Murder victim may be South Africa’s 1st saint

Schoolteacher beat to death after arguing against superstition

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.”

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 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.

“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 already had had to cut his ties with the soccer team he had founded because he would not let the players carry lucky charms.

Lightning sparked trouble

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 that 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. Maphaphuli suggested.

“It’s then that they started to hate him, to hunt him, because they wanted to do away with him,” Mr. Maphaphuli said.

In 2009, diocesan officials presented an initial case for beatification, based on Daswa’s writings and interviews with those who had known 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.

For Daswa to be canonized, the Vatican would have to be satisfied that he had performed a miracle intervened from heaven on behalf of someone on earth.

 “Providence takes over,” Bishop Rodrigues said. “We can just pray.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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