Mystery around June 16 icon lingers on

It is almost three decades since Mbuyisa Makhubu - the youngster carrying the body of Hector Pieterson in his arms in the historical June 16 Soweto uprising picture - disappeared without trace.

Now Makhubu's Soweto family is divided on whether his image should be blacked out in protest against the fact that, up until now, nobody has ever seen or heard from him.

Makhubu was photographed carrying a dying Pieterson, the first victim of police brutality during the June 16, 1976 Soweto student march. The picture has been used around the world and has become a symbol of the struggle against apartheid.

After 29 years, Mbuyisa's brother, Raul, is now calling on the media to stop using the famous image until his whereabouts are known.

Alternatively, he is demanding that Mbuyisa's face be blackened out whenever the photo is used. It shows his contorted face while Antoinette, Hector's sister, runs next to him crying.

According Raul, the family has been to the presidency to complain. They were referred to the department of arts and culture. Nothing has been said or done since.

When visited, Raul, who lives a few houses away from the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando West, he was busy finalising preparations for Thursday's march when the Makhubu family will hand over a memorandum to President Thabo Mbeki's office in the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Their march will coincide with June 16 commemoration services throughout the country.

Raul has already organised placards with Mbuyisa's face with the words: "What happened to Mbuyisa?"

"All we are doing is to plead with government to help us find him. It is not because we are bitter about the fact that we are not getting anything from the picture or have ambitions to benefit something. We become traumatised whenever we see his picture because we don't know what happened to him," Raul said.

The Makhubu family do not celebrate Youth Day with the rest of the country, but come together to mourn their loss.

"For the first time this year, we will be out on the streets on June 16 handing over the memorandum. We don't deny that it is a national picture, but it brings sorrow and pain to us. Our concern is his whereabouts. Somewhere, somehow, someone might know where my brother is, we want help," Makhubu said.

However, there is division within the family over the ban, as Mbuyisa's sister Ntsiki said she and Mbuyisa's son Thato, 25, who is in Botswana, were not aware of Raul's demands and that they still regarded the picture as "public property".

But Raul, who is spearheading the campaign to stop the usage of his brother's picture, maintained that it was a family decision.

Ntsiki, 50, who also lives a few streets away from the museum, confirmed that Raul and Thato were Mbuyisa's existing family.

"I don't know which other family member he contacted besides us. Thato and I, do not know anything about the banning of the picture. That picture is public property which symbolises the struggle.

"I am proud that it is used that way because it gives it more value. It helps young people understand the past and the changes we have gone through in this country," Ntsiki said.

She said before their mother died on April 11 last year, she was selling post cards, videos, beads, coffee mugs and T-shirts with Mbuyisa's pictures because she did not have a problem with his picture being used for good reasons.

"I don't want to defy what my mother stood for. She always said that Mbuyisa did what he did for the love and kindness she taught him. Not that I don't want to know what happened to him. I would like to wake up in the morning on June 16 and clean his grave if he is dead, and I strongly believe that he is dead.

"On Youth Day, I don't leave my bed, I watch the day's proceedings on TV and read books. Friends come and and give me support because they know I always dedicate the day to Mbuyisa," Ntsiki said.

She said it took time for Hector's blood to come off Mbuyisa's clothes which her mother said was "a symbol of innocent blood".

"I don't regret what happened to my brother. It has brought the freedom we are enjoying today. Talking about it opens old wounds, but we need to transfer the knowledge to the younger generation," said Ntsiki.

The photographer who took the picture and owns the copyright, Sam Nzima, said it was impossible that Mbuyisa's face could be covered or erased from the picture.

"Let them burn the whole picture if they want to. I don't know where all this is coming from. I worked peacefully with Mbuyisa's mother on a number of projects. I gave her the rights to produce items using my picture to sell.

"She didn't have any problem. Those who want to ban the picture, know what they want to achieve, and let them go on," he said.

When the picture was taken, Mbuyisa was only 18 years old and Ntsiki 22. On that fateful day, she had gone to the city to sort out her UIF papers.

Ntsiki who now lives in their grandmother's house where Mbuyisa also lived, said her brother fled to Botswana the same year after the shooting. He phoned his mother towards the end of the year saying he was moving to Nigeria. He wrote several letters to his mother from Nigeria.

"In one of the letters he said he was studying medicine. The last time he wrote to her was in the late '70s when he informed her that he was very sick and sent a picture of himself looking very frail. It was at the same time when he said he would go to Tanzania because the situation was very bad in Nigeria.

"Since then we have only heard a lot of rumours about him. Some said he was seen in the '80s in Zambia with another activist, Tsietsi Mashinini, and that he was mentally disturbed.

"We were arranging to go to Zambia with Mashinini when he came back home in the early '90s, but unfortunately, we learnt that he (Mashinini) died before arriving in South Africa."




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