The Associated Press has an interesting article about the man who could become South Africa’s first canonized saint. Benedict Daswa, a teacher and devout Catholic who gained local notoriety for his work with the poor in the village of Nweli, was brutally murdered in 1990 for opposing a witch-hunt—“the literal kind,” the article points out—after his village was damaged by lightning. Documents supporting Daswa’s cause for canonization are being compiled by his diocese and are expected to be submitted to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints later this year.
From the AP story:
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.
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.
The investigation into Daswa’s life and death is expected to reopen old wounds dating from a time when superstitious practices were widespread in South Africa, and when accusations of witchcraft frequently resulted in violence and bloodshed:
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.