The saint who refused to take part in a witch hunt
Yesterday’s Sunday Times (Johannesburg) carried a very interesting article headed SA to get its first Catholic saint.
It tells of Benedict Daswa, a Roman Catholic layman, who was murdered for his refusal to take part in a witch hunt in 1990.
Daswa, who was 48 at the time of his slaying. lived in the tiny Mbahe village near Thohoyandou some 150 km north of Polokwane. He died after steadfastly refusing to accept the existence of witchcraft in his village.
He was killed in February 1990 by an angry mob of villagers for refusing to participate in hiring a witchdoctor to sniff out those they believed were responsible for lightning stikes that were rife in the area. Daswa was beaten with sticks and stones and had boiling water poured over him. He apparently said a prayer before being dealt the fatal blow (Sunday Times, March 11, 2012, p. 7).
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tzaneen has compiled a report and sent it to the Congregation of Causes of Saints.
According to the Sunday Times report Daswa’s brother said that in late 1989 there was a community meeting at which most of the villagers agreed that each household would contribute towards hiring a witchdoctor to point out who was responsible for the lightning strikes. But Daswa, his brother and a cousin refused to participate.
His brother told villagers that his faith did not allow him tom take part in anything associated with witchcraft.
“I was at that meeting myself. We asked to be excused as we were not prepared to take part.”
He said that, after the meeting, some villagers started plotting to “deal” with Daswa.
At the meeting Daswa argued that lighning is a natural phenomenon and argued against following the old ways of blaming witches for causing it. On 2 February 1990 while driving home in the evening he found his way blocked with tree logs across the road. When he stopped the car and tried to remove them a group of youths and adults emerged from behind the trees and began pelting him with stones. He escaped on foot and ran to a rondavel to hide. He was, however, found by the mob, and when he realised that he was about to be killed he asked to say a prayer. He said “God, into your hands receive my soul” before he was dealt a fatal blow with a knobkerrie that crushed his skull. Boiling water was then poured over his head. His killers were never convicted. The matter was dismissed because of lack of evidence.
Benedict Daswa thus died in the same manner as many of those who are accused of practising witchcraft.
Im 1995 I wrote in an article Christian Responses to Witchcraft and Sorcery:
Over 200 people who were accused of being witches were burnt to death in South Africa between the beginning of 1994 and mid-1995. These killings were not legal executions, but took place at the hands of lynch mobs, mostly from the communities in which the accused lived. Such witch hunts are rare. As recently as 1987 one South African scholar described them as “an extreme and remote possibility” and noted that though there had been periodic episodes of anti-witch purges in Central Africa, they were restricted to “identifying sorcerers, destroying their paraphernalia, putting them out of business and at worst exiling them” (Kiernan 1987:6). The situation, especially in the Northern Province, has become so serious that official investigations are being made into how to deal with it.
Many more people have died since then and the problem of witch hunts is widespread in Africa (see, for example Inmates of witches camp appeal for help – ModernGhana.com). When I wrote the article most Christian groups were opposed to the idea of witchcraft and witch hunts, but now it seems that in some places some Neopentecostal denominations even initiate witch hunts.
The witness of someone like Benedict Daswa, who refused to participate in a witch hunt, is thus tremendously important for Christianity in Africa as a whole, and goes far beyond Limpopo Province. You can read more about him at Who was Benedict Daswa?