Johannesburg (AFP) – The Catholic Church will beatify its first South African on Sunday, as Pope Francis makes a push to connect with the burgeoning Catholic population across the continent.
School teacher Benedict Daswa was beaten to death in 1990 by villagers who attacked him after he refused to pay a sorcerer who promised to end destructive storms hammering the region.
First stoned by his assailants, Daswa ran to safety in a pub before being found by the mob and beaten to death with a stick.
His murderers then poured boiling water in his ears and nostrils to make sure he was dead.
Virtually unknown when he died, Daswa’s fame grew throughout South Africa’s Catholic community, with villagers starting to commemorate the anniversary of his death.
In January, Pope Francis announced that the native of Limpopo province would be beatified — making Daswa the first from the southern Africa region to be recognised by the church.
Over 20,000 people are expected at the ceremony, including Daswa’s 91-year-old mother Ipa, said Hugh Slattery, former bishop of the Diocese of Tzaneen.
“He can’t become a saint for the universal church because he didn’t perform a miracle,” said Slattery.
“We managed to prove his death was (that of) a martyr but it was not easy because the witnesses of his death didn’t want to talk.”
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to a rapidly growing Catholic membership of 171 million people, representing 16 percent of the Catholic population around the world, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Centre.
After the beatification ceremony in Tshitanini village, not far from Daswa’s house, the Italian Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, will celebrate mass.
Amato will represent Pope Francis, who is expected to say a few words from Rome about the beatification.
“It’s very important because Benedict Daswa will become the first South African blessed, but also the first southern African blessed,” S’Milo Mngadi, spokesman of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, told AFP.
Daswa’s beatification comes two months before the pontiff will visit the continent in November, travelling to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic.
In Uganda, Francis will commemorate the canonisation by pope Paul VI in 1964 of the first African saints — 22 young people killed in 1878 on the orders of the local ruler because they refused to renounce their Christian faith.
Details of Daswa’s death remain murky. Several people were arrested, but with little evidence the case was eventually closed.
South Africa is a predominantly Christian country, with the Catholic Church counting over three million members in the country.