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archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

keeping sizwe bansi alive

Sizwe Bansi is Dead—currently on a four-week run at Terra Kulture under the direction of Sunkanmi Adebayo—is doubly remarkable as a piece of theatre. In the first instance, it is a collaborative work, the result of a unique theatrical process.

Athol Fugard (one of the great living dramatists, and a white South-African), essentially co-wrote the play with two black actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Fugard’s preliminary ideas in 1972 were deepened through Kani and Ntshona’s improvisations. The result is a play that feels and sounds right, a serious work on the black South African experience that nevertheless retains the joyfulness of human life.

The question it asks is: what does it mean to be a human being? The answer is basic, and a little bitter: to be a human being is to find a way to survive, even in appalling situations.

The play is remarkable for another reason: the fluid nature of the collaboration between Fugard, Kani and Ntshona basically gave all three of them “plausible deniability.” Were there to have been trouble with the law – and the play was certainly critical enough of the status quo to have invited such trouble – all three of the authors could say, “I didn’t write it!”

Yet, the commitment of these three to the vision expressed in the work was such that Fugard would later describe it as “a form of Zen spontaneity,” to which any sort of pretence or deception would have been fatal. Let me draw a distinction between the point of Sizwe Bansi is Dead and its purpose. The purpose of the play, as in all tragic theatre, is cathartic; that catharsis is here established by bringing us into the emotions of survival and the desire to live.

The point of the play is quite something else: to demonstrate how the life of a human being is tangled up with documentation. Fugard and his collaborators show us how complex it can be to navigate this knot of paperwork, particularly within the network of petty humiliations that propped up the apartheid state. We see how absurd it is, this insistence on putting paper before people, and we see the weight of suffering it can bring with it. The action of the play, like the existential theatre in which it originates, is confined to a minimal setting.

The original performances had Kani and Ntshona playing the three written roles; the current Nigerian run (the production is by Wole Oguntokun) has three actors. Styles, a photographer, opens the play with a long monologue, which lasts about a third of the performance time. He is a modestly successful man, having escaped the frustrations of a menial factory job to open his own photography studio. That newfound career enables him to tell us the stories of his people, the poor black people living in the township.

The act of having a photo taken is like a door into a person’s dreams. As Styles says, foreshadowing some of the play’s later action, “You must understand one thing. We own nothing except ourselves. The world and its laws allows us nothing, except ourselves. There is nothing we can leave behind when we die except the memory of ourselves.” Photography becomes a handy deposit of this essential work of memory.

Not long afterwards, in walks a man who really does own nothing but himself. He introduces himself as Robert Zwelinzima. That is the name in his passbook, the name under which he works and is paid, the name under which he got his suit on a payment plan; but it is not, of course, his real name. He has borrowed it from a dead body he discovered one night, because his own real passbook contains a stamp that disqualifies him from working or living in Port Elizabeth. The name in his own real passbook is Sizwe Bansi. So, who then is this man: is he Sizwe or is he Robert? As far as the state is concerned, he is Robert Zwelinzima. Sizwe Bansi, to the best of the state’s knowledge, is dead.

It is not a deception Sizwe has undertaken lightly. He has contemplated (with the assistance of a third character, Buntu) the dispiriting realities of bureaucracy: a letter of approval from the Native Commissioner in King William’s Town (where he is from), another from the Native Commissioner in Port Elizabeth (where he wishes to stay), a stamp from the Senior Officer at the Labour Bureau, a visit to the Administration Office in New Brighton, and then an application for a Hawker’s Permit. None of it is possible, anyway, because he has already overstayed his welcome in Port Elizabeth, and is essentially living a fugitive existence.

As the unsentimental Buntu says to him, “There’s no way out Sizwe. You’re not the first one who has tried to find it.” So, he acquires Robert Zwelinzima’s passbook, memorises his Native Identity number, and becomes Robert. “We burn this book,” his friend advises him, referring to the original passbook, “and Sizwe Bansi disappears off the face of the earth.”

In his most recent novel Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee puts it this way: “Whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state is whether the citizen is alive or dead.”

It is a chilling truth. You are not really born until the state issues you a birth certificate; you’re not officially dead until someone pronounces you as such and signs a piece of paper to that effect. And the person who does this certification must himself be certified by the state. Between those two extremes, just how often are you required to prove, with the aid of an identification card or some form of endorsed document, that you are yourself? This burden of proof is what makes the heart race every time a policeman, his fingers twitching on the barrel of his gun, stops you to demand your particulars.

Sizwe Bansi, among friends, at church, and in letters to his family, remains Sizwe Bansi; only to the police and the authorities is he Robert Zwelinzima. To be a human be ing is to be in constant battle against this state-imposed mania for documentation, to keep the inner Sizwe alive even while masquerading as a Robert. To be human is to discover that there can be an unsuspected dignity in compromise.

Thirty-seven years after it was first performed, Sizwe Bansi is Dead continues to ring true as an indictment of apartheid-era cruelties in particular, and state-sponsored psychological violence in general. It is the kind of testament, the kind of document, that humanity could do with more of, and for it, we are eternally in the debt of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona.


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