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Thursday, June 4, 2020 - 15:25

Ahead of the annual Youth Month anniversary on June 16, a heritage plaque will commemorate Mbuyisa Makhubu, one of the most tragic victims of the mass shooting by police of protesting students in 1976.  

Aged 18, Mbuyisa became the most recognised face of the Soweto student revolt, after his agonised figure was shown around the world carrying the murdered Hector Pieterson in the iconic image by journalist Sam Nzima. Mbuyisa picked up Hector Pieterson when he was mortally wounded, and took him to the nearest clinic.

After the photograph was published, Mbuyisa was harassed by security police, and forced to flee South Africa. He was given refuge in Nigeria, but disappeared in 1979, and his whereabouts have remained unknown. Ever since, speculation has swirled about whether he is dead or alive.

Mbuyisa was among a number of young South African activists who took refuge in Nigeria in the wake of the Soweto Uprising. His mother, Nombulelo Makhubu, testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that in 1978 she received a letter from her son in Nigeria, but that she had not heard from him since.

Known in family circles as “The Queen”, Nombulelo Makhubu worked for the South African Council of Churches, and was chosen as part of a team that promoted international sanctions against the apartheid regime.

A grief-stricken Nombulelo died from heart failure in 2004, without knowing what had happened to her son Mbuyisa.

Mbuyisa’s sister, Ntsiki Makhubu, now aged 65, still lives at the family home in Litabe Street. As Ntsiki explains, the place was home to a family of activists, who sacrificed for the anti-apartheid struggle, both individually and collectively, going down the generations.

The father of the family, Lawrence Makhubu left South Africa when the Rivonia Trialists were arrested. “Lawrence was one of the first soldiers of the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and he is remembered as a co-founder of MK”, says Ntsiki.

Lawrence Makhubu died in exile in the early 1970s, and was buried in Nairobi, Kenya.

His son Mbuyisa was a member of a youth wing of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Mbuyisa was in an organising committee for the June 1976 protests against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools.

The new plaque for Mbuyisa will add to a special series of blue heritage plaques which have been developed by the City of Johannesburg to mark key sites along the routes of the June 1976 Student Uprising in Soweto.

2012 saw the introduction of blue plaques awarded by the City of Johannesburg at  sites along the June 16 Heritage Trail. To distinguish this as a special series of plaques, a special design was adopted for the June 16 plaques. On the surround, the legend reads: “JUNE 16TH SOWETO HERITAGE TRAIL” in red lettering to symbolise the bloodshed and sacrifice of protesting students.

Struggle-sites awarded such plaques along the June 16 trail include:

  • Phefeni Junior Secondary School on Vilikazi Street, close to where police began shooting students.
  • The home of Hastings Ndlovu, one of the first victims killed by police on June 16.
  • The site where social worker Dr. Melville Edelstein was killed in Central Western Jabavu.
  • The house of imprisoned youth activist Seth Mazibuko in Orlando East.


Heritage plaque unveiled at Phefeni Secondary School on 16 June 2012


Heritage plaque unveiled at the home of Hastings Ndlovu

The plaque for Mbuyisa Makhubu will be affixed to the family home at 7485 Litaba Street, Orlando West, close to the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial and Museum, and to the world-famous Vilakazi Street Heritage Precinct.

Due to current restrictions of social gatherings, being followed to limit the spread of COVID-19, there will be no unveiling ceremony for Makhubu’s plaque. An unveiling could happen at a later date, and should hopefully be included in next year’s June 16 commemoration.

Main image: Hector Pieterson being carried in his arms by Mbuyisa Makhubu after being shot by police. A distraught Antoinette Sithole, Hector’s sister, runs beside them.

Eric Itzkin is the Deputy Director: Immovable Heritage at the City of Johannesburg


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