NWELI, South Africa — Everyone in this poor northern corner of South Africa has a story about Benedict Daswa‘s (pictured) kindness to his neighbors, his schoolteacher colleagues, the young villagers he helped to feed.
It’s therefore all the more horrifying that some of those same friends and neighbors were in the mob that beat him to death in a spasm of violence born of a flash of lightning and a witch hunt.
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And even now, 22 years later, the pain and anger linger. A movement is under way to have the Vatican declare Daswa South Africa’s first saint, but it has stirred concerns that old grudges which should have faded in the new post-apartheid South Africa could come surging back.
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1990 was a tumultuous year in South Africa. Apartheid was ending, and violent passions were being unleashed. Recriminations and superstitions were swirling. Witch hunts – the literal kind, still prevalent on African communities – were claiming the lives of men and women.
When lightning struck homes in Nweli, the elders suspected witchcraft and wanted to hire a witch-finder. Daswa, a primary school headmaster and devout Catholic, objected. A week later he was murdered.
The Life of Benedict Daswa
No one has ever been prosecuted in the case, and witnesses have refrained from speaking up. The ringleader died in a car accident years ago. Some of those in the lynch mob still live here. Today the watchword in the village of Nweli is reconciliation, and the proponents of sainthood for Daswa are quick to stress that they are not looking to reopen the investigation or hold any individual accountable.
In Assumption of Our Lady, Nweli’s tiny brick church with log rafters crisscrossed like fingers laced in prayer, about 40 worshippers recently celebrated Corpus Christi, reading from Psalms in Venda, the region’s main language: “O precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful servant.”
Chris Maphaphuli, who was inspired by Daswa to become a teacher and counted him as a friend, said reopening the investigation of the killing would accomplish nothing. “As Jesus was forgiving, so we must also forgive,” he said.
Joao Rodrigues, the Catholic bishop in the diocese where Daswa lived and died, said the canonization effort had nothing to do with bringing the killers to justice. “Fundamentally, we believe he died with forgiveness in his heart,” he said. The aim is “to highlight that the man who was killed was a man of God and that his death is a testimony to his faith.”
Daswa, born Tshimangadzo, took the name Benedict when he became a Catholic. A village catechist who inspired him to convert from traditional beliefs was named Benedict. St. Benedict the African, who lived in the 16th century, was the son of slaves brought from Africa to Sicily.
Pope Benedict XVI last year called on African Christians to identify African saints to inspire them. But Rodrigues said the Daswa campaign evolved not because of orders from above, but because his predecessor, Bishop Hugh Slattery, had heard how Catholics in Nweli revered Daswa.
Daswa founded a soccer team for Nweli. He started a vegetable garden where youngsters could grow food for their families and sell produce to pay for school fees and uniforms – this at a time when the apartheid government did little to help the nonwhite needy. He was seen as a man who lived by his principles and his religion.
“This school is my home,” said Alicia Nembambula, who taught there when Daswa was its principal. “Wherever we look, we have his memory. If he is looking at us, he can see his fruits.”
But he also made enemies with his opposition to superstitious practices and his defense of people accused of witchcraft. He had already had to cut his ties with the soccer team he founded, because he wouldn’t let the players carry lucky charms.
The trouble came to a head in 1990 when lightning damaged some of the village huts. The village headman gathered his counselors, Daswa among them, in the kraal, the cattle enclosure that served as a meeting place. Daswa argued lightning was a natural phenomenon and refused to join in paying for a witch-finder.
A week later, driving home, he found the road blocked by a log. It was an ambush. Young men pelted him with stones. He fled across a field and into a village pub, where he was clubbed and beaten to death.
It was Feb. 2, 1990. On that day F.W. de Klerk, the country’s last white president, announced he was legalizing the African National Congress and would soon free its imprisoned leader, Nelson Mandela.
Maphaphuli said his friend was human, with faults; he could be sharp-tongued, but quick to apologize. He could be boastful about his faith, but he kept to his promises. He was a respected man, relatively rich, and that stirred jealousy.
Daswa’s commitment to resisting superstition became all too public, Maphaphuli suggested. “It’s then that they started to hate him. To hunt him. Because they wanted to do away with him.”
In 2009, diocesan officials presented an initial case for beatification, based on Daswa’s writings and interviews with those who knew him, to the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. The Vatican accepted the dossier and moved to the next step of formally requesting further documentation. That should be completed by year’s end and a recommendation made to the pope.
To be canonized, the Vatican would have to be satisfied Daswa had performed a miracle – intervened from heaven on behalf of someone on earth.
“Providence takes over,” said Rodrigues, the bishop. “We can just pray.”
Claudette Hiosan, an Australian nun working in South Africa, has been made the promoter, a task that covers everything from distributing the documentation to updating the Daswa website at http://www.benedictdaswa.com where people can testify about Daswa’s works and miraculous powers.
“The thing that has really struck me was his moral courage,” Hiosan said. “He was a man who did not compromise on his deepest, innermost belief. It’s an ongoing challenge to me, to walk the talk.”
Daswa’s relatives won’t comment on the campaign. Hiosan said they have told her it is reviving painful memories.
Philippe Denis, a member of the Dominican order, teaches the history of Christianity at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal and helped prepare documents supporting Daswa’s cause. He said Daswa’s stance against witch hunts was not that of a Catholic criticizing “heathens,” but of an African appalled that traditional respect for humanity and life was being violated.
Daswa “challenged the corruption of African culture, and died for it,” Denis said.
Violence linked to witchcraft reached such high levels in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the government set up special villages to house those accused of the practice. A government investigation concluded that the upsurge was due in part to a power vacuum in the struggle against apartheid and that witch hunts tended to target traditional leaders seen as collaborators with the system of racial segregation.
Today witch-hunt deaths have diminished, but some fear that canonizing Daswa could renew rifts in South Africa’s complex religious landscape.
Simon Khaukanani, who once taught villagers about the Catholic faith alongside Daswa, is among those who regularly pray at Daswa’s graveside. He says those he holds responsible for Daswa’s death have never attended the graveside gatherings. If they did they would be welcomed, he said, but it would be “hard to discuss reconciliation.
“We cannot even talk to these people and say, `Let’s talk together about reconciliation. Because we have different beliefs.”
Then, he thinks again about Daswa.
“He wanted to see the unity among the community. Praying together, doing everything together.
“Because we were doing that during his lifetime.”