Benedict Daswa’s full name was Tshimangadzo (traditional name meaning miracle or wonder and very fitting in view of future events), Samuel (English name given at birth), Benedict (baptismal name), Daswa (family name) and finally Bakali (Lemba clan name). He was born on the 16th June 1946 in the small village of Mbahe about 20 kms from Thohoyandou, the capital of the old Venda “Homeland” in the Province of Limpopo. His birthday immediately brings to mind the uprising against the Apartheid government in 1976 in which many young people lost their lives. It is now kept as a public holiday called Youth Day.
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). Three of them are still living: two sons, Thanyani Mulimisi Mackson and Muvhulawa Calson as well as the daughter Thinavhuyo Mavis Muthige. The other son, Humbulani Innocent, passed away in 2008.
Venda is often referred to as “the land of a hundred streams” because of its fertile land and good rainfall. It is a scenically beautiful part of the country with its rolling hills and deep valleys, its lush vegetation and areas of raw, rugged landscape. It was one of the ten tribal areas called Homelands or Bantustans where Africans had limited self-government over areas such as education, health, courts, police, prisons and social services. The Homelands comprised less than fifteen percent of the country. They were one of the main pillars of the racist apartheid system which became government policy in 1948 when Benedict was only a two year old toddler.
For the millions of people who were not part of the White race there was the daily humiliation and injustice of being victims of racial segregation and discrimination on a grand scale. One of the African Catholic Bishops from this country used to say, “I never feel I’m a free person until I step outside South Africa”. This is the South Africa into which Benedict Daswa was born and in which he lived his whole life.
One may ask what was so remarkable about Benedict Daswa who spent his short life in this poor, remote part of South Africa under an oppressive racist regime? Why is the Catholic Church so interested in this man? I would like to briefly answer these questions here and let the rest of this publication fill out the picture.
At first glance, what strikes one most about Benedict Daswa is how ordinary he was. He came from a family that was poor but not destitute. Like many boys in rural South Africa at a young age he became a herd boy before going to school and eventually becoming a teacher and a school principal. He married, had a large family and was murdered on 2 February 1990 because of his opposition to the practice of witchcraft. He was in the prime of life, just a few months short of his 44th birthday. On the surface, everything about Benedict was ordinary, even his death, since he was just one of many victims of witchcraft-related violence at that time in Venda.
The reality is that for those who knew him well, while he was just an ordinary young man in so many ways, he was also an extraordinary man. He was a remarkable man. He was an exceptional human being. He was a deeply committed Christian totally in love with the Lord Jesus Christ and with the human family. He lived a saintly life and died a martyr’s death. Fr. Benoit Gueye MSC, the parish priest of Thohoyandou, calls Benedict a role model, “I am always saying to the people here ‘don’t forget that from among you God chose a role model for all Christianity. From this far place, that’s where God went and picked his role model’”. Fr. Benoit goes on, “this was a simple man who was a witness to Jesus in the world and was willing to die for that” (Mail and Guardian 2 – 9 April 2015).
It is because Benedict Daswa is such a good role model for all Christians that the Church is so interested in him. From the early days of the Church and in every century faithful Christians have drawn hope and inspiration from the lives of holy men and women whom the Church has recognised as Saints and Martyrs. We believe that they are with the Lord enjoying the happiness of Heaven. Saints are those who have lived very holy lives and died naturally. Martyrs are Saints who were put to death for their faith.
The Church has officially recognised only a very small number of outstanding Saints and Martyrs but there are countless others whom we believe are also in heaven. The Church has always encouraged her children to imitate these holy people and to pray to them begging them to ask for special favours from God. We believe that as members of our family, they are very concerned about our welfare. We also believe that because the Saints are such close friends of God, their prayers are more powerful than ours, that God listens to their prayers more than to ours.
In the early Church, Africa had many great saints and martyrs such as St. Augustine, St. Cyprian, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Felicity and St. Perpetua as well as the martyrs of Egypt and Carthage. In more recent times the Lord has blessed the Church in Africa with St. Josephine Bakhita in Sudan, Blessed Cyprian Tansi in Nigeria and Blessed Victoria Rasoamanariva in Madagascar. He has given us as martyrs for the faith: Blessed Isidore Bakanja and Blessed Clementine Anuarita in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as Blessed David Okelo and Blessed Jildo Irwa in Uganda.
Among the great modern witnesses to the faith in Africa the Martyrs of Uganda occupy a special place. In the 1880s St. Charles Lwanga and his 21 companions were killed because of their faith, most of them by being burned to death. Their “crime” was that they refused to engage in homosexual activities with the King of Buganda because they knew that such acts were against the virtue of chastity and forbidden by the 6th Commandment (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2337-2359, Rom 1:24-27).
On 18 October 1964 Blessed Paul VI declared as Saints this group of brave young soldiers of Christ. In his homily the Pope said, “These Martyrs of Africa have indeed laid the foundation of a new age” and he went on to say that they had left us, “lessons for the moral formation of a new people, for the foundation of a new spiritual tradition…a new civilisation…a new society”.
The Church has now added Benedict Daswa to this growing list of modern Saints and Martyrs in Africa. Like the Martyrs of Uganda, Benedict has left us many good lessons for the moral formation of our members and especially the Catholic youth. He is also an inspiration to the wider society in which many people are struggling for inner liberation from the fear and suffering caused by the practice of witchcraft.