The woman tasked with bringing home Mbuyisa Makhubu, the man carrying Hector Pieterson in the famous photo from 1976, has gone missing.
The player who pulled most of the strings in the continuing saga surrounding the whereabouts of Mbuyisa Makhubu remains the most elusive.
A young Makhubu was photographed carrying a bleeding Hector Pieterson during his last waking moments after police shot the uniformed pupil during a student protest on June 16 1976. As the image became an international symbol for apartheid, Makhubu was forced into exile a month later, never to see his family again.
Late last year, Shalo Mbatha, a former journalist then employed by the department of arts and culture, practically volunteered to bring home the South African man in a Canadian jail believed to be Mbuyisa Makhubu. She came into contact with the story through a line of friends connected to the Makhubu family.
The Makhubu family briefed her about their convincing interactions with a Canadian Border Services Agency investigator named Peter Donaldson. As the repatriation efforts would have neatly fitted in with former arts minister Paul Mashatile’s Freedom Friday initiative (launched in September last year as a lead-up to celebrating 20 years of democracy), Mbatha had the minister’s blessings and packed for Canada in September.
While in Canada, Mbatha told the Makhubu family that a sample of Mbuyisa’s younger brother Raul’s DNA had arrived damaged in Toronto, where the man believed to be Mbuyisa was incarcerated. It could not be used for verification. A later sample apparently went missing.
In emails she dispatched to her arts and culture colleagues and seen recently by the Mail & Guardian, Mbatha seems to have dived headlong into her task, reporting of the frustrating progress she was making with “Mbuyisa” – who was struggling, presumably, with post-traumatic stress disorder. She said in an email that, fearing a return to what the man perceived to be apartheid South Africa, he “still needed to be convinced that the past was gone”.
Weeks turned into months in Canada and before long Mbatha had allegedly racked up hotel bills of R400 000 while the anticipated return of Mbuyisa Makhubu did not materialise.
An email sent by arts and culture director general Sibusiso Xaba to his colleagues in November, after Mbatha had been in Canada for well over a month, reads: “I have just learned with disbelief that Miss Mbatha is still in Canada! At the department’s expense. This means that her conduct is that she has absconded as she has absented herself from work without authorisation. To date, we apparently have incurred in excess of R400 000 in hotel bills, which as far as I know is unauthorised.
“I’m sure, colleagues, you will agree with me that we have tried our best to accommodate Ms Mbatha and her mission. However, we are now in a situation where we face substantial risks due to her conduct. In this regard, I have requested Ms Kganedi to instruct the travel agency to terminate her hotel booking and for her to ensure that she is back on the first available flight. Once back, she will have to explain her absence and we can take the matter forward from there.”
It is unclear what happened to Mbatha when she returned later in November, but she is no longer employed by the department. For the Makhubu family, however, their interaction with Mbatha and her father – who got involved in the deliberations between her and the family – has left them embittered. Raul says Mbatha allegedly took some of the family’s photos of Mbuyisa and, unbeknown to them, printed T-shirts that allegedly “did a roaring trade” in Dube, Soweto, where her family home is.
From the Orlando West home she shares with her husband, Raul, Adelaide Makhubu said: “Shalo spoke big, and told us not to renovate our house because it was going to be turned into a museum. Her dad apparently said: ‘You guys are going to live in [the up-market suburb] Bassonia soon.’”
Raul’s experience took an even darker turn. Shortly before Mbatha went to Canada, Raul says Mbatha and her father arranged for his hospitalisation “so that Mbuyisa finds me under medical watch”. Raul, a diabetic who suffered a stroke in September last year when news of his brother’s apparent reappearance surfaced, says: “I was hospitalised for five days. I was given drugs, blood was taken and then they said a doctor had poked himself with a needle he was using on me. They then conducted HIV tests on me. I was injected three times a day for five days [to balance out my sugar levels]. I had no visitors for five days. I was released because they said my sugar levels had gone down.”
This week the M&G continued its attempts to contact Mbatha to get her side of the story. The Dube, Soweto, home she grew up in and regularly visits is impenetrable by neighbourhood standards. After a long spell of knocking, Shalo’s father, Alex Mbatha, appeared, and asked us who we wanted to speak to. When we said, in Shalo’s absence, we would like to speak to him, he said: “Have you no respect, to ask me ‘why not?’ in my own house? What are you, the special branch or something?”
The arts and culture department told the M&G it was “one of several government departments that co-operated on this matter. The appraisal of the information is not yet complete,” said its director of communications, Lisa Combrinck. “Until clarity is achieved, we are not making comments at this time.
“As regards your questions on Ms Mbatha, she was contracted on a fixed-term contract. Her contract came to an end.
“The department of arts and culture [DAC] empathises with Mbuyisa Makhubu’s family in their search for their missing relative. Inquiries last year into the possible identity of a man living in Canada involved Canadian and South African authorities from a number of departments.
“We have checked records and the department of arts and culture can confirm that former minister Paul Mashatile made no request for the results to be expressed as inconclusive. Canadian authorities took DNA samples that proved to be inconclusive. When the DAC received this information, it was decided that the matter would not be pursued further by the DAC.”
Further enquiries would be more properly directed to the South African consul in Canada, she said.