Bl. Benedict Daswa: Husband, Father, Martyr

Beatified on Sunday, Daswa becomes the first South African to be officially recognized by the Church as a martyr for the Faith.

The Church in Southern Africa is rejoicing. On Sunday, September 13, at a colorful Mass in his home town of Tshitanini, Thohoyandou, in the Limpopo province of South Africa, Tshimangadzo Samuel Benedict Daswa was officially declared “Blessed.” Murdered in 1990 at the age of 43 for rejecting witchcraft, he is the first South African to be officially recognized by the Church as a martyr for the Faith.

Cardinal Angelo Amato, SDB, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, and Bishop Joao Rodrigues of Tzaneen led other bishops, clergy, and the faithful in the beatification ceremony. Daswa’s eight children and elderly mother were in attendance.

“Tshimangadzo” means “miracle” or “wonder” in the Venda language, one of 11 official languages spoken in South Africa. In his letter to the faithful, Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town—who is also the president of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC), which covers Botswana, Swaziland, and South Africa—described Blessed Daswa as “a committed lay Catholic and the loving husband and father of a large family; a dedicated teacher and volunteer catechist, an active and charitable member of the community.”

How did such a man end up a martyr? In January 1990, the Venda area of northern South Africa experienced unusually heavy rain and lightning. Lightning struck a number of huts in the area, prompting the headman of Mbahe village to convene his council to discuss their concerns, as many villagers did not regard this as a natural phenomenon. Benedict was secretary to this council, but was not involved in the discussion. The council concluded that someone had to be responsible for the erratic weather and that therefore, a traditional healer had to be consulted in order to identify the culprit. A financial contribution of five South African rands was required from all the villagers to pay the healer’s consultation fee. At the time, Benedict Daswa was headmaster of a primary school, a position which in many rural settings in Africa commands great influence and respect. He spoke out against the witch-hunt and refused to pay the fee, immediately earning himself enemies.

On the evening of February 2, 1990 (the same day that South African President F.W. de Klerk announced the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela from prison), Benedict Daswa was attacked by a mob of young men while trying to clear a road of fallen trees. The mob began stoning the car he was driving and injured him. The bleeding Daswa escaped on foot and found a house to hide him, but eventually the owner of the house, fearing for her safety, revealed his whereabouts to the mob. Having found Daswa, the violent crowd sang and chanted while taunting him, beat him up with clubs, poured boiling water on him, and left him dead. His final words, reportedly, echoed those of Christ on the Cross: “God, into your hands receive my spirit.”

Even after more than a century of evangelization in Africa, traditional African religions remain a fact of life in many African countries. Pope Benedict XVI recognized this reality in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in Africa, Africae Munus: “The Church lives daily alongside the followers of traditional African religions. With their reference to ancestors and to a form of mediation between man and Immanence, these religions are the cultural and spiritual soil from which most Christian converts spring and with which they continue to have daily contact” (92).

This reflects the context into which Benedict Daswa and many of his peers were born. The Daswa family belonged to the black African ethnic community called the Lemba, or “Black Jews.” Their clan name was Bakali. They followed the Semitic traditions such as kosher-like dietary restrictions, male circumcision rites, and strict rules against inter-marriage, and had Semitic-sounding clan names. Benedict Daswa, however, converted to Christianity and was baptized at 17 years of age and continued steadfastly in the Catholic faith through his adult life.

It is interesting that Blessed Daswa was secretary to the same council that ultimately made decisions resulting in his martyrdom. He served his community in that capacity, but was clear in distinguishing elements that were in direct contradiction to his Catholic faith. Pope Benedict, in Africae Munus, helps to reflect on the relationship between different religious traditions in Africa:

It would also help to clarify the vital distinction between culture and cult and to discard those magical elements which cause division and ruin for families and societies. In this regard, the Second Vatican Council taught that the Church “urges her sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.” (92)

Bishop Joao Rodrigues of the Diocese of Tzaneen said Benedict Daswa “lived in a spirit of freedom founded on the truth of Jesus Christ. “His faith in Christ freed him from the fear of witchcraft and evil spirits and everything related to these dark forces,” Bishop Rodrigues said. “Indeed Blessed Benedict’s life and death testify that witchcraft and all forms of divination are useless and a meaningless burden which enslaves the human spirit by continually playing on our fears and ignorance.”

During his address to the congregation after the beatification Mass, South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa thanked the Church and the Daswa family, pointing out that “on the day that South Africa saw a new birth, a new beginning, the Daswa family was mourning their son. His fearless ministry cost him his life. May this be a day when we as South Africans commit to building a society free of ignorance, intolerance, and violence.”

In reference to the xenophobic attacks witnessed in parts of South Africa earlier this year, Mr. Ramaphosa reminded South Africans that “we decided collectively that we will not attack people from other countries, as we applaud Benedicts Daswa, as we remember and honor his memory.”

Deputy President Ramaphosa then turned to the question of witchcraft, strongly urging South Africans to “say no to witchcraft, say no to ritual killings.” He encouraged “open dialogue and discussions on why we continue to have ritual killings in a peaceful country.”

Pope Benedict XVI did not shy away from these concerns in his 2011 apostolic exhortation:

Witchcraft, which is based on the traditional religions, is currently experiencing a certain revival. Old fears are re-surfacing and creating paralyzing bonds of subjection. Anxiety over health, well-being, children, the climate, and protection from evil spirits at times lead people to have recourse to practices of traditional African religions that are incompatible with Christian teaching. The problem of “dual affiliation”—to Christianity and to the traditional African religions—remains a challenge. (93)

Many see the beatification of Benedict Daswa is an important step, providing an example and role model for Christians in Africa as they live their faith through the many anxieties pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI. But the Church is invited to go further still. Pope Benedict XVI, in fact, suggested how this could be done:

Through profound catechesis and inculturation, the Church in Africa needs to help people to discover the fullness of Gospel values. It is important to determine the profound meaning of these practices of witchcraft by identifying the many theological, social, and pastoral implications of this scourge. (93)

In the meantime, celebrations will continue and Blessed Benedict Daswa, whose feast day is February 1, will inspire many young people. Among them is Dominic Savio Ledwaba, a member of the Association of Catholic Tertiary Students in South Africa, who shares that “reading about the life of Daswa I am strongly motivated to make amendments of my life and change the way I used to live in order to walk in the footsteps of Benedict and manifest his life. Every day is a day of meditation on the life of this phenomenal man of God in my life.”

Bishop Rodrigues pointed out that Blessed Daswa’s life “teaches us how to live in a spirit of genuine love for one’s spouse and children with a truly fatherly spirit.”

“When he vowed before God to love and honor his wife unto death, he really meant every word of what he said,” Bishop Rodrigues explained. “It was not an empty formality, but a life-long commitment which he knew depended on God’s merciful love and saving grace. His late wife and all his children bear testimony to his outstanding example as a loving husband and father.”

In a video message, the spokesperson for the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference, Father Smilo Mngadi, offered a wonderful summary of the significance of the beatification of Benedict Daswa, not just to the Church, but to the whole of South African society:

While at the Southern tip of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk was announcing the new liberation, and the new dispensation of our country, on the northern tip of our country in Limpopo, in Thohoyandou, Benedict Daswa was giving his life to liberate us from the oppression, from the troubles of witchcraft in our country and in our world. So let us go and celebrate him, but above all, take him as our model of Christian living and say no to witchcraft, and yes to Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis also praised Blessed Daswa’s witness during his Angelus address on Sunday. The Holy Father lauded Daswa’s “great consistency, courageously taking on Christian attitudes and refusing worldly and pagan habits.” His testimony, the Pope added, is united with “the testimony of so many of our brothers and sisters—young, old, children—persecuted, driven out, killed for confessing Jesus Christ.”


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About Allen Ottaro 28 Articles
Allen Ottaro lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic University Chapel in the Archdiocese of Nairobi. He is a co-founder of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, and is the former national coordinator of MAGIS Kenya.