Papal nod to SA teacher stoned for his beliefs

08 February 2015 - 15:07 By Beauregard Tromp, Khanyi Ndabeni, Suthentira Govender
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Chris Mphaphuli at the school where Benedict Daswa was principal
Chris Mphaphuli at the school where Benedict Daswa was principal

For more than a decade, a Catholic bishop has been championing the cause of a Limpopo man who was stoned, beaten and burnt to death for his beliefs.

Now Benedict Daswa could be on the verge of becoming South Africa's first saint, an honour that may be conferred by Pope Francis himself.

"We hear that he's probably coming to Africa at the end of the year. There is a distinct possibility he will come here for the [beatification] ceremony," Bishop Hugh Slattery, bishop emeritus of Tzaneen, Limpopo, said on Friday.

Daswa's story was vetted in a rigorous process that was initiated by Slattery in Thohoyandou and - after a report of almost 1000 pages - received the pope's blessing in the Vatican last month when he authorised the proclamation of beatification.

This put Daswa a step closer to sainthood.

Daswa, a Catholic, was a school principal in Thohoyandou in the late '80s, a time when, said Slattery, the area was plagued by killings .

Daswa injected energy and a sense of self-reliance soon after being appointed principal at Nweli Primary School in Limpopo, according to villagers.

He started football teams at the school, helped to build five classrooms and assisted in building a church even before he started work on a home for his wife, Shadi Monyai, and their eight children.

With Daswa's salary and profits from a vegetable garden, his family lived in relative comfort. Whispers started in the community that he was using zombies to grow his wealth.

When lightning set fire to huts in the community on January 25 1990, people raised money to "sniff out" a witch to blame for the catastrophe.

Daswa refused to contribute, saying it was against his faith to believe in witchcraft.

Soon afterwards he was ambushed on his way home. His car was stopped by stone-throwers and he fled to a nearby tavern, pursued by a mob.

He first pleaded for his life, then he prayed. The mob smashed his head with a knobkerrie and poured boiling water over him, killing him. He was 43.

"It was another tragedy among many tragedies," said Slattery.

Died For His Faith

As the years passed, Daswa's courage began to be spoken of openly.

"People felt he had died for his faith because he had taken a principled stand against witchcraft. He did so openly even though there were attempts on his life before he became a martyr," said Slattery.

Daswa was born in Mbahe, near Thohoyandou. He was part of the Lemba, who consider themselves descendants of the Jews. At 17 he converted to Catholicism and adopted the name Benedict.

Today a pile of stones alongside the road marks the place where he was attacked.

Many in the area now speak admiringly of Daswa. "If Benedict Daswa was still alive, we could have seen a lot of development in both Mbahe and Nweli," said Simon Khaukanani .

Many in the area survive on government grants.

Those who knew him spoke fondly this week of his kindness and the impact he had on the community.

Chris Mphaphuli said he had been inspired by Daswa to become a teacher. Daswa, he said, had turned Nweli Primary into a proper school.

"The school was just a shack, with a temporary principal. When Daswa became principal in 1979, he initiated a feeding scheme, built five classrooms, encouraged parents to buy uniforms for the children and participate in sports and other school activities," Mphaphuli said.

"He also planted mango trees around the school."

As principal, Daswa expected teachers to be in class on time each day.

"If a pupil stayed out of school, he would visit the pupil's home. If not sick, he would bring that pupil back to class."

He told how Daswa once followed a teacher who had left school before the home bell had rung. "He forced her out of a taxi and brought her back to the classroom to teach."

Across the road from Nweli Primary stands a tiny brick church.

Khaukanani recently painted the inside of the church, where a poster of Daswa hangs in front of the pulpit. Khaukanani said he planned to add some ceramic tiles to the inside soon.

"As much as we are excited about the possibility of the pope coming to our village, we want to keep everything original, the way it was when Daswa was still in charge," said Khaukanani.

As the communities of Mbahe and Nweli await a final decision on a proposed papal visit, Slattery said he believed the telling of Daswa's story was essential.

"Like Mandela or Mother Teresa, we need people we can admire. People need people to look up to," said Slattery.

The Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference hopes to persuade Pope Francis to attend the beatification ceremony later this year in Limpopo.

An invitation to the pontiff to visit South African will be handed over in the Vatican this week by Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, the Archbishop of Durban, who is South Africa's most senior Catholic cleric.

The church hopes the pope's visit will coincide with the beatification.

Napier said the letter would mention that South Africa was about the only country in Africa that a pope had never officially visited.

"We said it would be super if he could be here for the beatification of Daswa," said Napier.

A long and winding road to sainthood

For someone to become a saint would take a miracle. Two miracles, to be exact.

The process can only start five years or more after the person has died, unless the pope grants special dispensation.

The local bishop in the area where the person lived then convenes a group to investigate the person, to determine whether they lived a virtuous life.

This is done by conducting interviews with family, friends and others who had interactions with the person.

This process is rigorous and, if satisfied, the bishop will forward the report to Rome, where nine theologians will examine the evidence and decide whether the case should move forward.

Once it passes this test, the would-be saint's case is handed to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a group of bishops and cardinals. From here the last stop is the pope, who makes the final decision.

Should a miracle occur after death, the person being considered is "beatified" and referred to as "Blessed".

Should two miracles occur, the person is canonised and called a saint.

Exceptions exist in the case of martyrs. The Catholic Church encouraged the devout to pray for Benedict Daswa to intercede on their behalf, and, should their prayers be heard and a miracle occur, Daswa would be considered for sainthood.,

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