Winning the heart and soul of South Africa for Mary by spreading the Fatima Message

Feast Day 1 February


Benedict Daswa was born on 16 June 1946 in the small village of Mbahe about 20 kms from Thohoyandou, Venda, in the Province of Limpopo.

Benedict was the eldest of five children – four sons and one daughter – of the late Mr Tshililo Petrus Daswa and Mrs Thidziambi Ida Daswa (nee Gundula).

He came from a family that was poor but not destitute. Like many youngsters in rural South Africa, he started life as a herd boy before going to school, eventually becoming a teacher and a school principal.

Benedict was raised in a loving hard-working family.

One might ask how Benedict learnt about the Catholic Church which was virtually non-existent in Venda. Unlikely as it might seem, Benedict’s first contact with Catholicism was through a young white man whom he got to know in Johannesburg when spending his school holidays there with his uncle Frank Gundula. This initial encounter with the Church was followed soon afterwards by a much more significant one when Benedict met a devout Catholic layman called Benedict Risimati. At the relatively tender age of 17, he embraced the Catholic Faith, adopting the name Benedict after the famous sixth-century saint and after Benedict Risimati, the catechist and future priest who had instructed him and others in the Catholic Faith.

His father had a special love for his eldest son, while Benedict in turn was always respectful and obedient to his father. According to his mother, “his father loved him because of his good manners.”

Benedict’s mother was kind and loving and was the heart of the home. She too helped in the fields, and also brewed traditional beer and sold second-hand clothes to earn some money for the education of their children. Due to the influence of her son, she became a Catholic and joined the St. Anne Sodality, giving advice and guidance to young Catholic women.

Because of monetary constraints, Benedict struggled to complete his education at the teacher training college. His uncle, Frank Gundula, who worked in Johannesburg, was good to him and helped him financially throughout his education, but that was not enough. He had to find more money somehow. Here he showed his true character and mature sense of responsibility. For him there was no question of entitlement or dependence on handouts.

From the time of his conversion and especially since his marriage in Church, the pattern of Benedict’s life is very clear. He was totally committed to Christ and to the Catholic Church in which he was an enthusiastic and active leader. At the same time, he was also deeply involved and very influential in the life of the village. In both of these roles Benedict was always guided by his faith. He was never ashamed to admit his great trust in God.

Benedict believed that marriage was a relationship between equals, a true partnership of life and love between husband and wife. For him this was not just a theory to be believed, but a reality to be lived in daily life. He was keenly aware of the domestic demands on his wife. He used to say that, “men should not expect all kinds of services from their wives when they were already busy with family chores”. He was never ashamed to help his wife by taking on tasks which were seen as women’s work.

Benedict had a deep spiritual life nourished by prayer and the regular reception of the sacraments. For him the family was truly a domestic Church where the Faith was lived and passed on to the next generation. He strongly encouraged all parents to pray with their children, to talk to them about Jesus and Mary and the saints, and to teach them the catechism.

Benedict’s faith was nourished by the regular reception of Our Lord in the Eucharist. This great mystery of faith and love meant everything to him. It was the centre of his life. He would never miss Sunday Mass unless it was totally impossible to attend.

As Benedict matured in his faith he realised more and more that Christianity was a total way of life. It was not just about getting baptised, receiving First Communion and Confirmation, praying, going to Church on Sunday and finally getting buried by the Church. Benedict saw that his faith had to affect and transform every area of his life, both private and public. His life was now centred on Christ and on building up a personal relationship with him. He knew he had to have a Christ-like approach to the issues, problems and challenges he encountered on a daily basis. He had to embrace and live out the great commandment of love of God and love of neighbour.

He saw that there were aspects of his culture which clashed with his faith, especially the practice of witchcraft and ritual murder, and the use of muti. He knew that as a Christian he couldn’t accept these nor could he just quietly ignore them because they often involved the killing of innocent people. Such deaths often come about when someone on the basis of hearsay is judged to be a witch who does harm to people, and is then put to death or banished to some remote place.

As Benedict’s faith was growing all the time, so also was the opposition to him at the Headman’s Council and among the people in the village. His stance against witchcraft was not a popular one, since he was opposing something very deep in the local culture. There were others who, like Benedict, saw the world of witchcraft as one of evil, fear, mistrust, enmity, injustice and violence which the people should abandon and put behind them. However, these, among them ministers of religion, kept quiet out of fear of reprisal.

Above all, Benedict didn’t want any innocent person killed or banished from the village as a supposed witch.

A classic sequence of events would begin with a campaign of hearsay, whispering and gossip, fingers pointing out a certain individual, often an old woman or some other vulnerable person. A sangoma might be consulted to confirm the suspicions. The accused is given no possibility of defence. Benedict was very much aware of the damaging effects of gossip in the whole area of witchcraft.

There was a lot of jealousy and resentment against Benedict. This was not only on account of his opposition to witchcraft but also because of his success in life. He was a respected man with a nice house. He was a good school principal and a leader in the Transvaal United African Teachers Association. He was active in the Church and in the Headman’s Council. Moreover, he was a close friend of the Headman.

During the late eighties there was a big increase in the number of witchcraft-related crimes including a large number of deaths in the Venda area. Many were living in fear.

Many of the crimes were politically motivated to help in the struggle against apartheid. By this time certain people had become blinded by jealousy and hatred of Benedict and decided the time had come to get rid of him. They didn’t want him with his Catholic faith influencing the people, especially the youth, against the traditional practice of witchcraft. In the words of one of his friends, Benedict “was killed because of his faith. They wanted him dead because of his influence on the community, especially the young.” In the words of Convince Makwarela, “Benedict was killed because he stood for the truth.”

Benedict was different. In the words of one of the parishioners, Samson Managa, “Benedict spoke openly and strongly in public opposing people who wanted to use witchcraft. He didn’t believe in witchcraft, diviners, fortune tellers, etc.” His brother Calson reminds us that Benedict’s stance came from his Christian faith, “One thing is for sure, Benedict Daswa did not compromise his stand. He stuck to his Christian values: Don’t kill, don’t believe in witchcraft.”

On the 25 January 1990, during a heavy thunderstorm, several thatched rondavels (round huts) were struck by lightning. On the following Sunday, 28 January, the Headman called a meeting of his council to deal with the matter. Benedict had not yet arrived when the issue was discussed and a decision taken. In his absence the decision was predictable. It was decided that some members of the community would go to a certain sangoma and get him to “sniff out” the witch who had sent the lightning. But they would first have to collect some money to give to the sangoma. It was agreed that each family would have to give R5.

When Benedict arrived he immediately tried to have the decision reversed. He pointed out that lightning strikes were a purely natural happening and couldn’t possibly be caused by human beings. It was by pure chance that some of the houses were destroyed but not the others. They were not interested in how this misfortune happened but in why it happened. Uppermost in the people’s minds was the usual question as to why particular houses were struck but not the others. They did not accept that it was by chance. They believed that there was a human agent behind all this, a witch, who wanted to harm some people but not the others. As the Vendas say, “A huna tshi no da nga tshothe”, meaning, ‘nothing simply happens by itself’”.

Benedict pointed out that the decision would lead to some innocent person being killed. The meeting stuck by their decision and Benedict said that he would never contribute the R5 for the sangoma. According to his sister, Thinavhuyo, Benedict is reported to have said, “I am not going to contribute that R5 which might lead to somebody being killed, as my conscience does not allow me to do so, but I am not stopping you from doing it.” Maxwell Daswa tells us that when it came to looking for money to help in “sniffing out” witches, Benedict’s response always was, “No, my Christianity does not allow me to do this”. As Samuel Daswa tells us, the people saw things differently, “They thought he was making himself a big guy, refusing to take part in what the community wanted to do”.

During the following days, Benedict’s murder was carefully planned and carried out quickly. His enemies assembled a group of youth and young adults to carry out their plan to kill Benedict. Friday, 2 February 1990, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple became the birthday of Benedict Daswa into heaven.

Very much in keeping with his daily Christian living, he performed three acts of charity during his last day on earth. In the morning he delivered some vegetables from his garden to his parish priest, Fr. John Finn, in Thohoyandou. He took his sister-in-law, Alice Daswa, and her sick baby to the doctor in Makwarela about 15kms away. On his way there he gave a lift to a young man with a bag of mealie meal and went out of his way to drop him off at his home.

It was already getting dark as Benedict was nearing his house. He found his way blocked by a tree trunk and large stones placed across the road. As he got out to remove them, he was attacked from both sides by a mob of young people throwing stones at him. Injured and bleeding, he decided to leave his damaged vehicle and ran to a nearby shebeen (place for selling drink illegally) hoping to get some protection and help. The mob followed in hot pursuit. He sought refuge in a house but had to come out when the mob threatened to burn it down. He pleaded for his life but all in vain. He then asked to be allowed to kneel down and pray. As he prayed aloud, a young man raised his knobkerrie and struck Benedict a violent blow on the back of the head, crushing his skull. Then another one fetched boiling water from a nearby stove and poured it over the dying man’s head.

In meeting this violent death, Benedict was following in the footsteps of the many thousands of martyrs who have died for their faith down through the centuries.

Blessed Benedict Daswa, Pray for us!

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