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June 11, 2012 marked the 80th birthday of the South African playwright Athol Fugard. In celebration, Sky Arts aired a documentary entitled ‘Falls The Shadow’ on the eve of his birthday, which documented the life and works of this extraordinarily accomplished man. Jacques Viljoen discovers more about this compelling figure.
Fugard is best known for his politically charged plays such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972) and Master Harold… and the Boys (1982). The film adaptation of his novel Tsotsi won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He is one of the most decorated playwrights of all time, receiving awards and honorary degrees from a number of universities including Princeton and Yale.
He was born on June 8 1932 in Middleburg, a small town in the Eastern Cape, situated in the very heart of South Africa. It was an apt location for the birth of a man who would go on to distill the very essence of a nation during its darkest days. His parents moved to Port Elizabeth where he attended school before moving on a technical college with the help of a scholarship. He later enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT) where he studied Social Anthropology and Philosophy but dropped out in 1953 shortly before graduating.
By this time The National Party had already been in power for five years and Apartheid policies were well entrenched. This was one of the reasons why the young and idealistic student left Cape Town and hitchhiked across the continent to North Africa with a friend. His experiences over the next few years provided inspiration for a number of plays, notably The Captain’s Tiger, A Memoir for the Stage.
He soon returned to South Africa where he married Sheila Meiring, a UCT drama student. Two years later he moved to Johannesburg to work as a law clerk at the Native Commissioner’s Court: a court that dealt with disputes between Non-White South Africans under Native Law but was run entirely by Whites. This is where Fugard experienced the injustices of Apartheid first hand, especially the absurdity of the Pass Law, which required every Black and Colored person over the age of 16 to carry a identity pass on them at all times. It was here that Fugard was inspired to write the critically acclaimed play Sizwe Banzi is Dead.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a drama depicting the difficulties faced by non-White South Africans seeking work in the city under the draconian pass-law of Apartheid South Africa. Although the play is quintessentially South African, its themes were universal and the play has been shown across the world.
The play starts in a photographer’s studio in Port Elizabeth which a man calling himself Robert Zwelinzima visits in order to have a portrait photograph taken for his Pass Book. The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks where we find out that Robert Zwelinzima is actually Sizwe Banzi, who is assuming the identity of a dead man whose body Banzi’s friend stumbled upon in a back alley after a night of drinking. Banzi had no Pass Book, Zwelinzima did, so ‘Sizwe Banzi’ must die. This demonstrates the lengths that people would go to in order to obtain a Pass Book.