More than twenty years ago a Catholic man, Benedict Daswa was clubbed to death in a remote part of the Soutpansberg in South Africa for his religious conviction.
You don’t have to be particularly religious to realise that, given his background, his accomplishments were nothing short of a miracle. His village was high up in the mountains near Thohoyandou in one of the most deprived areas in the country – a community forgotten by the rest of the world. Unemployed people wrapped in ragged clothes, scavenging children with empty eyes and scabby dogs roamed the dusty streets.
Today, just a few kilometres from where Benedict Daswa was murdered, the Nweli Primary School stands as a monument to the seeds that this extraordinary man had sown in his community. The proud head teacher keeps an eye on his dedicated staff while the eager children absorb every word of their teachers. Across the street at the Assumption of Mary Catholic Church, women are busy preparing food for the countless children in the area who were left orphaned by aids.
Benedict Daswa was the driving force behind the realisation of this haven.
So extensive was this extraordinary man’s influence on this community that the local Catholic Church has sent a request to the Vatican to declare him a saint. Saint Benedict.
Daswa’s case was sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints after he was declared “Servant of God” and diocesan-level inquiries were completed. If approved, Daswa would be on his way to being declared blessed, making him one step away from becoming the first South African-born saint.
Benedict grew up in a traditionalist family from the small Lemba tribe who live mainly among the Venda people in the Limpopo Province. His real name was Tshimangadzo, but as a teenager he became one of a small group of Vendas who converted to Catholicism. He took the name Benedict after the sixth-century monk and Benedict Risimati, his catechist, who instructed him on his faith. He also made Saint Benedict’s motto his own – ora et labora. Pray and work. He soon realised that the practice of witchcraft was against his Catholic faith. From then on, both in his private life and publicly, he took a strong stance against this custom because he said it led to the killing of too many innocent people accused of witchcraft activities. After completing his studies to become a teacher, he returned to Nweli where he was, two years later, appointed head teacher.
Chris Mphaphuli, current head teacher of the local high school, still remembers how he, as a young man, often went to Daswa for advice. “Benedict always said: Let God be your light and pray before you do anything. But you must work!”
The local church is built with stones that Daswa gathered. Nweli’s teachers acquired their work ethics from him. He propagated highly controversial issues like telling men to assist their wives with household chores and childcare – something unheard of in those patriarchal communities. More controversial questions were raised when he opted to work rather than rely on witchcraft to bring him fortune. When the local soccer team put muti (traditional herbs and medicine) in their boots to win matches, Daswa trained a new team made up of young people who focused their efforts on a dedicated training program rather than believing in magical powers.
This standpoint eventually led to his death.
In 1990, after a series of unusual thunderstorms and lighting strikes caused the deaths of people in the area, a group of local men suggested hiring a sangoma (traditional healer) to determine the cause. Everyone contributed R5.00 (about £0.40/US$0.60), but Daswa refused.
We have to think rationally; lightning is a natural phenomenon, he declared at the meeting.
On the night of 2 February 1990, while driving home, he found his way blocked with logs across the road. When he stopped the vehicle and tried to remove the obstruction, a group of people emerged from behind the trees and began pelting him with stones. Wounded, he escaped on foot and ran to a woman’s home nearby. After members of the mob entered and threatened to kill her if she didn’t reveal where Benedict was, he came forward. The gang dragged him outside where he was tortured. Realising he was about to be killed, he made a final prayer – God, into Your hands… receive my spirit – before they finished him off, crushing his skull and then pouring boiling water over his head.
He was 44.
His killers were arrested, but because the community was too frightened to testify, no one was ever convicted.
We hope that he will eventually become a saint, not just for his community, but also for the whole nation and that his death will bring healing all over the country…
… and that he helped to rid people of fears that prevent so many of us to stand up for what we believe.
Inspired by an article in Rapport by Johannes de Villiers (2 July 2012)