"No Way Out": 'Sizwe Bansi Is Dead' and the Dilemma of Political Drama in South Africa

Article excerpt

In the play Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, which was "devised by" (1) 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. (25-26)

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" (26).

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" (26-27).

The statement is echoed in Antigone's acknowledgment in The Island that "I know I must die" (76), and in the resignation to "a susceptibility to death" in Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act (82). This is Unamuno territory: "The man of flesh and bone; the man who is born, suffers, and dies--above all, who dies" (Unamuno 1). 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 (AF 81).

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" (Vandenbroucke 123), but also as a "watershed" of a "new theatre" in South Africa (Mshengu 46). Stanley Kauffmann even dismissed the play as "superficial" because it was, he believed, "only about the troubles of South African blacks" (Rev. of Sizwe 26). 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. …