NWELI, SOUTH AFRICA — Everyone in this poor northern corner of South Africa has a story about Benedict Daswa’s kindness to his neighbors, his schoolteacher colleagues and the young villagers he helped feed.
That makes it 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.
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 that should have faded in the new post-apartheid South Africa could come surging back.
The year 1990 was a tumultuous one in South Africa. Apartheid was ending, and violent passions were being unleashed. Recriminations and superstitions were swirling. Witch hunts — the literal kind, still prevalent in 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.
Reconciliation, not prosecution
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 anyone 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: “Oh, precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful servant.”
“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 has nothing to do with bringing the killers to justice.
“Fundamentally, we believe he died with forgiveness in his heart,” he said, adding that 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 with the first name, 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 with African saints to inspire them. Bishop 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 — 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.