What happened to Mbuyisa Makhubo?

A youth activist that came to prominence in the 1976 student uprising in South Africa has been missing since 1978.

Soweto today (Photo: Roaming the Planet, via Flickr CC).

Mbuyisa Makhubo was the teenager captured in Sam Nzima’s iconic photo of June 16, 1976 — fleeing the bullets of the apartheid police on a street in Soweto, South Africa and carrying the murdered Hector Peterson in his arms, with the latter’s sister, Antoinette, running alongside. The faces in the photo are frightened, evidence of the trauma of that day and the brutality of those times. They are also the faces of brave children who, in the midst of the chaos and carnage, cared enough to take the dying Hector Peterson with them.

Nzima’s photo was seminal in mobilizing international opinion against apartheid. It also changed the life of Mbuyisa. He became the potent symbol that galvanized millions to decry the ongoing crimes against humanity in South Africa. He also became a target for the wrath of the security police. Their consistent harassment forced him into exile. The last his mother heard from him was in 1978, when he was apparently in Nigeria. More than a decade and a half later, she asked the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to find her son. To no avail. Mbuyisa’s mother passed away in 2004, carrying with her the painful mystery of her son’s whereabouts.

Another decade on and we still don’t know what happened to him. Or do we? The Toronto Star this week reported on the story of a missing South African hero. In 1988, a man by the name of Victor Vinnetou arrived in Canada from Germany and applied for refugee status. He had named himself “Victor” as an aspiration and “Vinnetou”, apparently after the hero of a 1980s German TV show. While maneuvering through the refugee system, he disappeared into the fabric of Toronto, where he made a life, albeit a precarious one. Vinnetou was arrested almost 10 years ago for being undocumented. Toronto police routinely frisk black men — their presence seemingly always suspicious. He has since been held in indefinite detention while various states seek to define him.

A few months ago, rumors began circulating that Vinnetou was not only South African, but the missing Mbuyisa Makhubo. The South African government very quietly dispatched a team to investigate. The South African media picked up the story when it became clear that DNA samples were being drawn to establish if indeed Victor was the long lost Mbuyisa. Family members of the latter seemed to be firm in their resolve that their relative had been found. But when DNA samples failed to produce a match, the South Africans declined to confirm him Victor as a national. The article in The Toronto Star implies that there is considerable disagreement about the DNA test and continued insistence from family members that Victor is Mbuyisa and should be returned home.

Wherever the truth lies, the brutality of exile, of undocumented status, indeed of statelessness is the enduring story. The bureaucratic impulse to render superfluous those who are not politically or economically valuable is a legacy of the apartheid of Mbuyisa’s childhood and the continuing injustices of a global system of class and race oppression under which millions suffer. In Canada, the paperless, among others, can be indefinitely detained under arguably draconian legislation, and in less than appropriate circumstances, as in the case of Victor Vinnetou and nearly 200 people awaiting resolution of their immigration hearings, in the rural outpost of Lindsay, Ontario, two hours from access to pro bono legal assistance and from others who can advocate on their behalf. The cost to the state for detaining the ‘illegal’ is $239 per day. This is considerably more than the state pays to sustain the average welfare recipient. And as prison complexes grow, welfare budgets shrink.

Perhaps there is a bigger question about costs, then? What is the cost for the state to incorporate the undocumented into the realm of citizenship? For people who have migrated, been here and there, and for polities that are supposedly more multi-cultural, how does the state identify who belongs and who does not? What are the marks on Victor Vinnetou’s body, in his accent, in his memory that discount him as South African and worthy of return? They are clearly also not the same marks as Dr. Shock and Brandon Huntley who are deemed worthy to stay in Canada.

One wonders as this story continues to unfold whether the life of Victor/Mbuyisa will force us to re-imagine community or continue to institutionalize superfluity as a growing condition of neo-liberal life.

About the Author

Melissa Levin, from South Africa, lectures in African Studies at New College, University of Toronto.

Andrea Meeson is a copy editor for Africa is a Country and other pan-African publications. She manages a graduate training program for aspiring health researchers at University of Toronto.

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