Advice Column, Parenting

Fatherhood : it’s complicated

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It’s easy to assume that the nuclear family and the active presence of fathers in the lives of children is the norm in South Africa.  But this is not the case.

The South African nuclear family is largely a myth. Worryingly large numbers of children are being raised independent of their biological fathers, depriving them of the physical and emotional security that an involved father brings.

Heartlines, the Centre for Values Promotion, has conducted ground-breaking research on fatherhood in South Africa to inform a broader social cohesion campaign.  The research includes the voices of both men and women.  Their experiences shed new light on the state of fatherhood in our country.

Although many children grow up and thrive where they are raised by single mothers, for many others the absence of positive and active presence of men in their lives puts them at risk. International and South African studies show that active and positive fathers matter.   

The Heartlines study  looked at local and International work and found that children without involved fathers (or a significant older male father figure) are at great risk of both perpetrating and becoming victims of violence (both as children and adults); of substance abuse; teen pregnancy; poor academic achievement; mental health problems and delinquency.

Children without involved fathers are five times more likely to be sexually abused. They are at greater risk of dying when young; experiencing mental health problems and committing suicide. As adults, they are more likely to experience unemployment; have low incomes; and experience homelessness.

Pamela  Kgare, project manager at Heartlines says:  “This study is important because it dug deep to understand the attitudes and beliefs that contribute to the lack of positive involvement by fathers across race and class in South Africa.”

Children who are denied full participation of their fathers feel the absence keenly, and express it not in terms of missing material support, but as a profound loss of the presence of a dad. As one participant said: “for me as someone who did not have a father, I would love the small  things. Like someone to say, ‘I love you,’ those small things.”

Latasha Treger Slavin who headed the research study says it’s important  because it not only provides insight into how fathers are defined and how they live out their fatherhood role, but also because it sheds light into both barriers and enablers of active participation.   “The findings are enormously rich and unique because they capture the voices, experiences, beliefs, and practices of the participants themselves,” she says.

“The study found that there is a strong and deeply embedded South African culture that equates fatherhood with material and financial provision. It’s a transactional view of fatherhood. When fathers fail to — or are unable to — provide materially for their children, they are either denied involvement in the lives of the children or deep shame drives them to exclude themselves from being involved in other, non-material but very important, ways.”

The impact of Covid-19 has brought additional economic pressures and will most certainly compound the problem as more and more people lose their income and it becomes increasingly difficult for many fathers to provide materially for their children.

But it’s very clear from the Heartlines Fathers Matter research that a father’s responsibility goes way beyond providing money,” Treger Slavin adds. “Women need to encourage fathers to play an active and positive role in the lives of their children. The protective role that a father plays cannot be understated. It’s at the core of the wellbeing of children and its importance extends as the child matures and becomes an adult.”

One participant in the study, expressing the views of many others, said: “It’s difficult, when you see other children with their father and you just wish your father was there. You can see other children taking photos with their fathers and wish that if only you were in the photos.”

While the transactional view of fatherhood is by far the biggest reason for non-involved fathers, the study has identified a number of additional barriers to involved fatherhood.

Migrant labour is an important barrier. Many men are forced to work away from their families.  Unemployment is also seen as a huge barrier to men’s involvement.   “A surprising finding, Treger Slavin[1]  says, “was that many men told us women were often barriers to them being involved in their children’s lives. If they couldn’t provide financially, women sometimes denied them access to the children.”

Another participant in the study (also typical of many who participated) said: “When I’m fighting with the mother, she says: This is not your child. And when you give money, the mother is happy and then suddenly your child is yours again. And that’s when you also start distancing yourself, not understanding where you stand.”

Other barriers include institutional and systemic practices (in healthcare and legal services, for example); difficult personal relationships between parents; culturally assumed gender roles and gender practices (women returning to their parental home after giving birth and certain aspects of lobola for example).

Heartlines embarked on the research,  Treger Slavin says, to better understand South African family dynamics. “It’s a leg of our journey into understanding social issues in South Africa. We need to understand family dynamics and offer organisations and individuals insights and possible solutions to issues that undermine social cohesion. This is the ultimate aim of our work: to create understanding so that behaviour may change for better social cohesion.”

The Heartlines Fathers Matter research was conducted from December 2018 to January 2020. Research was via focus groups set up in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. Please contact Allison MacDonald (details below) for a summarised copy of the report or to set up an interview with Latasha Treger Slavin.

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