Mbuyisa Makhubu was photographed during the 1976 Soweto uprising carrying a dying boy. He later vanished. Now all eyes are on a mystery immigration detainee.
An iconic photo from the June 16, 1976 Soweto uprising shows Mbuyisa Makhubu, then 18, carrying a dying Hector Pieterson, who had been hit by police bullets fired at protesting schoolchildren. Makhubu was reportedly harassed by South African authorities and vanished soon after.
By: Nicholas Keung Immigration reporter, Published on Tue Nov 12 2013
A man who has been languishing in immigration detention in Canada for almost a decade is believed to be a South African anti-apartheid icon whose disappearance has remained a mystery.
Mbuyisa Makhubu was 18 when he was photographed carrying dying schoolboy Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old shot by South African police on June 16, 1976, during the Soweto uprising. The image, which captured the apartheid government’s brutality against the African majority population, became a symbol of resistance, and June 16 has since been marked as National Youth Day.
Makhubu was forced into hiding shortly after the picture was published. His family last heard from him in 1978 in a letter from Nigeria.
Now, 37 years after Makhubu’s disappearance, the mystery may have been solved by a Canada Border Services Agency investigator, a source familiar with the probe told the Star.
“There is no doubt the man in jail in Canada is South African. There is no doubt he is Mbuyisa,” said the source, who is not authorized to speak to the media and asked to remain anonymous
The source said the CBSA investigator was assigned in November of 2012 to try to determine the identity of the detainee, who entered Canada in 1988 under the name of Victor Vinnetou and has been detained since 2004. The investigator then contacted the South African government, raising the possibility that the detainee was Makhubu.
The CBSA said it couldn’t comment on the case, and the South African consulate referred the Star’s inquiries to Johannesburg, which has not responded to the paper’s repeated requests for comment.
The developments have captivated many South Africans. The Star, headquartered in Johannesburg, recently reported that “one of apartheid South Africa’s most enduring mysteries is on the cusp of being solved.”
The belief that it is Makhubu who’s being currently detained in Lindsay, Ont. is supported by members of his family, who were shown his photo by South African officials contacted by CBSA earlier this summer.
“We are convinced it is him,” Makhubu’s cousin, Mbali Simelane, told the Star in a phone interview from Johannesburg. “There are other clues concerning the places where he was born in Soweto and where he grew up.”
According to legal documents obtained by the Star, Vinnetou, who is believed to be around 55, arrived in Canada in October 1988 using fraudulent documents.
He went underground after his refugee claim was rejected in early 1990s. In August 2004, he was arrested by police in Toronto on an immigration warrant.
“He was pressed for his true identity but refused to provide it, saying that if he did provide the true identity he would be returned to South Africa, and he held on to the fact that as long as he does not provide his true identity a travel document cannot be issued for him,” Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicator Ama Beecham said at Vinnetou’s latest detention review in October.
According to the source, the detainee still lives with the trauma of apartheid and believes the white supremacist National Party remains in power. (The party lost power in 1994.)
It does not help that his initial requests for help from the South African consulate office fell on deaf ears, the source said.
“He became very paranoid that South Africa didn’t want him back,” said the source. “He refused to give his real name because he’s afraid he’d be sent back to South Africa and killed.”
Vinnetou had refused to attend detention reviews or talk to anyone until this summer, when the South African government sent its representatives to Toronto to look for him.
In September, DNA samples from Makhubu’s family were apparently sent to CBSA for cross-checking with the detainee. It’s not known why the DNA results have not been released.
Based on the legal documents obtained by the Star, Canadian officials indicated there have been ongoing discussions at the diplomatic levels between the two countries involving Vinnetou’s repatriation, “notwithstanding his decision to wilfully withhold his identity.”
“This man is a hero in South Africa. Everybody remembers that photo,” said Simelane, Makhubu’s cousin. “This man has lived his life on his own in wilderness, without his family. We don’t understand why it is taking so long to bring him home.”
At the October detention hearing, the detainee was blamed for his own lengthy detention.
“It is now at the nine-year mark, but it is also very clear that the length of detention has been brought on primarily by Mr. Vinnetou himself as he has refused to co-operate … in establishing his nationality, and in putting together a removal plan,” said Beecham, the adjudicator at that hearing.
“In fact, he has actively thwarted the process of his removal from Canada.”