Against Sainthood for Benedict Daswa : Why Replace Sangoma Witchcraft with Catholic Witchcraft?

I am against the ongoing efforts and campaign by the Catholic Church to make the late South African schoolteacher, Benedict Daswa, a saint. While I acknowledge the heroic struggle waged by Daswa against witchcraft based violence and exploitation of his Venda people, a struggle that eventually led to his brutal murder; while I understand the need to celebrate and commemorate his life, legacy and achievement, this initiative to make him an object of ‘worship’ or reverence by the catholic establishment is a self-serving scheme and is literally an insult on the memory of this critical and courageous mind.

Why do I think so? First of all, making Benedict Daswa a saint sends a wrong message and confusing signals to people in South Africa and to others in the region concerning the significance of his struggle. Though Daswa was a Catholic and a catechist, he campaigned against magical thinking and superstitious beliefs. He opposed witch hunting and the supposed deployment of mystical canons for the solution of human problems.

Daswa was a teacher who understood the importance of enlightening the people and of resisting the force of irrational beliefs. He was an educator who tried to lead his community members out of ignorance and into knowledge.

Daswa was a skeptic who openly challenged and questioned traditional and cultural beliefs and practices in his community. He was courageous to the point of confronting the Sangoma magical establishment and exposing their pretensions despite the risks involved.

Though, as a catechist, he espoused some of those supernatural beliefs that Sangomas peddled, Daswa understood the dark and destructive effects of witchcraft belief on the society and the imperative of proactive skepticism in social and cultural reformation.

Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town has acknowledged Daswa’s act of ‘great moral courage’ and the fact that “his passion for the truth led him to openly and very publicly oppose the belief and practice of witchcraft,”

He is right.

Brislin further noted that “the fear caused by the practices of identifying witches, the harm this does to the fabric of social relations and the inevitable killing of innocent people; he was prepared to oppose this practice which still persists today….” I totally agree with him.

Benedict Daswa urged an intellectual awakening of his people from ‘sangomic’ slumber and constantly prodded them to rethink, to seek evidence and critically examine popular misconceptions like the idea that these traditional healers have the supernatural powers and ‘medicines’ to change one’s fortune.

Yes he was to this extent a gadfly for his generation and should be honoured for living a life that can rightly be described as a ‘candle in the dark’.

For instance, Daswa urged members of his local team not to patronize local healers or to think that Sangomas have magical powers, ‘muthi’ (medicine) that can make them win a match. He asked them to commit themselves to practicing and training and not to rely on the supposed supernatural powers and medicines of Sangomas whom he considered as charlatans and predators on popular fears, anxieties and insecurities.

It was in the course of this consciousness raising campaign against the fakery and quackery, against the extortion and exploitation of poor gullible folks by these peddlers of supernatural solutions to human problems that he lost his life.

Now my question is this: How is making Benedict Daswa a saint a way to honour this man and his legacy? Daswa tackled those who used their supposed magical and supernatural powers to profit and exploit people, and now the Catholic Church is turning him into a ‘supernatural object’ for other people’s exploitation. I mean how does that make any moral sense?

What is the historic import of this ongoing Catholic fetishization of the life and memory of Benedict Daswa? How is the beatification Daswa a ‘significant moment’ in the history of South Africa as President Zuma has stated? In what way does the proposed sainthood of Benedict Daswa going to weaken the hold of supernaturalism and witchcraft on the minds of black South Africans particularly those in Limpopo province?

Look, the unfortunate thing about this saint making project is that it’s literally going to encourage and promote in a Catholic form those trends, practices and misconceptions which Daswa fiercely opposed during his lifetime.

Take for instance, Benedict Daswa was beatified on September 13 and beatification is the last step before sainthood. To become a saint of the church, Daswa has to perform a miracle. Yes he has to work a miracle that he never did when he was alive before he can be elevated to the status of a saint. Really? I mean how can a dead person perform miracle? And if anyone thinks that this is not witchcraft, Catholic witchcraft, then what is it?

Just imagine this. During his lifetime, Benedict Daswa refused to contribute money to pay Sangomas for their witch hunting activities. Now, Catholics are contributing money to build a shrine in the name of Benedict Daswa where people would be going to pray and asking for his intercession and supernatural interventions in their lives including footballers that want to win a match, those having family and marital problems, politicians who want to win elections or people whose houses were destroyed by rain- or thunderstorms.

I mean what is going on here!

An article published recently has highlighted the significance of the beatification Benedict Daswa and the negative effects of witchcraft beliefs on the black population in South Africa. The author argued that belief in witchcraft was hampering the intellectual progress of black people and hampering their development. The author made it clear that the ‘idea that someone can bewitch another person cast a spell on them or turn their fortunes through some supernatural magic is holding back the progress of black people.’ I quite agree, but is the same narrative not embedded in the catholic faith and in the doctrine of sainthood? Are Catholic saints not supposed to have supernatural powers to perform miracles – acts that violate natural laws – in people’s lives?

So making Benedict Daswa a saint is a dishonor to his name, memory and legacy. It would reinforce the narrative of magic thinking and myth making and turn this Reginald-Scot-kind of skeptic into an ‘icon’ of Catholic reverence and worship, into a mystical entity that can supposedly influence the fortunes of people through supernatural magic. Sainthood for Benedict Daswa will replace the sangoma witchcraft which he fiercely opposed with Catholic witchcraft which is as mind numbing as sangoma witchcraft. This is why I am against the sainthood for Daswa. What do you think?

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