Skip to main content

Children stand at the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto, South Africa, in June, 2013. That year, a Canadian immigration investigator noticed Victor Vinnetou, the longest-serving detainee in Canadian immigration custody, looked remarkably similar to Mbuyisa Makhubu, the young man shown carrying the body of Pieterson in an iconic photo.AFP/AFP / Getty Images

After more than 11 years in detention, Canada has freed a mysterious man who was thought to be a South African anti-apartheid hero – but South Africa is showing little interest in bringing him home.

The man, known as Victor Vinnetou, was the longest-serving detainee in the Canadian immigration custody system. He is believed to be South African, and new evidence has lent credence to earlier theories that he might be the man carrying a fatally wounded boy in an iconic photo of the Soweto Uprising in 1976.

Three years ago, South African officials flew to Canada intending to bring the man home to a hero's welcome. But he refused to co-operate, alleging South Africa's ruling party had killed his parents.

He was quietly released in Toronto under a bail program in January on the understanding that he would seek South African identity documents so he could return home. Yet he remains in Toronto, and there is no indication South Africa wants him back.

The case has highlighted the widespread concerns about the often lengthy imprisonment of migrants for immigration violations, including those with mental-health issues.

Several immigration detainees have recently died in custody, and human-rights groups have criticized Canada's practices, especially because some detainees, such as Mr. Vinnetou, have been kept in maximum-security jails for years without charges.

In open letters last month, more than 230 doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers and legal scholars called on the Ontario government to stop imprisoning migrants for immigration violations. "This worrisome practice is adversely impacting the health of a very vulnerable population," the health workers said.

The man known as Mr. Vinnetou arrived in Canada in 1988, apparently on a false Zambian passport, according to a detention review by the Immigration and Refugee Board this year.

He was convicted of assault in 1994, and his deportation was ordered, but he disappeared. He was detained in 2004, when he was working as a garbage collector in Toronto, using a false name.

Because his home country was unknown and he refused to co-operate with efforts to establish his identity, he was not deported and has remained in detention. Lawyers have suggested that he might have mental-health issues, including paranoia and delusion, but this has not been formally diagnosed.

Three years ago, a Canadian immigration investigator noticed that the mysterious detainee looked remarkably similar to Mbuyisa Makhubu, a tall, 18-year-old high-school student who was at the centre of the most famous photo of the Soweto Uprising. Thousands of students in Soweto protested against Afrikaans instruction on June 16, 1976, and police fired at the children, killing more than 20 of them.

In the photo, Mr. Makhubu was carrying 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who had been shot by police. The image went around the world. Several weeks later, fearing arrest by apartheid police, he fled the country. His family received a letter from him in 1978, when he was in Nigeria, but never heard from him again.

After the investigator's discovery, South African officials travelled to Canada in 2013, hoping to bring the man back to South Africa, where they planned to laud him as a returning hero. But while they established that he was South African, he refused to answer most questions. He later alleged that the African National Congress, the main anti-apartheid movement and now the ruling party, had killed his parents.

With the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising approaching on Thursday, there is renewed attention to the case, coupled with new evidence on the possible connection between the Canadian detainee and the anti-apartheid hero.

While a DNA test in 2014 did not find a connection to Mr. Makhubu's family, a South Africa radio network reported this week that the DNA test was inadvertently conducted on a family member who was not related by blood to both of his parents.

The network, Eyewitness News, also commissioned a detailed facial comparison by a Johannesburg scientist, who found many similarities between the faces of Mr. Makhubu and Mr. Vinnetou and concluded there was "moderate support" for the theory.

Mr. Vinnetou was released from detention in January, and has to report regularly to immigration authorities. The immigration board ruled that his lengthy detention was "excessive" and "overwhelming."

Yet since 2014, South Africa has refused to issue identity documents to him, despite repeated requests by Canadian officials. He remains in limbo today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe