South Africa

Maverick Life, South Africa

Tshimangadzo Daswa: South Africa’s first martyr to be beatified

Tshimangadzo Daswa: South Africa’s first martyr to be beatified

Tshimangadzo Samuel Benedict Daswa was bludgeoned to death by fellow villagers just days nine days before the release of Nelson Mandela on 2 February 1990 for opposing witchcraft. On Sunday, in the small village of Tshitanini near Thohoyandou in Limpopo, Daswa will be declared a martyr. Pope Francis has sent Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect for the Congregation of the Causes for the Saints, to preside over the beatification ceremony. The king of Venda, the premiers of Gauteng and Limpopo and Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane will be among the guests of honour. A further 35,000 people are expected to descend on the area to witness the beatification. By RUSSELL POLLITT.

In preparation for the ceremony on Sunday the remains of Tshimangadzo Samuel Benedict Daswa were recently exhumed in the presence of the police, a doctor and a nurse. The remains were buried under two concrete slabs to prevent locals from vandalising them. Daswa was ambushed and killed by his fellow villagers when he refused to participate in witchcraft. He said his Catholic faith prevented him from taking part in anything that was connected with witchcraft.

In 1989 heavy lightning strikes caused some homes in his village to be burnt to the ground. The villagers believed this was not natural; they believed they had to find the person responsible for the fire. A decision was taken to consult a sorcerer in a nearby village to seek out the ‘witch’ responsible. Each villager was asked to contribute R5 towards the cost of the consultation. Daswa was not present when the decision was made and when he returned he tried to explain that lightning and thunderstorms are natural phenomena. His explanation was rejected and the people insisted that they consult a sorcerer. The villagers were angered by the fact that he refused to pay the money they had agreed upon.

On 2 February 1990, the day of his death, Daswa drove his sister-in-law and her child to the doctor. On the way home he gave a lift to a man who was carrying a large bag of mealie meal. On the journey back he discovered that the road had been barricaded with branches and stones. He got out of his car to see what was going on and people threw stones at him. After being pelted with stones he ran, injured, to a local shebeen for help but was chased away. A local neighbour, whom Daswa asked for help, allowed him to hide in the kitchen. The mob that chased him threatened the house owner, saying they would burn down the house if she did not give them access to Daswa. She was petrified that they would kill her too. Daswa apparently begged for his life but he was beaten to death and hot water poured over him. A number of people were arrested for his murder but the case was dismissed due to a lack of evidence.

Bishop Emeritus of Tzaneen Hugh Slattery, who was bishop when Daswa was murdered, formally started the process of beatification. Slattery said: “Benedict made no secret of his stance against witchcraft, sorcery and ritual murder, which still have such crippling effects on the development and progress of society.” The diocese of Tzaneen opened an inquiry into Daswa’s death that concluded in 2009. Thereafter the case was sent to Rome so that it could be studied. A dossier of 850 pages of testimonies from witnesses was complied and the process of beatification took 15 years to complete. Slattery said that right from the time of his death Daswa become known to some locals as a martyr. Pope Francis declared Daswa a martyr in February this year and the date was set for the formal beatification ceremony: 13 September 2015.

A close friend, Chris Mphaphuli said Daswa was a kind, educated and principled man. He was born on 16 June 1946 in a small village, Mbahé, in Limpopo. He was a herd boy before he started school. He became a teacher after completing his education at Vendaland Training Institute. In 1977 he was appointed principal of Nweli Primary School, where he remained until his death. He married Shadi Eveline Monyai (a Lutheran) in 1974 and had eight children with her. Daswa was not originally a Catholic; he converted to Catholicism in 1963. He also helped build and was involved in many activities in the Catholic parish where he will now be buried – in Nweli.

The lightning incident was not the only time Daswa fell foul of his fellow villagers. In 1976 Daswa started the Mbahé soccer team. After the team lost several games, some people in the community decided to consult a sangoma. He was against this but was outnumbered and so left the team and started a new one with the players who followed him. This angered his fellow teachers and some community members. Some locals were also angered when Daswa was appointed secretary of the headman’s council. He also became a confidant to the head himself. Locals were jealous because Daswa was a Venda and not a Lemba, who, traditionally, had held that post.

Mphaphuli says the Daswa family has forgiven those who killed him and that they do not bear a grudge against them. He cautions, however, that there is still some tension in the area because families of the perpetrators feel uncomfortable with the beatification decision; they believe it is a slur on them. He says the entire village has been invited to the beatification on Sunday.

The Daswa case does pose a few interesting questions about the local community’s devotion to him as a martyr, the relationship between culture and the Christian faith and how some of the rituals around the beatification may impact on and be foreign to locals.

Daswa will be beatified in the community where he was killed and some of those who killed him will be present. Some people have described the local community as one that is broken and, therefore, one in which there is some discomfort and disagreement. His own cousin, Samuel Daswa, says people thought he was “making himself a big guy, refusing to take part in what the community wanted to do”.

Traditionally, when a community upholds one of its own for sanctification, a ‘devotion’ to the individual develops. If there is discomfort in the local community will and can this actually happen? There is not, as yet it seems, a strong local devotion to Daswa. His devotees may be afraid of expressing their admiration for him. A good example of someone for whom ‘devotion’ seems to be developing is that late Archbishop Denis Hurley who died in 2003. Hurley was archbishop of Durban and a prophetic voice against apartheid. In Durban there is a Denis Hurley Centre (that reaches out to the poor and marginalised in the inner city), a street is named after him and there is also a Denis Hurley Peace Institute in Pretoria.

Another consideration is that Daswa is being upheld as a martyr because he insisted that there were certain issues in his African culture that were incompatible with his Christian faith. He rejected the widespread use of witchcraft, sorcery and ritual murder. In the area where Daswa lived and will be beatified, the use of witchcraft, sorcery and ritual murder is still prevalent. Daswa chose to reject cultural elements that contradicted his Christian faith. (Some of the practices, like ritual murder, not only contradict Christian faith but are also criminal acts in South Africa.) However, the Daswa case does raise some broader questions about local cultures and Christianity. For many people in Africa there is still tension between the Christian faith and local culture. Christianity is still seen, largely, as mediated through a western mind-set. Many Christian symbols and expressions are western in origin. Christianity, in many forms, is growing in the southern hemisphere and, specifically, in Africa. The Daswa case highlights a huge challenge Christianity faces: In what ways will the church break free of its western dominance and become more accommodating of non-western cultures? How will Christianity interract with local customs and cultures so that it can be expressed in those local customs, cultures and symbols?

There are also some rituals around the beatification that will raise the eyebrows of locals. Daswa’s body was exhumed on 24 August and a piece of his toe was taken off and sent to Rome as a relic. Apparently there was a lengthy negotiation with his family about this. For many African people the moving of a body after burial is taboo. The dead are not disturbed. This ritual may be one that many locals are uncomfortable with. Could the exhumation and moving of the body to a shrine mean that, again, the local people are left feeling uncomfortable?

There is no doubt, by all accounts, that Daswa was a man who tried to live with integrity. What is most striking about his life is just how ordinary it was. The Catholic Bishops of Southern Africa hope the beatification of Daswa will contribute to “the revitalising of people’s faith and will encourage them to hold firm in the face of the difficulties that they must face in their daily life”. Daswa came from a family, like many in SA, which was rural and poor. In many ways even his death was ordinary – he was just another one of the many victims of witchcraft-related violence in Venda at the time. He is reported to have been a good husband, father and teacher. He was, despite his detractors, an inspiration to many who knew him. The paradoxes of Daswa’s life are too, no doubt, like many of the paradoxes in our own lives.

Although the Catholic Church is upholding Daswa as a martyr, he is not only for Catholics. He is an example to all men – he took his responsibilities seriously as a husband, father and educator. He was a man who stood up for what he believed in and paid the price. In his own way he tried to live with integrity. Isn’t that what we really need more of in South Africa? DM

Photo: Tshimangadzo Daswa.


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