The Martyrdom and Funeral of Blessed Benedict

On the 25th of January 1990, during a heavy thunderstorm, several thatched rondavels (round huts) were struck by lightning. On the following Sunday, 28th of 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 got a group of youth and young adults to carry out their plan to kill Benedict. Friday, 2nd of February 1990, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple became the birthday of Benedict Daswa into heaven. On this day the Church has a procession with blessed and lighted candles. With the old man Simeon, she acclaims Christ as, “A light for revelation to the gentiles” but also as “a sign that will be contradicted”. Benedict reflected the light of Christ in his life and like his Divine Master met with opposition and was finally put to death.

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.

As Benedict was nearing his house, it was already getting dark. 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 run 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. Under the same management of Pope and Bishops for 2000 years, the Catholic Church has always given special honour to these brave men and women who have sacrificed everything, even their lives, out of love for the Lord. Benedict Daswa belongs to the type of generous and courageous disciples which Pope Francis had in mind when he wrote about martyrdom, “The disciple is ready to put his or her life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom in bearing witness to Jesus Christ”. This is what Benedict Daswa did – he risked his life – and with God’s grace persevered to the end.

Benedict’s tragic death was a devastating blow especially to his pregnant wife and seven young children, to his mother, brothers and sisters and to the other closely knit members of the extended Daswa family. The eighth child, Benedicta, was born four months later. Benedict’s death sent shock waves through the village and the neighbouring villages where he was also well known and highly respected. The question on people’s lips was, “Why would anyone want to kill such a good and decent man and do so in such a brutal fashion?” Surely the power of evil was at work in this terrible deed. Fr. Finn recalls the atmosphere of fear, tension and hostility in the village which he and the Holy Rosary Sisters experienced when visiting the Daswa home to pray with the family. They came for prayer each evening until the funeral took place. Fr. Finn said, “I have a very distinct memory that it was the first and only time that I had ever sensed evil”.

While the people of Mbahe and the surrounding area were mourning the loss of a much loved son, the rest of the country was rejoicing. They had good reason for doing so because a few hours before Benedict’s death, President FW De Klerk had announced the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners. He had also announced the unbanning of the African National Congress and other liberation movements. During his trial 27 years earlier when referring to the struggle for a free and democratic South Africa, Mandela had declared, “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Benedict Daswa too had his ideal which was his faith for which he lived and for which he was prepared to die. In Benedict’s case, the Lord gave him the grace to sacrifice his life for his ideal. In the words of his brother, Calson, “Benedict died for what he believed in, the gospel of Christ ‘Thou shalt not kill’”.

 On Saturday 10 February 1990, the funeral service of Benedict Daswa took place at Nweli Church of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, which he had helped to build some years earlier. It was estimated that between 400 and 500 people attended, including a large number of teachers. Fr. Finn MSC was the main celebrant assisted by Fr. Philemon Thobela, Fr. Doney McCarthy MSC, Fr. Jimmy Stubbs MSC and Deacon Jonas Letlalo. The priests wore red vestments to show their belief that Benedict had died as a martyr for the faith.

At the graveside Fr. McCarthy pointing to Benedict said, “This is my brother who died for his faith”. He predicted that Benedict would in time be recognised by the Church as, “one of the first Black martyrs because he died for his faith”. I am sure neither he, nor anyone else could imagine that this would happen so quickly and that in the space of 25 years he would become Blessed Benedict Daswa.

It is extremely difficult for a family to cope with the death of a loved one where the issue of witchcraft surfaces. Benedict wasn’t killed because he himself was regarded as a witch. He was killed because of his faith-based stand against witchcraft. He was seen as protecting witches. As a true apostle of life who loved all people he wanted to protect everyone, including so-called witches. This meant he was going against his culture and undermining the social order. This had serious consequences for the Daswa family after Benedict’s death. They did not receive the usual accompaniment and strong support which a grieving family would normally get from relatives, friends and neighbours. One of his friends gave it as his personal opinion that the Church also should have done more to help the family. He said, “We did not give enough moral support in those difficult times”.