In November 1989, heavy rains and lightning strikes were prevalent in the Venda area. This was not seen as a natural phenomenon. Some members of the community became very concerned as to who was responsible.
In early 1990, after a heavy downpour on Thursday 25th January, there were several lightning strikes in the area. The Headman, his council and the community met to discuss their concerns. It was agreed that a traditional healer be consulted to identify the witch who was responsible for the burnings. For this purpose a contribution of R5 per person was agreed on.
Benedict arrived after the decision was taken. His explanation that lightning was a natural phenomenon was greeted with scepticism. He argued against following the old ways and for blaming witches for causing lightning strikes.
When the decision held, Benedict refused to pay the R5 contribution. He argued that his Catholic faith prevented him from taking part in anything connected with witchcraft. Many in the community saw him as belittling the traditional beliefs and conspired to get rid of him because to them he was a stumbling block because of his Catholic faith and consistent stand against witchcraft.
On 2nd February 1990, Benedict drove his sister – in – law and her sick child to the doctor in Thohoyandou. En route, he picked up a man who asked for his help to take a bag of mealie meal to his home in a village adjacent to Mbahe.
Around 7.30 pm, Benedict returned to Mbahe. After leaving his sister – in – law and child near their home, he told his daughter he would return after taking his other passenger and his bag of mealie meal to the next village.
Returning home, Benedict found his way blocked by tree logs across the road. When he alighted, a mob of youths and adults came from behind trees and began throwing large stones at him. Bleeding and injured he left the car and ran across a soccer field hoping for assistance from nearby rondavels (round huts) one being a Shebeen.
He ran into a rondavel kitchen to hide. When the mob arrived they challenged the woman owner of the rondavel indicating that they would kill her if she did not reveal where Benedict was hiding.
Hearing their threat, Benedict came out. He asked them why they wanted to kill him. When Benedict saw one man from the mob coming towards him with a knobkerrie he added the prayer: “God, into your hands receive my spirit” as he was dealt a fatal blow from the knobkerrie which crushed his skull. Boiling water was then poured over his head.
The woman, who owned the rondavel, ran to tell Mackson, Benedict’s brother, what had happened. After calling the Police, he stayed with Benedict’s body throughout the night.
Police came and after surveying the crime scene remained in their car during the night due to widespread violence and burnings in the area. The following morning a police photographer and forensic specialist arrived and an investigation started. A number of people were arrested for Benedict’s brutal murder. When the case came to court it was dismissed through lack of evidence
An interesting interview with the bishop who initiated the cause:
Do you remember when you first heard about Benedict Daswa? What impact
did his story have on you the first time you heard it?
I heard about Benedict as soon as he was killed in 1990. Many people met violent deaths around that time in this country. It was a very sad event. It made no impact on me at the time. However, on the 10th anniversary if his death in 2000, I heard how the local Catholics remembered Benedict by gathering together for a special Mass. They then went to the place where he was ambushed and his widow placed flowers in the middle of the road. Then Benedict’s death began to have a real impact on me and it crossed my mind that he might have been a martyr for the faith. Some inquiries among those who knew him well indicated that Benedict was somebody very special and that we should do something about it.
What did you decide to do?
We began to talk about him with some of the local people and among the priests. We hadn’t a clue about what to do or what procedures to follow or where to find the money, etc, to investigate his life and death. To get Benedict beatified as a martyr looked like an impossible or at least a very long term project. It seemed more like a dream than a project. Very few dared to believe that a poor remote diocese like Tzaneen was going to produce the first local African saint. We thought we wouldn’t be around to see all this happen.
Trusting in God we decided to go ahead, to find out what had to be done and get on with the task of investigating his life and death. Since then, the Lord has been very good to us, opening doors and meeting needs as the occasion requires. A strong steak of stubbornness also helped.
Witch craft and witch hunts still carrying on in rural South Africa.
People in Daswa’s home village say the situation hasn’t improved since
his death. Has his death made any difference at all to the way people think about witch craft and dark arts?
Witch craft is something deep in African culture and it is very unlikely that the belief in it is going to change any time soon. It was surely through some special grace from God that Benedict Daswa was able to put the dark areas of his culture outside of himself, as it were, and see it as anti-light and therefore opposed to his new found Christian faith. He saw that in his life as a Christian there was no place for things like witchcraft, sorcery, muti, ritual murder, etc. He realised he couldn’t stop people believing in witchcraft, but that he could try and challenge witchcraft accusations where no proof is required before a person is found guilty. And so he publicly opposed the smelling out of so called witches in order to protect innocent lives. In time, Benedict’s courageous witness will surely inspire many other people to follow his example and intervene at a level of witchcraft accusations by demanding proof of guilt before someone can be banished or killed.
Benedict Daswa has been criticised for turning away from his Venda and Lemba traditions to embrace the church? What do you feel about that?
I believe Benedict only left behind him the traditions which were in conflict with his faith. Otherwise he remains deeply embedded especially in the traditional culture of the extended family. Every year around Christmas, he brought together family members and close relatives to cement the family bonds and to deal with any troublesome issues.
You are promoting Benedict Daswa as a martyr for the faith and as an apostle of life. What do you mean by apostle of life?
Obviously we have in mind the innocent lives lost or harmed by such things like ritual murder, witchcraft, etc. It is worth remembering that the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 is still enforced in this country, but is presently under review. This act makes witchcraft illegal and carries heavy penalties for witchcraft related crimes, but since 1996 we have another and far more serious attack on human life through legalised abortion.
Legalised abortion has already claimed the lives of more than one million innocent unborn babies in this country. Some claim that abortion is just one issue among many and that we should not get too worked up about it. But surely the right to be born is the only and supreme issue for the 50 million babies who will never see the light of day in 2015. Benedict Daswa can indeed be an inspiration figure for all who are involved in promoting the culture and gospel of life everywhere and be truly regarded as an apostle of life.