Johannesburg - One of apartheid South Africa’s most enduring mysteries is on the cusp of being solved.
A man resembling Mbuyisa Makhubu, who as a teenager was photographed carrying the dying Hector Pieterson away from the 1976 Soweto riots, is being detained in a Canadian jail on immigration offences.
A high-level initiative is being fast-tracked by Canadian authorities and senior officials from the Department of Arts and Culture to have the man’s DNA cross-checked against Makhubu’s surviving relatives in South Africa.
Makhubu, then aged 17, was immortalised by photographer Sam Nzima, who shot the iconic picture of him carrying the shot 13-year-old as his sister, Antoinette Sithole, ran alongside him.
After the picture was published, security police harassed Makhubu, forcing him to flee to Botswana and later Nigeria.
Then he disappeared for the next 37 years. Many speculated he had died.
Well-placed sources confirmed on Thursday night that the government had already dispatched a team to Canada, where the man was arrested eight years ago for contravening immigration laws.
The government is believed to be so certain that the man is Makhubu that it has prepared emergency travel documents pending the outcome of the DNA tests.
“He is in a prison in Canada. They have looked at his picture that was taken then and what he looks like now. And there is quite a resemblance. He has been in prison for eight years,” said the source.
After seeing the prisoner’s picture, Nzima said on Thursday night: “He looks like Mbuyisa’s brother, the one who is alive. But I am not sure whether it’s Mbuyisa. What is his family saying? Are they confirming it’s him?”
It is understood that the man in Canada was terribly affected by the trauma of apartheid.
Despite being told that the ANC has been in power for almost 20 years, it is understood he is terrified of returning to his homeland because he believes the National Party is still in control.
“He’s under the impression that apartheid exists and is afraid to come back. He lives underground and has been through many countries and ended up in Canada,” the source added.
“As soon as DNA confirmation comes through, he will be back.”
It is understood the man told people in Canada that he was Nigerian, then Zambian and later South African.
Makhubu’s mother, Nomboniso, died in 2004, still battling for information about her son’s whereabouts.
According to her April 30, 1996 testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the last time she heard from Makhubu was when he sent her a letter from Nigeria in 1978.
“After some time we heard that Mbuyisa was in Botswana. After some time again, I can’t remember well, he wrote us a letter and he was in Nigeria,” Nomboniso said.
“He said he was at the Federal Government College in Nigeria and studying there. There are so many stories that I’ve heard about Mbuyisa. That Mbuyisa is sick, that he’s mentally sick. I also heard that Mbuyisa is dead.”
Nzima said it would be the shock of his life if the Canadian prisoner proved to be Makhubu.
“That would be shocking. It’s just like a person who died in front of me and somebody told me they saw them somewhere in another country.”
After being shown the prisoner’s picture on Thursday, Pieterson’s sister Sithole said: “It’s not (Makhubu). Even if a person does get old, their features don’t change that much. Check his eyes and mouth. This person on the picture has bigger eyes than those of Mbuyisa.”
The Makhubu family confirmed they had given DNA samples to government officials. “The family were contacted to request that we assist in identifying a person who could be Mbuyisa. We have not received any feedback. We will wait for details from the government,” said family spokeswoman Mbali Simelane.