As we walk into the Studio Theatre to take our seat for tonight’s play, a man in an official looking uniform checks my ticket, then checks my face.  “You sit on the white side,” he says. This official turns out to be Sibusiso Mamba, who plays Sizwe Banzi in the production. This slightly unnerving start […]

As we walk into the Studio Theatre to take our seat for tonight’s play, a man in an official looking uniform checks my ticket, then checks my face.  “You sit on the white side,” he says. This official turns out to be Sibusiso Mamba, who plays Sizwe Banzi in the production. This slightly unnerving start to the evening precedes the uncomfortable feeling that any discussion about South Africa’s apartheid inevitably brings up.

Set in 1972 in Port Elizabeth, Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a play split into two distinct halves, although there’s no interval in the 95-minute running time. The first half is a monologue from Styles, a charismatic photographer who was once an exploited factory worker and is now a self-made man, running his own studio. Styles is played by Tonderai Munyevu, an actor whose relentless energy sees him bounding across the stage with such force it’s almost hard to keep up. Styles describes the journey he made from the local Ford plant to running his own business. The story might be energetic and full of laughs, as he mimics staff at the plant and his family members, but the difficulties he’s had to overcome to find an identity and ‘be a man’ in apartheid South Africa are very real.

At the halfway point, the lighter mood of the first half switches distinctly when there’s a knock on Style’s studio door and in walks Robert Zwelinzima. Robert, played by Sibusiso Mamba in a moving performance throughout, struggles to even say his own name. Robert is soon swept up in Style’s slick sales routine and poses for photos to send back to his wife with a letter. It’s at this point when we find out who Robert really is. As Robert recites his letter, he reveals that Sizwe Banzi is dead.

Munyevu appears again in the latter half of the play, this time as Buntu, a sensible and determined man who’s agreed to help Sizwe by giving him a place to stay and finding him a job, so he can support his family back home. Sizwe doesn’t have the right stamp in his passbook, which means it’s only a matter of time before he’s sent home. When the duo stumble upon Robert Zwelinzima’s dead body they take his passbook, which does have the right stamp. Sizwe now has a momentous decision to make: for him to stay in Port Elizabeth, his identity needs to die.

The key focus of the play is the huge sacrifices ordinary people have to make to work and provide for their families in a country they can’t call home. Sizwe’s future might seem optimistic, but he’s well aware that this new life may not last long when he states, “A black man staying out of trouble? Impossible! Our skin is our trouble.”

Sarah Stewart.