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Mystery man's identity still murky after decade in Canadian detention

For more than a decade and at a cost of nearly a million dollars, a man has been held in an immigration detention centre in an Ontario city. The lengthy detention has been complicated by questions about identity, including the possibility that the mystery man is an anti-apartheid activist made famous by a photo that resonated around the world.

'I think he is still afraid,' says woman who believes man detained is her cousin

Mystery man spends decade in immigration detention centre

Canada

6 years ago
2:46
Is anti-apartheid activist Mbuyisa Makhubu the man in a Canadian immigration detention centre? 2:46
For more than a decade and at a cost of nearly $1 million, a man has been held in an immigration detention centre in an Ontario city. The case has been complicated by questions about identity, including the possibility that the mystery man is an anti-apartheid activist made famous by a photo that resonated around the world.

The name the man goes by, Victor Vinnetou, has apparently been proven to be a fake — so, who is he?

Canada Border Services Agency officials have tried to find out more about the man, who is scheduled for another detention hearing tomorrow.

The agency has consulted governments and police forces globally about the man, who first came to Canada in 1988 and has been held since 2004. A few years ago it assigned an investigator to the case, and that's when the theory emerged that Victor Vinnetou might be a long-lost South African hero named Mbuyisa Makhubu. 

Makhubu was the young teenager who in 1976 ran from the Soweto uprisings carrying the dying child Hector Pieterson. The boy had been shot by police. Photographer Sam Nzima was in the area, and he snapped the moment that was then seen around the world. 

That photo became a symbol of the horrors black South Africans were enduring under apartheid. To hear family members tell it, the police started hunting Makhubu and the scared teenager fled the country.

His family never saw him again. Many presumed he had died in Nigeria or Botswana, and indeed he may have.
But fate has rattled them. A few years ago, family in Soweto got a call from a Canada Border Services Agency investigator who had a hunch about the man. The investigator spoke of birthmarks, of diaries, sent pictures and suddenly a family who had lost hope of finding their hero, had some.

'I think he is still afraid'

Makhubu's cousin, Thoko Makhubu Diamini, looks at photos and seems convinced the man detained in Lindsay, Ont., is the same person. 

"Look at the ears and head," she says when reached in South Africa by CBC News. To the claim that the man in detention is adamant he is not Makhubu, and is apparently terrified to come back to South Africa, she says she understands. It's not just that the man in custody may have some mental health issues, as she believes her cousin did from the trauma — it's that once, there was a serious reason to be scared.

Thoko Makhubu Diamini thinks the man in detention is her cousin, Mbuyisa Makhubu. (CBC)

"He is still afraid that maybe when he comes to the country, they are going to kill him because the time he was here the police were killing people. So I think he is still afraid."

Immigration consultant Macdonald Scott says the prolonged process and the way Canada handles lengthy detentions is also a problem.

"We're one of the few countries that doesn't have a release period. If you can't deport someone in that period you have to release them, you have to let them into the community," he says. "Canada doesn't. We're a rogue nation"

Unless South Africa agrees to take the man — hero or not — and issues papers for him, it's hard to say how this will end for him. His lack of co-operation "may not be a deliberate effort to frustrate," one transcript related to his case reads, citing mental health issues. 

Canada doesn't seem interested in just releasing him. The man himself would not talk about his case, nor would the border agency, the investigator, or the South African High Commission.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.

With files from Nicole Brewster-Mercury

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