ON JUNE 16, 1976, the day that changed South Africa, the children of Soweto took to the streets to protest against being made to study in the language of their oppressors.
They marched quietly, carrying hand-painted banners that read “To hell with Afrikaans”, and dressed in school uniforms to emphasise the peaceful nature of the protest. By the end of the day many of them were dead.
What prompted the police to shoot at the children is disputed but, once they started, they kept going. The schoolchildren threw back stones, a pathetic response to the armed might of apartheid’s most hated enforcers. Others turned and ran, jumping over bodies as they fled.
The eventual death toll is thought to have been 176.
Mbuyisa Makhubu, a lanky 18-year-old boy in dungarees, stopped to scoop up a dying child. As he sprinted away from the gunfire, the younger boy bleeding in his arms, he was joined by a girl screaming in anguish, running alongside.
She was Antoinette Sithole and the dying boy was her younger brother, Hector Pieterson, 12. A photograph of this scene went around the globe, showing the lengths to which South Africa’s rulers were willing to go to safeguard its racist society.
Makhubu was transformed into “Hector’s hero” in Soweto but also became No 1 on the police hit list. When he could hide no longer, he went on the run. His family and friends have not seen him since.
Now, almost four decades later, the mystery of what happened to Makhubu may have been solved. Representatives of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party have told his family that a man held on immigration charges in Toronto for more than 10 years has been “confirmed and verified” as the real Makhubu.
Makhubu went on the run but may now have been found
Most Sowetans who were there on June 16 will never forget the terrible events of that day — least of all Sam Nzima, who took the photograph of Makhubu and the two children.
“The police told them [the children] to disperse. So the students started to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika — now it’s the national anthem, but then it was banned,” said Nzima, now 80.
“That song provoked them. The commander pulled out his gun and shot them. I saw the little boy fall down.”
Nzima took the film out of his camera and hid it in his sock before the police pounced. The next day it was all over the front pages. “I thought it was a good picture, but it became an internationally iconic picture,” said Nzima.
While the picture kept Makhubu’s memory alive, the teenager himself disappeared. The only contact with his family was a letter received by his mother two years later, saying he was ill and in Nigeria. Then he vanished completely.
Makhubu’s family assumed he was dead until, in 2012, his younger brother Raul received a phone call from Canada.
“He went silent. Nothing. He was motionless,” said Mbali Simelane, one of Makhubu’s cousins. “I just grabbed the phone from him.”
Peter Donaldson, a police detective, was on the other end, explaining that he thought he had found Raul’s brother.
Canada’s border agency had assigned Donaldson to investigate a man who called himself Victor Vinnetou and was being held on immigration charges in a prison in Lindsay, Ontario.
Donaldson had pieced together the man’s story — a challenge, because he displayed symptoms of a mental health disorder. “The gentleman”, said Donaldson was under the impression he was still a hunted man in South Africa. The prisoner even believed the country was still segregated under white rule.
“Vinnetou” had taken on many identities in Canada — common practice for South Africans in exile during apartheid — and was reluctant to reveal his original identity.
As Donaldson tried to make sense of the snippets he was told, he began to suspect he might have found South Africa’s missing hero. After the first phone call, a number of exchanges with the detective began to convince the family that their long-lost relative had been found.
“[Donaldson] found a school in Soweto named after Mbuyisa and showed him a picture of it. He was shocked. He said: ‘Peter, there’s a school named after me,’ ” said Simelane. “Peter called me straight away from the jail — he was so excited.”
The family thought they would soon be reunited but bureaucracy has been achingly slow in wrapping up the issue.
South African officials went to Canada to verify his identity in 2013. Since then, however, the process of checking his DNA and fingerprints has dragged on.
Two months ago as the family mourned Raul’s death aged 53, an ANC delegation arrived at the wake to declare the fingerprint tests had found a match. “A lady and a man from the ANC — his name was Muzi Vusi — came and told us: ‘The man in Canada has been confirmed and verified as Mbuyisa’,” Simelane said
A Canadian spokesman said the detained man has remained in prison because he refuses to state his age or nationality.
Feizel Mamdoo, a documentary maker who made a film about the disappearance, said Makhubu’s mother never lost hope that her son could be alive.
“It’s been very painful and personal for the family — every June 16, churning things up,” he said. “But I think she did hold out hope, as a mother.”
Political infighting behind the scenes appears to explain why the South African government has taken so long.
However Nkosinath Mthethwa, South Africa’s arts and culture minister, said there had been no official confirmation of his identity. Officials continue to try to establish it, he added.
Whoever brings home Soweto’s lost hero can expect considerable reflected glory and there has reportedly been competition to be that person.
“He needs the South Africans to come to the party, and we are not,” said a government source who did not wish to be named.
If he does return, South Africans agree that he can expect a rapturous welcome.
“He’s in the same footsteps as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and the rest,” said Teddy Martin, a Soweto community development worker. “We are free because of the sacrifices of people like Mbuyisa.”
If authorities want further proof that they have really got their man, they could turn to Makhubu’s childhood friends, who remember him chiefly as an ambidextrous “superstar in table tennis”.
His best friend as a teenager, Manase Sefatlhe, now 55, has a foolproof strategy for figuring out whether the man really is Makhubu: he will challenge him to a game of ping-pong.
“He beat all of us every day. When you know a thing like that, it doesn’t come out of you,” he said. “That’s the first thing I would test him on. I don’t need any DNA tests.”
Published in the Sunday Times, 24 May 2015