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Plans Underway to Build a Shrine in Honor of South Africa’s First Martyr, Potential Saint

Blessed Benedict Daswa, who was martyred in 1990, and beatified September 13. Credit: Catholic News Agency

South Africa’s Tzaneen Diocese has announced plans to build a shrine in Honor of Blessed Benedict Daswa, the country’s first martyr and first potential Saint.

Monday, 13 September marks the sixth anniversary since Blessed Benedict Daswa was beatified to become the first martyr in the Catholic Church in South Africa. A miracle recognized by the Catholic Church is needed before Blessed Daswa is declared a Saint.

The promoter of the cause of Blessed Daswa’s Sainthood in the Diocese of Tzaneen told South Africa’s local media that a piece of land has already been identified in Tshitanini, the martyr’s village located outside Tzaneen town, where the shrine is set to be built.

“Next month, we will be starting to build the wall around the place. We are already starting to move with Tshitanini itself,” Sr. Tshifhiwa Munzhedzi said in the Sunday, September 12 report.

“We do have a little bit of money. Originally the project was estimated at R67 Million (US$4.7 Million),” the Catholic Nun said in her report ahead of the martyr’s sixth beatification anniversary.

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Blessed Daswa was a teacher from Limpopo, Northern South Africa, who was killed by fellow villagers for his lack of belief in witchcraft, which he considered to be against the teachings of Jesus Christ. He was aged 43.

Born on 16 June 1946 as Tshimangadzo Samuel Daswa to the Jewish Lemba tribe in rural Limpopo, the Northernmost Province of South Africa, he adopted the name Benedict upon converting from Judaism. 

An account of his life indicates that a November 1989 storm accompanied by lightning strikes hit Daswa’s village, with a similar catastrophe being experienced three months later.  

The village elders believed that the lightning catastrophe was caused by magic, and thus demanded a financial contribution from each village to pay “sangoma (traditional healer)” who would “sniff out” the witch. 

Daswa, a staunch Catholic and non-believer in the magic narrative, refused to pay the tax insisting that the lightning was a natural phenomenon. 

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While driving back home from a family errand on 2 February 1990 at 7.30 p.m., he found the road blocked by fallen trees. As he removed the trees, a group of young men who had waylaid him in a nearby bush ambushed him and started stoning him. 

A wounded and heavily bleeding Daswa ran to a neighboring woman’s house for refuge, but the woman gave him up after the young men threatened to kill her. Daswa was hit on the head, and hot water poured into his ears and nose. 

As he died, he said, “God, into your hands, receive my spirit." 

During his burial on 10 February 1990, celebrants wore red vestments as an indication that he died due to his attackers’ hatred for his faith. 

In his address at the fifth anniversary of Daswa’s beatification last year, Bishop João Noé Rodrigues of South Africa’s Tzaneen Diocese hailed the martyr’s forgiving attitude toward his killers and encouraged the people of God in the country to emulate him.

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Bishop Rodrigues said in reference to South Africa’s first potential saint, “He did not hold the sins of those who killed him against them… He died in prayer and the prayer recognized to have been in his heart and lips was the prayer of abandoning one’s life to God – Father into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The Bishop added, “Benedict Daswa died in that spirit of not seeking revenge or of wanting his enemies to suffer for the sins, but at peace with life in his last piece of breath.”

That Blessed Daswa died having forgiven his persecutors, the 65-year-old South African Bishop said, is a “wonderful testimony” for the Christians of Tzaneen Diocese as well as in South Africa and beyond.

“God forgives from the heart. An important teaching for us and it underlines why we acclaim Blessed Benedict Daswa, a martyr of Christ,” Bishop Rodrigues said in his address on 13 September 2020.

Last year, Wilfrid Cardinal Napier described Blessed Daswa as “a grain of wheat” and encouraged Christians to heed to the challenge by the Blessed, to convert to Jesus Christ and His Gospel.

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“That grain of wheat that fell to the ground and died,” Cardinal Napier reflected on 1 February 2020, during the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of Blessed Benedict Daswa.

The South African Cardinal who was at the helm of Durban Archdiocese at the time explained, “Over the past thirty years that grain has germinated and began to produce many fruits. Some of those fruits are here today. Indeed, we who are here today are those fruits, plus many others who are not here but are praying with us.”

In January 2015, Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing his martyrdom, which allowed for his beatification. 

In the decree, the Holy Father described Daswa as, “a layman, father of a family, martyr, diligent catechist, considerate teacher, witness of the Gospel until the shedding of blood.” 

Following the decree, Daswa’s remains were later transferred to Nweli Catholic Church in August 2015 in readiness for his beatification on 13 September 2015. 

An estimated 30,000 people among them his 91-year-old mother and his eight children attended the event held at Limpopo, which was presided over by the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Angelo Cardinal Amato. 

In the Sunday, September 12 report, Sr. Munzhedzi explained the steps before Blessed Daswa can be declared a Saint.

“We have a few ways of recognizing that a person is becoming a Saint. Martyrdom is what we are using in order to have him become a saint. Martyrdom is already acknowledged that it has happened,” Sr. Munzhedzi said.

She added, “What is left is just for him to be acknowledged as a saint. However, for that to happen, we need a recognized miracle by the Church.”