The article of the month

Blessed Benedict Daswa by Heather King

 Blessed Benedict Daswa (1946–1990), South African schoolteacher, principal, and martyr, fell victim to a murderous mob for refusing to fund their anti-Catholic witchcraft causes.

He was born Tshimangadzo Samuel Daswa in the village of Mbahe in Limpopo: the northernmost—and poorest— province in South Africa. His parents were of the Lemba tribe, sometimes referred to as “Black Jews” because of their adherence to Jewish laws and traditions. The oldest of five children, it fell to him when his father unexpectedly died to support and encourage the education of his younger siblings.

He worked for a time as a herd boy and developed a love of gardening. While visiting with an uncle in Johannesburg, he was introduced to Catholicism. He converted in 1963. Inspired by the Benedictine motto ora et labora (pray and work), he took the name Benedict upon his baptism, and was confirmed three months later.

He attended a teaching college near his hometown and earned a teacher’s certificate there.

In 1974, he married Shadi Eveline Monyai. The couple had eight children.

In his village of Mbahe, he became a community leader, catechist, and a mentor to many young students. He was appointed principal of Nweli Primary School and helped build the first Catholic church in the area. He gave produce from his garden to the needy, and allowed students who were unable to pay their fees to work in the garden in order to earn their tuition.

Highly respected for his integrity and wisdom, he was secretary of the headman’s council and a popular master of ceremonies at local functions.

In late 1989 and early 1990, a series of gale-force storms, accompanied by lightning, occurred. The elders of the community decided “magic” was at play and demanded a tax from each resident to ferret out and destroy the witch who had caused them. Believing the storms were a natural phenomenon, and unwilling to support anti-Catholic superstition, Benedict Daswa argued against their decision and refused to pay the tax. The elders perceived this as an insult to village tradition and customs.

On February 2, 1990, he drove a sister-in-law and her sick child to a doctor in a neighboring town. He was ambushed on his way home. The mob stoned, beat, stabbed, and clubbed him, then poured boiling water into his ears and nostrils. His last words were reportedly “God, into your hands receive my spirit.”

Thirty-five thousand people attended his funeral. His mother later converted and saved her pension earnings in order to buy a tombstone for her son.

His beatification Mass took place at Limpopo on September 13, 2015. Cardinal Angelo Amato presided on behalf of Pope Francis. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa observed, “He paid the ultimate price for his beliefs on the same day that the then-President F. W. de Klerk announced the unbanning of our liberation movements and the release of our beloved Nelson Mandela.”

Blessed Benedict Daswa is the first South African in the history of the Church to be recognized as a martyr of Christ.

Heather King is a contemplative laywoman