A South African Martyr

The martyr Benedict Daswa - courtesy of the Diocese of Tzaneen

Twenty-five years ago, on Feb. 2, 1990, Benedict Daswa (44) was murdered in a small village called Mbahe, near Thoyandou, in the North West of South Africa. On Jan. 22, 2015, a few days before the anniversary of his death, Pope Francis authorized the promulgation of the decree of martyrdom. 

Daswa, a layman, was murdered because of his opposition to the use of “muti” or traditional medicines. These medicines are commonly used for protection against evil or to obtain success in business and other areas of life like relationships. He refused to give money to those organizing a hunt for, what some believed, was a witch in the area. Two days later he was brutally stoned and bludgeoned to death. Daswa was an outstanding member of the local Catholic Community and converted to Catholicism while training to be a teacher. Later, he built a school and church and became a well known catechist in the area.

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Right from his funeral there was a sense amongst the faithful that Daswa was a holy man. In 2004 the local diocese, Tzaneen, opened an enquiry into Daswa’s death. The investigation into the life of Daswa led to more than 850 pages of testimonies from people who knew him and who had witnessed his death. On completion of the enquiry in 2007 the case was presented to the then Apostolic Nuncio, James Patrick Green, who was very supportive. In 2008 the Southern African Catholic Bishop’s Conference resolved to support the cause and the preliminary findings were presented to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In October 2014 the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome agreed unanimously that Daswa was indeed a martyr for the faith.

Witch-hunts, like the one that Daswa opposed, are still common in rural South Africa. People in Daswa’s home village say the situation hasn’t improved since his murder. Speaking to the National Catholic Weekly, The Southern Cross, bishop-emeritus of Tzaneen, Hugh Slattery, said that witchcraft is something deep in African culture. He stressed that it is very unlikely that the belief in it is going to change any time soon. “It was surely through some special grace from God that Benedict Daswa was able to put the dark areas of his culture outside of himself, as it were, and see it as anti-light and therefore opposed to his new-found Christian faith,” Slattery said.

Slattery said that Daswa realised he couldn’t stop people believing in witchcraft, but that he could try and challenge witchcraft accusations where no proof is required before a person is found guilty. And so he publicly opposed the smelling out of so-called witches in order to protect innocent lives. “In time, Benedict’s courageous witness will surely inspire many other people to follow his example and intervene at a level of witchcraft accusations by demanding proof of guilt before someone can be banished or killed,” the bishop said.

The Diocese of Tzaneen has purchased a piece of land near Daswa’s home in Mbahe. They are hoping to develop this place into a pilgrimage shrine in honor of Daswa. Although this process has taken 15 years already, it will no doubt take a number of years more to raise the money needed, as Tzaneen is for the most part a poor rural diocese.

The current Bishop of Tzaneen, Joaõ Rodrigues, hopes that the holy life and witness of Venerable Benedict Daswa will inspire many Catholics in South Africa and indeed the Southern African Region. He believes that Daswa’s life and witness has much to teach us about conversion and faith.

Archbishop Buti Tlhagle OMI, the former president of the Bishop’s Conference, told local press that it was a momentous occasion for all South Africans but especially the country’s 4 million Catholics. The South African population is about 53 million. Tlhagale said “Once the country wakes up to this, they will realize what an achievement it is to have had someone among us who stood up for his faith amid great opposition, against the cultural convictions of certain people, and openly opposed witchcraft in a bid to stand for his faith.”

Some local media claim that Pope Francis has been invited to do the beatification, which may coincide with a pastoral visit. Although the Pope intends traveling to Africa later this year there has been no mention of him coming to South Africa. The Vatican released details of his travels to Uganda and the Central African Republic later in 2015. 

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