Bl Benedict Daswa: 75 Years after his Birth
Before his beatification in September 2015, Benedict Tshimangadzo Daswa’s remains were exhumed and transferred to the church in Nweli, Limpopo, which he had helped to build. The man who was born 75 years ago on what would become South Africa’s Youth Day and slain on the day apartheid died, rests in a church dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption — South Africa’s patron. Even in symbolism, Bl Benedict Daswa represents his country.
Blessed Benedict was born as Tshimangadzo Samuel Daswa on June 16, 1946, as the first-born son of Tshililo Petrus and Thidziambi Ida Daswa. He had three younger brothers and a sister. The family belonged to the Lemba tribe in rural Venda, which follows many Jewish customs. After the death of his father in an accident, Daswa took on the responsibility of caring for his younger siblings. When he joined the workforce, he helped to pay for their education and always encouraged them to study.
During school holidays he stayed with an uncle in Johannesburg where he took part-time work. At this time he became friendly with a young white man who was a Catholic. Several of his peers, who were Shangaan, were also Catholics. Daswa converted to Catholicism at the age of 17. He took the name Benedict after the famous 6th-century saint and in honour of Benedict Risimati, the catechist who had instructed him and others under a fig tree (Risimati, a widower, was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 and died at 64 in 1976). After his confirmation by Abbot Bishop Clemens van Hoek OSB at Sibasa in 1963, Daswa took a particular interest in teaching younger members of his community about Catholicism.
An active Catholic
Having studied to be a teacher, he taught first at Tshilivho Primary School at Ha-Dumasi, rising to the position of principal in 1979. He was active in the teachers’ unions, in sport, and in the daily life of his community. As an active layman, Daswa led Sunday services when the priest was not there, and catechised the youth and the elderly. He helped build the church of Our Lady of the Assumption at Ṅweli — the church that now houses his tomb. From his vegetable garden he gave freely to the poor. He was secretary of the headman’s council and he was known for his resolute honesty, truthfulness and integrity.
“He was open to life, to goodness. He was a helper, a people’s helper. The whole village depended on his small garden for vegetables. Tomatoes, onions. You name them. Some of the people were even so poor that he would let them have vegetables without money,” Benedict’s eldest son Lufuno, who was 14 when his father died, remembered in an interview with The Southern Cross in 2015.
Benedict married Shadi Eveline Monyai in 1974, solemnising their union in the Church in 1980. They had eight children, the last being born four months after Benedict’s death (Shadi died in 2008). Daswa raised eyebrows in his community for also doing work that was supposed to be reserved for women, such as collecting wood and washing clothes in the river. But for him, helping his wife with the children and household chores were part of his marriage commitment. Lufuno Daswa recalled his father as “a natural leader” in his family and the Church. “The whole family was focused because of him. He was a hard worker. He was a visionary. He had future plans. He planned for our family, for our education. It was the 1980s, but he sent us to the best school in what was then the Northern Transvaal region, the Catholic St Brendan’s School. We could go to him. He was friendly. He was everything you could ask for in a father.”
But Daswa’s faith also put him in conflict with some villagers who resented his rejection of the practice of witchcraft. That conflict was long-brewing, beginning with football. In 1976 Benedict founded a football team called the Mbahe Eleven Computers. After a run of defeats, it was suggested that muti be obtained from a sangoma to help improve the team’s results. Benedict opposed the idea but he was outvoted, so he left the club and formed a new team, the Mbahe Freedom Rebels. That decision set off a long campaign of hatred and jealousy towards Daswa by some people.
A series of unusual thunderstorms and lightning strikes in the area in November 1989 and again on January 25, 1990, caused a group of local community leaders to seek recourse by hiring a traditional healer to determine the cause of this unusual weather, which they thought to be the work of a “witch”. To pay the healer, they collected R5 from every member of the community. Benedict’s explanation that the weather phenomena were natural and therefore could not to be blamed on witches went unheard. He refused to contribute, saying that the use of a traditional healer constituted witchcraft and therefore was in conflict with his faith. Members of the community took offence at what they perceived as his disrespect for their beliefs and plotted to kill Benedict.
February 2, 1990 — the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple — was a busy day. That Friday, the day on which President FW de Klerk would unban the liberation movements, Daswa was working in his garden before he took his sister-in-law and her sick baby to the doctor in Makwarela. He then proceeded to Thohoyandou to delivered vegetables from his garden to the parish priest, Fr John Finn MSC. On his way home he gave a lift to a young man with a bag of mealie meal. Three acts of charity on his final day on earth.
Benedict was driving home to Mbahe when at 19:30 a group of men blocked the road with fig tree logs. When Benedict got out of his car to clear the wood, he was set upon by the mob, beaten and stoned. Bleeding, he ran away across the Eleven Computers’ football field, eventually finding shelter in the kitchen of a rondavel. But when the mob arrived, they threatened the woman at the building with death if she did not reveal Daswa’s hiding place. Two boys pulled Benedict out of the rondavel. Benedict hugged one of them and pleaded for his life. As a man approached with a raised knobkerrie to deliver the fatal blow, Benedict prayed: “God, into your hands, receive my spirit.” The assailants then poured boiling water onto his head, to make sure their victim was dead.
Benedict’s brother Thanyani was the first family member to arrive where his body was. When their mother saw what had been done to her son, she fainted. On the days leading up to Benedict’s funeral, Fr Finn, Holy Rosary Sisters and the Catholic community came to the Daswa home every evening to pray with the family. The priest later recalled an atmosphere of fear, tension and hostility in the village. “I have a very distinct memory that it was the first and only time that I had ever sensed evil,” he would recall.
The killers were never convicted due to lack of evidence. Today, some of the killers still come to the Daswas to receive fruit and vegetables.
Lufuno Daswa recalled his final conversation with his father: “I was going into the second year of secondary school. He drove me to St Brendan’s. We chatted for a long time. He was teaching me some words in Sepedi, about how to greet my mother. We prayed and then we hugged. Then he closed the car door and I closed mine, and he drove off. I think it was January 22, just over a week before his passing.”
Benedict’s funeral Mass was on February 10, the day before the release from jail of Nelson Mandela, in the Nweli church Daswa had helped to build. It was celebrated by Fr Finn, assisted by Frs Philemon Thobela, Doney McCarthy MSC, Jimmy Stubbs MSC, Fr Terence Mooney MSC and Deacon Jonas Letlalo. All clergy wore red vestments in acknowledgement of their belief that Benedict had died a martyr’s death for his faith.
At first, devotion to Daswa grew locally, until some years later Bishop Hugh Slattery of Tzaneen became aware of it. The bishop, who would write a book on the life of Benedict Daswa, opened an inquiry into the martyr’s death in 2005 and completed it in 2009, when it was sent to the Vatican. In October 2014 the theologian consultors of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes unanimously recommended that Daswa be declared a martyr.
Benedict Daswa was beatified on September 13, 2015 by Cardinal Angelo Amato, on behalf of Pope Francis. Bishop Slattery’s successor, Bishop João Rodrigues, presented the decree of beatification to the crowd of 30000 people, which included then-Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Daswa’s feast day is on February 1.
This article was published in the June 2021 issue of The Southern Cross magazine