South African Apartheid as Ugly History

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Sizwe Banzi is Dead

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

When Athol Fugard’s scalding play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, about racism in South Africa, opened in 1972, all of that country was rotting under apartheid (racial segregation). The play caused storms of controversy when it debuted in that nation and evoked even more controversy as it traveled from city to city around the world. It won the best play award in London and its stars won Tony awards here. Now, it is over forty years later and apartheid has been gone for twenty years in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released from prison, served as President of his nation and died. Apartheid, long dead, today is just history, a dusty relic of the past.

Yet, just the memory of it, brought back with volcanic thunder in a new staging of the play at the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, N.J., that opened last week, is enough to turn your stomach. Apartheid lives on in South African history just as slavery does so many years later in American history. You cannot help but feel the rage of the actors on stage as they explain what apartheid was and what it did to people, both black and white.

Under apartheid, instituted in 1948 by the white government, blacks were not only forbidden to live in towns with whites, but could not be seen with whites anywhere unless they had special permission (usually at work). During most of apartheid blacks could not vote or be elected to Congress. Blacks could not travel without their ‘passbook’ and it regulated where they could visit and for how long. Anyone caught without a passbook was arrested and faced prison time. Blacks in South Africa demonstrated against the pass book laws in 1960 at Sharpeville. Police swarmed in and fired on the crowd, killing 69 and injuring many more. The massacre started the long drive to the end of apartheid over 30 years later.

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead is as complicated as it is simple. A man, Sizwe, is stuck in a city other than his own because he has no passport, a document required for all blacks to carry in South Africa to prove who they were and a way for the whites to control them. His friend Buntu comes up with a rather clever scheme to help him solve his passport problem. As the scheme unfolds, and the two men talk about racial oppression, playwright Fugard’s anger explodes.

“I am a human being! I am a human being!” Sizwe yells at the audience after slamming his hat down on to the stage floor. He is in a rage and so is the audience.

This follows a long, drawn out explanation of Buntu to Sizwe about what the very restrictive passport is for, why you needed it and how you get another once you lose yours. The mere description of the long, drawn-out process shows you everything you need to know about how the whites, and the all white government, controlled the blacks, who made up nearly 90% of the population of the country. They were the prisoners of the whites on every level of life and even forced to live in all black enclaves throughout the country. They had no rights at all. “We are not men,” howls Buntu.

Fugard (who wrote the play in collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona) excoriates racism in his writing, while at the same time keeping the story simple. He does not lose his message by spreading out the story in many directions, as it could have flowed. He keeps it tight and lights his fuse towards the end of the story.

Now, in 1972, there was no resolution to the racism problem. Now, 40 years later, we know that apartheid ended. The play now serves as a story about the past, but apartheid is certainly not a dead issue in the world. Racism, in many shades, still permeates the life of many strife torn countries in Africa and, in a different way, many cities and towns in the United States.

The last six months have certainly shown that. Whites have been pitted against blacks here in the incident of the white officer shooting and killing a black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri (the cop was never charged with anything) and the choking death of a black man, Eric Garner, in New York by a white cop, never charged with anything, either. We have had protest marches and riots over the two issues. Pundits and politicians have wailed that the incidents show that racism is not dead in America.

Sizwe Banzi… succeeds because of Fugard’s superb script, but it soars, too, due to the superior acting of Atandwa Kani as Styles, the passport schemer, and Mncedisi Shabangu as Sizwe. They both play very ordinary people trying to do nothing except survive under white rule and find work. They are no Mandelas. Yet the two men are fine representatives of young men surrounded by problems in the present and looking at more of them in the future. They work under the taut and expert direction of John Kani. He uses a nearly bare stage for his play, letting the two actors call up a nation in trouble in their work.

The staff of the McCarter Theater, one of the oldest regional theaters in America, should be applauded for the way that it provides the historical background for this play, and all of its others. There are stories about apartheid in the program and in the theater’s online site. There are twenty minute pre-show presentations on the history of the play and, from time to time, post show dialogues with the actors and director and questions and answers about the historical events in this and other plays. The McCarter people do a better job than most large theaters in letting ticket holders know the historical backdrop of the show.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the McCarter Theater, the Syracuse Stage and the Market Theatre. Lighting: Mannie Manim. Sets and costumes: John Kani. The play is directed by John Kani, with David York as production director. It runs through February 15.

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