the pelting of a pitiless and universal storm. Which once again endorses the subtler meanings of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and re-establishes it as, in so many ways, a key text from the apartheid experience.
Source: Andre Brink, “’No Way Out’: Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and the Dilemma of Political Drama in South Africa,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1993, Vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 438-54.
In the following essay, Seymour argues that Sizwe Bansi is Dead is the least political and most palatable to a mass popular audience of any of the three plays that make up Fugard’s trilogy.
In the current corpus of Athol Fugard’s work, the trilogy Statements, can be described as the political trilogy following the family one. Of the former, Sizwe Bansi is Dead has been the most popular component, with enthusiastic receptions in Lagos, London, Accra, Ibadan, Toronto, etc. It is the nature of its popularity that I wish to explore, for in many ways The Island and Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act confront and explore their political themes with greater depth and penetration, particularly the latter, which as a theatrical experience must be harrowing in its impact on the spectators, whereas, Sizwe Bansi is Dead can be experienced at a more superficial level, with an emphasis on entertainment—that is, it can be experienced and responded to in the typical way western urban audiences consume commercial entertainment.
It is always relevant to consider the nature of the audience in relation to their responses: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” Audiences, like critics and playwrights, confront plays and performances with their world-view, which is a product of the dynamic interaction between actual social relations and private sensibility, the one influencing and influenced by the other. The social characteristics of an audience are useful factors in analysing its responses to the play. In this instance, the audiences whose responses have been recorded in newspaper reviews and in literary journals are: (a) bourgeois liberals within South Africa and outside, e.g. in Britain and North America, and (b) student (i.e. sub-elite) and elite audiences in West Africa.
Apartheid laws and machinery marred and obstructed performances of the play in South Africa. The problematic nature of drama as a functioning art form in a racist police state is highlighted in an interview with Athol Fugard, where he describes how performances of the play to white audiences were stopped by the police, who also interfered with the performance of the play to a coloured audience, because of the participation of two black actors, the performance being threatened with prosecution. It is interesting to note that after these experiences, Athol Fugard registered surprise at the permission given by the South African authorities to take the play to Britain: “L cannot understand why we were finally given passports, because the work we were doing was intended only for South Africa: and we were trying to be as courageous as possible in that context, in indicting a social system.” Perhaps that “indictment,” for all the furore it briefly provoked in South Africa in 1972 and 1973, was Page 239 | Top of Articleless damaging to apartheid officialdom than he assumed. Indeed, statements on racism which ignore its class basis are not in essence radical. The notion that the ruling Nationalist Party of South Africa should move away from discrimination based on race and colour has its advocates within the party itself, hence the divisions between the so-called “verligtes”(“enlightened” liberals) and “verkramptes”(hardliners). Consequently, when we read comments such as the following, the limited perspective they express needs amplifying and explaining:
That such highly political plays have been performed in South Africa surprised a British audience which was, at a guess, unanimous in its opposition to the South African government.
This critic, and the British audiences referred to, appear to be, not surprisingly, parochially ignorant of such divisions. Surely, the Oppenheimers, Anton Ruperts and Pik Bothas are representative of a section of white South African “liberal” opinion; and would they not be sympathetic to the reformist message of the play? It is this section of South African opinion to which Athol Fugard and his co-devisers give artistic expression.
The play, we are told, contains “indictment.” It is the nature of this indictment and its limitations that I shall attempt to explore, taking as my starting point the final quotation in the preface. It is, too, the nature of the indictment and its limitations, which partly explains the play’s international popularity.
1 The Pass Laws are shown to be inhuman and absurd; but they are also shown to be entrenched and man it appears can do little or nothing to change social structures that rob him of his humanity and “manhood.”
2 The most vigorous character in the play, the photographer Styles, succeeds in moving from working-class to petty-bourgeois status. Consequently, what he comes to represent is acceptable within the class framework advocated four years after the first performance of the play by M. P. Botha in 1976, and by Harry Oppenheimer and associates in 1977.
3 The message of liberal humanitarianism evades and “ignores” what Joe Slovo refers to as “the class basis of racism.” Herein lies the answer to Athol Fugard’s puzzlement at the granting of permission to perform Sizwe Bansi is Dead to audiences outside South Africa, by the authorities of that country.
The strengths and achievements of the play have been widely acclaimed by liberal critics:
The degree of political acuity won by Fugard’s use of a dramatic form unconstrained by narrative demands, in which he can write ’into space and silence’ without being diverted by the linear, temporal exigencies of episode, is exemplified in Sizwe Bansi is Dead(1972).
In his introduction to the 1974 edition of Statements, Athol Fugard discusses the function of silence, and it becomes, with the South African context in mind, a technique of “indictment.” Several critics and writers, notably Nadine Gordimer and Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, have noted that after the post-Sharpeville silence of the 1960s, the 1970s have seen a “resurrection of black writing” within South Africa, mainly in poetry—a poetry which operates through understatement and irony and what has been aptly termed “the cryptic mode.” “Silence” may be thought-provoking, intellectually and emotionally stimulating, or it may signify a failure to make connections, in which case it will serve a negative function. Behind Styles’s statement that he wants to be his own “baas” (quoted in the preface), weighs a heavy silence. As I perceive it, his articulation of his ambition is in no way ironic.
Athol Fugard’s choice of a small number of characters and emphasis on actors ’staking’ their “personal truths,” derives in part from the influence of Jerzy Grotowski’s “theatre laboratory.” In both cases, the method is one whereby the characters reveal themselves to the audience. Sizwe Bansi is Dead is a play based on the elaboration of personal biography. A small number of case histories, situated in appropriate social contexts, serve as social commentary. The focus on a small number of isolated individuals is appropriate to the liberal conceptual framework. In evaluating this method Page 240 | Top of Articleand its application it is pertinent to ask the following questions:
(i) What aspects of South African life do the characters in the play represent and how effectively?
(ii) What are the ideological implications of their responses to society?
(iii) How do these reveal the playwright’s perspective on the issues of class and colour in South Africa?
The preliminary stage directions indicate something of Styles’s role in the society. He is a member of the black petty bourgeoisie, a small-scale entrepreneur who owns his business. In the list of services he offers, pride of place is given to “Reference books,” followed by “Passports” and then “Weddings; engagements, birthday parties and parties.” “Reference books” is a euphemistic term designating the notorious documents all African workers are required to carry under the Pass Laws. These booklets must contain a photograph of the bearer. Therefore, Styles in his New Brighton studio is in a position to capitalise on this aspect of apartheid.
Styles has made an adaptation to the system, which also represents his dependence on it, although this aspect of “personal” and public “truth” is not probed. Silence weighs heavy. The first performance of the play was on 8 October 1972, in Cape Town, more than a decade after the campaign of passive resistance which culminated in the Sharpeville killings and the declaration of a state of emergency in 1960, and four years before the Soweto uprising. Indeed, from this particular aspect—Styles’s fundamental passivity and pragmatism—the play belongs conceptually more to the 1960s than to the 1970s. The Treason Trials of 1958-61 and the Sharpeville Shootings of 1960 belong to a period when organised opposition to apartheid policies was being systematically smashed and the failure of the tactics of passive resistance had weakened morale. The 1960s was also a decade of ruthless censorship systematically imposed, a period when many South African writers were driven to despair and exile. Styles’s response makes sense as a passive and pragmatic individual response to the social circumstances he finds himself in. Exploration does not go beyond this point, however. The play satirises the absurdities of the Pass Laws, yet one of the three characters, whose individualistic entrepreneurial initiative is portrayed in a positive light, paradoxically contributes to the functioning of those very laws. On this issue the playwright is significantly if understandably silent. Styles has learnt to survive as an individual—indeed, individual survival is the play’s major theme—but his success story is the exception and not the rule. His studio is a strongroom of dreams, his function much of the time to encourage the illusions and self-delusions of the black working class, to provide them with temporary catharsis, emotional escapism and a fantasy world of unrealisable aspirations, all of which serve to maintain a system of economic and racial exploitation:
Styles: That’s my man! Look at this, Robert. (Styles reverses the map hanging behind the table to reveal a gaudy painting of a futuristic city.) City of the Future! Look at it. Mr Robert Zwelinzima, man about town, future head of Feltex, walking through the City of the Future!
In certain respects, Styles’s studio, his “strongroom of dreams” is analogous in its function to the church in Oswald Mtshali’s poem “An old man in church.” But where Mtshali recognises the pacifying function of religious ritual in relation to the social services it performs, Fugard’s presentation of Styles as a guardian of illusions misses out on the political implications of that role. The poem is a brilliant piece of sustained, sharp and controlled irony:
I know an old man,
who during the week is a machine working at
productivity would stall,
spoil the master’s high profit estimate,
if on Sunday he did not go to church
to recharge his spiritual batteries.
Similarly, Styles’s photographic services “recharge” the “spiritual batteries” of the black urban poor, so that after a brief respite in his retreat, they may return passive and docile to factory, mine and urban slum, their capacity for patient endurance and acceptance renewed by escapist indulgence in fantasy worlds. The playwright’s perspective on his subject is limited, because descriptive rather than interpretative, with the areas of description themselves being highly selective. Interest in individual character and personal truth overrides other concerns, such as the need to relate the individual to his class and to understand the nature of his social relations in historical and political perspective.
Styles’s responses to apartheid capitalism differ according to his role as wage labourer and petty businessman. As a wage labourer, his relationship with fellow workers is characterised by an intimate camaraderie, whereas the nature of the dialogue, reported and actual, between entrepreneur and client is manipulative and patronising.
In his role as translator of the general foreman’s instructions to the car plant workers, Styles conveys not only the necessary instructions and prescriptions, but demonstrates the contradictions in labour relations and conditions for the automobile factory. Through irony, paradox and carefully-chosen descriptions, which highlight the absurdities characteristic of working conditions in the factory, he achieves a skilful and indirect verbal indictment of industrial relations. He begins to articulate the general conditions of wage-labour exploitation, conditions which highlight the international exploitative nature of the multinationals as they seek to maximise profits by investing in those countries offering a plentiful supply of cheap and readily-available labour. In the play, management is shown to be loyally eager to impress the visiting American Ford boss on his inspection tour of the South African subsidiary, that this labour force is more manageable, more malleable than its Afro-American counterpart, or that, in other words, American investment is secure and will continue to yield high profits.
Styles, in his role as intermediary, comes to the point where he is capable of triggering off potential dissent among his listeners. His role allows him to play a curious verbal power game.
“Styles, tell the boys that when Mr. Henry Ford comes into the plant I want them all to look happy. We will slow down the speed of the line so that they can sing and smile while they are working.”
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!.. . “(Emphasis added.)
Here, he is not just passively relaying messages, he is using language creatively to provoke his receptive listeners into perceiving the contradictions of their situation (and his). The humour is caustic, sharp, double-edged and to the point. By contrast, his use of language in his role as photographer is flat, dull, cliche-ridden, vague and sentimental.
However, Styles’s response to his heightened awareness of the exploitative nature of the multinationals remains fundamentally individual and individualised. Thus the devisers of the play do not explore the potential of the material they have only sketched into space and silence. There remains an evasion of underlying and fundamental issues. Styles does not develop his skills as potential spokesman and intermediary between local white management and black employees. On the contrary, he chooses to withdraw from the situation and to assert his “manhood.” He chooses personal assertion, not public commitment, in the interests of maintaining the family of which he is the head and chief breadwinner. To succeed in his business, he is forced to change and modify his voice and the nature of his communication with his exploited brothers and sisters. He no longer shares the same aspects of a common economic and social reality with them. Instead of highlighting the contradictions and absurdities of industrial apartheid, he becomes a skilful manipulator of individual sensibilities, a public relations officer retailing acceptance of the status quo. Same talent, different objectives and different effects! Styles encourages in individual clients the expression of sentimentality at the expense of reason and thus he performs a socially mystifying and intellectually soporific function. Styles’s “upward social mobility,” new economic status as entrepreneur and sense of personal achievement are marked by a change in his social relations. The implications of these changed social relations are neither recognised nor explored. Styles the photographer still likes to think of himself as some sort of spokesman for “his people,” providing them with a valuable service.
As a character, Styles is static, at times almost grotesque in his antics, like the “monkeys” he so scathingly refers to in his long monologue at the beginning of the play. There can be no character growth, because Styles the entrepreneur has defined the limits and nature of his social relations and has found himself a niche, albeit not a very cosy one, in the established order. Styles’s clients are told to hide their pain, to suppress and submerge their true feelings, to conform to the norms and expectations of society, even when these are directly inimical to their interests.
Contrast this image with the one which emerges from the poems of Sipho Sepamla, published four years later. These are in the main, angry, assertive disclosures of pain. The anger is both private and public, rooted in the historical reality of the Soweto uprisings of 1976. The future is not seen as a closed door but as a door that has to be forced open. Look at the following extracts from “At the dawn of another day”:
it was on that day childrenPage 242 | Top of Article
excused the past
deploring the present
their fists clenched full of the future
at the height of the day
youth spilled all over the place
unleashing its own energy
confounding the moment
exploding the lie
i shall learn myself anew
i shall read myself from the trees
i shall glean myself from all others
i shall wean myself of you. . .
In a subsequent poem in the same collection, Sepamla, unlike Fugard and his co-dramatists, assesses clearly the shifting political sands of the petty traders and entrepreneurs of Soweto. During periods of social crisis, they cannot be relied upon:
the one with the biggest business
in the presence of her customers
i’m not mad
i must live
i must pay the rent
i must pay school-fees
i have no husband
i won’t sell on tick
Sis’ Rosie, the Soweto she been queen, is another version of Styles. She too is a petty entrepreneur, who is anxious not to lose her precarious foothold in the system. The difference in presentation is that Sipho Sepamla’s poem “Queens/Kings,” places Sis Rosie’s individual response with all its understandable limitations within a broader and a more specific social and political reality. Here silence, that is the lack of poetic commentary, functions as indictment.
Sipho Sepamla’s pain cannot be suppressed. Indeed, his experiences and responses, trigger off the need to articulate pain:
I want to remember these things
because I had never known such hate before
I remember the click of my tongue
my muscles tightening round my chest
I looked at his covered face
feeling the crush of pain as he was being felled
by that bullet
There is here an insistence on the need to recall images of pain; the poet wrestles with words (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot) to discover, to make coherent and to hold on to the reality of his identity.
On the contrary, Styles the photographer/salesman encourages his pliant customers to dream unattainable dreams and “smile” at the world. And yet we know Styles has been critical of an economic system that makes the factory worker a slave to a machine. The cost of Styles’s economic success is a stifling of his nascent political awareness and an attempt to stifle that of others. The 48-year-old municipality worker, holding his Standard Six Certificate, Third Class and dreaming in front of Styles’s camera of becoming a “graduate, self-made,” is typical of Styles’s customers, in orientation and aspiration. The image of the self-made man pulling himself up by his boot straps is a key concept in the mythology and ideological superstructure of industrial capitalist societies.
The difference between the devious sentimentality of the entrepreneur and the realistic appraisal of the factory worker exposing the hypocrisy of management and foreman can be demonstrated in the use Styles makes of the key word SMILE in these two contrasting situations.
(a) Styles’s role as interpreter/translator affords him, as I have already argued, the opportunity of exposing the foreman and management to ridicule and this ridicule fulfils two functions. First, it serves to sharpen the self-awareness of Styles and his brothers—an awareness, which in its apprehension of socio-economic realities is demystifying. And secondly, exposing the white foreman to ridicule punctures the official mythology propping up the concept of white superiority. That which is officially sacred is made to look absurd, grotesque. Baas Bradley’s linguistic limitations render him temporarily dependent on the man he is used to ordering about. Styles’s translations and adaptation of Bradley’s instructions implicitly and skilfully make the point that if the workers “smile” for the American managing director of the multinational corporation, they are conniving in their own alienation, they are playing the role of “monkeys,” puppets, clowns, formally allotted them. When Styles conveys the message “you must see to it that you are wearing a mask of smiles,” he underlines the point that they are performing in false consciousness, a role that is in diametric opposition to the expression of authentic feelings and responses. Like Page 243 | Top of Articlethe machines they operate, they are groomed and programmed for inspection. Nor are they rewarded for “smiling”—they are required to make up for lost time and lost profits, after the rapid departure of the visiting American boss, by the same management which gave the instruction for the productive process to be slowed down. The word mask signals the fundamental opposition between appearance and reality. Styles is conscious of this dichotomy and exploits his role of interpreter to mediate powerfully and arouse in his brothers a consciousness of their true position. His efforts are so effective that he is taken aback by the assertive and vigorous responses he provokes. But uncertain of his intentions and lacking any clear political direction or objective, he puts a brake on his verbal provocations, which ultimately become only temporary and spontaneous diversions from the normal, work routine. Styles’s monologue evokes something of the mounting tensions and potentially explosive nature of tightly controlled and rigid industrial relations. It is significant that on the threshold of political initiative, he draws back, afraid of the forces he is beginning to unleash:
“Gentlemen, he says we must remember, when Mr. Ford walks in, that we are South African monkeys, not American monkeys. South African monkeys are much better trained.
Before I could finish, a voice was shouting out of the crowd: “He’s talking shit!” I had to be careful!.. .
He withdraws into caution and individual self-interest and leaves factory floor for photographic studio. In the final analysis, the games he plays at the expense of the credibility of the managers of industry have more entertainment than politicising value and, due to his restraint and self-imposed limitations, serve only as a safety valve allowing frustrated workers to let off steam, to release tensions partially and temporarily. Indeed, after the fleeting appearance of the big white boss from the USA, “It ended up with us working harder that bloody day than ever before.”
In reviewing his situation, Styles determines to seek a more permanent escape from the conditions he has described so well. Chance and lucky coincidence enable him to succeed. But, from a broader perspective, his individual success has to be balanced against the unmentioned failures, against the many who do not succeed in finding a way to escape from the conditions of wage labourers on the factory floor, from conditions that make men feel they have lost their “manhood.”
(b) Styles the photographer is continuously asking his customers to smile, and not just at the camera but at the world. “Smile” is the last word of the play and his parting advice to Robert/Sizwe. The function of Styles’s verbal skills has changed. He no longer uses them to distinguish “mask” from reality. Reality and fantasy are fused in the dream worlds he sells to his customers. As it is demonstrated to us, Styles’s commercial success depends on the gullibility, sentimentality and good-natured naivety of his customers. They are all stamped with the same quality of amiable simplicity and exhibit a certain dull docility. Indeed, they belong to a stereotype that has links and affinities with the standard presentation of “good,” i.e. passive black characters in South African fiction of the liberal, Christian humanist tradition. Such characters are humble, passive and stoic. Simplicity and docility can be associated with Sizwe Bansi and his willing and pathetic participation in the fantasy world populated by self-made men and propagated by proprietor Styles. Like Styles, Sizwe directs his energy towards the immediate goal of individual survival, with his responsibilities to wife and children uppermost in his mind. His one angry outburst is made while drunk and is directed against the shallow hypocrisy of the establishment of so-called “independent homelands.”
MAN (To the audience) I must tell you, friend. . . when a car passes or the wind blows up the dust, Ciskeian Independence makes you cough.
I’m telling you, friend. . . put a man in a pondok and call that Independence? My good friend, let me tell you. . . Ciskeian Independence is shit!
Sizwe’s comment is a spontaneous response which offsets and undermines official pronouncements on the subject. But it is an atypical and isolated outburst. Our main impression of Sizwe is of a man who is simple, humble, intellectually limited and politically unaware, a man unaccustomed to asking questions, a man who readily complies with Styles’s repeated injunctions to smile at the world. These injunctions and what they conceal, signal Styles’s new status and economic position. His social mobility is an example of how capitalism contains and absorbs potential voices of dissent. It is the failure to probe the empty cliches of the photographer Styles, and their political implications, that leaves an uneasy sense of dissatisfaction in the minds of those who seek more from theatre than entertainment or descriptive narrative that reminds guilty liberal consciences, especially outside South Africa, that the Pass Law system is inhuman, unworkable and absurd.
There emerge two contradictory messages in the play: a cry of outraged human dignity stemming from the indignities of the urban situation confronting Sizwe Bansi (a cry echoed in Styles’s earlier commentary on his work routine at the factory) and a plea for patient endurance on the part of Styles the photographer, a plea which at moments does not escape the charge of complacency. The nature of these contradictions is inevitable, for they are embedded in the liberal position itself. The cries of outrage against the alienating conditions of the South African wage-labour system have to be balanced against the more persistent voices of accommodation. Contradictions also occur within the fragmented consciousness of individual characters such as Sizwe and Styles, who contain within themselves different and opposing voices.
Sizwe, in contrast to his customary tone of patient perplexity, does make one direct appeal to the audience for sympathetic understanding of his simple, indeed simplistic, plea: the right to urban employment and identity.
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...?
The questions he puts to the audience are purely emotional appeals to “man’s better nature,” a key concept in liberal philosophy, which at this point in the play manifests itself as an undefined existential assumption to be shared by actor and audience. Audiences are “involved” to the extent that they are asked to “feel” for the plight of Sizwe and participate in an emotional and abstract ritual of idealised liberal brotherhood.
At this point Sizwe shows himself to be a victim of acute alienation. Underlying the apparent simplicity of the Man’s plea can be detected deep psychological malaise. First, Sizwe’s or the Man’s initial assertion is negative, self-deprecating, almost apologetic. The contrast in tone with Sipho Sepamla’s “At the dawn of another day” again springs to mind. Secondly, he sees himself through the eyes of others. Where the “i” of Sepamla’s poem is self-defining, the “I” of Sizwe’s appeal is defined for him by others. He is implicitly trapped in labels and categories that bear little relation to his experiences and perceptions of the world around him. It is only when he is drunk that a more authentic response surfaces, as I have already noted. There is a rupture between individual sensibility and its expression on the one hand, and societal norms and expectations on the other, where the former represent class interests fundamentally at odds with the latter. Liberal rhetoric and ritual appeals to universal brotherhood can only “dodge” this issue. Thirdly, not only does Sizwe lament his degraded status in the eyes of the ruling white bourgeoisie, he also laments, though he does not understand, the state of alienation that reduces black urban workers to fragmented islands of defensive and exclusive material self-interest. The lesson of self-interest, as the best strategy for survival in a ruthless and reified world, is the one that Buntu attempts to teach his unwilling pupil; it is the same lesson that Leah preaches to Xuma in Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy, and it receives the same instinctively hostile reception.
Behind Sizwe’s appeals and the dialogue that follows, we find a thinly-veiled indictment of the Pass System. But there is more at stake: Sizwe and Buntu are less than “man,” not simply because of their colour but because of their class. The problem of alienation is not simply a problem of colour. Replacing Baas Bradley and other “bigger bosses” by black counterparts would not change the real face of capitalism.
In the closing lines of the play, Robert/Sizwe is asked to smile. Styles is in his position behind the camera, but the audience is left feeling uneasy about Robert Zwelinzima’s precarious urban future and the long-term outcome of the false identity game Buntu persuades him to play. Styles’s final message to Robert carried more than a literal meaning; for here “smile” involves the adoption of a mask and identification with it. It also means accepting a split personality, torn between a public image and a suppressed private reality with which it is inevitably at odds. The devisers of the play have themselves exercised caution in the focus they give to the situations and characters they have chosen to sketch on to the silence of the stage. However, this may paradoxically explain the acclaim with which middle-class audiences in the West, and indeed elsewhere, have received the play. At times, the laughter is a little too light, the smiles a little too thin; for ultimately neither laughter nor smiles are adequate even if ambivalent responses to the painful realities of a strife-torn land.
The play belongs to a liberal tradition which is both international and national.
By way of conclusion, I wish to focus on certain ideological affinities Sizwe Bansi is Dead shares with two earlier South African novels, namely Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy. The perspective of these writers is that of the liberal visionary. (In this respect it is misleading to argue that Mine Boy is a proletarian novel whose plot displays a marxist perspective on life, just as it is misleading to discuss Sizwe Bansi is Dead as though it carried a politically radical message.)
1 The humanitarian impulse is uppermost in the characters presented sympathetically to audience or reader. Characters like the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, Xuma, and Sizwe Bansi constantly appeal to the better side of human nature—an existential assumption never defined or contextually specified.
2 The message of the liberal visionary writer is reformist, often at odds with the reality described. It is a message which papers over cracks which in reality threaten the whole edifice. The vision of society, in this kind of literature, is static and pessimistic with regard to material conditions and progress. Appeals are made to the emotions at the expense of reason. Such appeals gloss over hard social realities by a dubious process of sublimation and idealisation. Pessimism with regard to material progress is offset by directing readers’ and audiences’ attention to spiritual or material fantasy worlds, in which problems miraculously disappear.
3 To carry the reformist message, everyman figures and ostensibly universal types are frequently used. Thus, Sizwe Bansi is referred to as “the Man” and Xuma as “the man” who comes “from the north.” The Reverend Stephen Kumalo is, par excellence, the suffering Christian pilgrim and a direct descendant of John Bunyan’s allegorical hero. The novel, however, is not allegorical but borrows from the later traditions of social realism. Social contexts, periods and places are all to a limited extent particularised and specified, though they lack the vivid situational immediacy that characterises the work of such writers as Alex La Guma. The reformist message produces a tension of modes and methods in the three works cited for comparison.
4 Great emphasis is attached to the importance of individual morality. Characters held up for our approval are usually those who accommodate themselves, in one way or another, to a status quo inherently inimical to their material interests.
Thus we meet the paradox of the cult of the individual given literary expression in contexts clearly inimical to individual self-fulfilment. Ndotsheni (Natal), Claremont (Johannesburg), Malay Camp (Johannesburg) and New Brighton (Port Elizabeth) are shown to be environments, in which the practice of a privatised or minority code of liberal ethics becomes problematic to say the least. The treatment of Ndotsheni in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country is an interesting example of the failure of the liberal position to connect the superstructure to the social and economic bases of society. Stephen Kumalo’s moral code, romantic pastoral attachment to the land and the “tribe” and his repeated lament over the rural exodus to the towns are typical of the ahistorical notion that individual moral precept can change social conditions and that morals make men, rather than men morals. Kumalo’s, and by extension the author’s moral vision, ignore: (a) the historical background of the area. In Natal “the use by the settlers of state power to force the African peasantry to become workers,” by depriving them of their land and liberty, had led to the Bambata Rebellion of 1906, in which “some 4,000 Africans and 25 whites were killed in the fighting.” (b) that the commercial success of John Jarvis and his kind depends on the continuing exploitation and expropriation of rural black labour, deprived of their ancestral farm lands and forced into either a rural or an urban wage labour system. Thus, Stephen Kumalo’s moral injunctions have no historical or practical validity, except perhaps in heaven.
Kumalo, Xuma and Sizwe Bansi are models for the moral message their creators use them to convey. They are long-suffering, passive and accommodating by nature. At the same time, they often exhibit feelings of helpless moral anguish and intense loneliness. The authors’ literary pursuit of the cult of the individual tends to isolate characters from group experience. We see little of Xuma in his work situation, more attention being given to the romantic love theme. Sizwe and Xuma do assert the right to urban identity and residence, a position Alan Paton would appear to shy away from in Cry the Beloved Country. Nevertheless, Xuma offers himself as a sacrificial lamb to the legal and penal machinery of a system he has labelled unjust. Motivated by personal loyalty to his white liberal brother, he contemplates an act of futile heroism that can serve no social function. Ironically, considerations of colour override those of class. True sacrifice, Page 246 | Top of Articleargues Kihika, the freedom fighter in Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat, should have a practical objective and impact.
It is interesting to note that Athol Fugard has linked his political and artistic position and his responses to that position with those of Alan Paton, who, par excellence, represents South African liberalism:
I think I can go on producing plays under segregation (mixed audiences are not allowed) even admitting some non-whites to private readings. But eventually I may have to take a stand like Paton’s (i.e., a certain degree of political commitment). We are in a corner. And all we can do is dodge here and push there. And under it all there’s a backwash of guilt.
No matter how well or effectively it is presented, the liberal position tends to be negative in its impact. It is a position caught in the web of its own contradictions. As a response to the South African situation it remains inadequate, characterised by “dodges” and evasions. Kumalo performs a salvage operation for members of his family lost in urban iniquity and tries to hold family and “tribe” together in a Christian, pastoral vision, which is blind to past and present realities. Xuma, like some latterday Don Quixote, dedicates his life to a personal crusade waged in the name of universal brotherly love. Sizwe/Robert smiles at a world that robs him of his “manhood,” and Styles asserts his manhood at the price of serving a system whose inhumanity he once deplored.
Source: Hilary Seymour, “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead: A Study of Artistic Ambivalence,” in Race and Class, 1980, Vol. 21, pp. 273-89.
Clurman, Harold, review of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, in The Nation, December 12, 1974, pp. 637-38.
Gill, Brendan, “The Great Ratiocinator,” in The New Yorker, November 25, 1974, p. 131.
Hughes, Catharine, “Two from South Africa,” in America, December 21, 1974, p. 415.
Kauffmann, Stanley, review of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island, in The New Republic, December 21, 1974, pp. 16,26.
Kroll, Jack, “The Beloved Country,” in Newsweek, December 2, 1974, p. 98.
Vandenbroucke, Russell, Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard, Ad. Donker, 1986, p. 167.
Weales, Gerald, review of Sizwe Bansi is Dead, in Commonweal, January 17, 1975, pp. 330-31.
Brink, Andre, ’“No Way Out’: Sizwe Bansi is Dead and the Dilemma of Political Drama in South Africa,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1993, pp. 438-55.
This article focuses on the play’s cyclic nature and treatment of apartheid.
Donahue, Francis, “Apartheid’s Dramatic Legacy: Athol Fugard,” in The Midwest Quarterly, Spring, 1995, pp. 323-31.
This interview provides an overview of Fugard’s career, including Sizwe Bansi Is Dead.
Lester, Eleanor, “I Am in Despair about South Africa,” in New York Times, December 1, 1974, Section 2, p. 5.
This article features an interview with Fugard and discusses the genesis of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead.
Peck, Richard, “Condemned to Chose, But What? Existentialism in Selected Works by Fugard, Brink, and Gordimer,” in Research in African Literatures, Fall, 1992, pp. 67-83.
This article explores the existential aspects of Fugard’s plays.
Walder, Dennis, “Crossing Boundaries: The Genesis of the Township Plays,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1993, pp. 409-23.
This article surveys Fugard’s “township plays.”