Family and the notion of family responsibility seem to be changing rapidly. Recent research indicates that absent fathers are common in South Africa and that poverty might be shaping the way the family is evolving. Sharon Davis reports.
South Africa’s first report on fatherhood released by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) this year shows an increasing trend, especially among the poor, of the abandonment of marriage and cohabitation.
“An overwhelming majority of children grow up in female-headed households,” reads chapter 19 of Baba: Men and fatherhood in South Africa. And the reasons are many. “We do not only speak here of western marriages,” writes researchers Phillippe Denis and Radikobo Ntsimane. “Customary marriage with payment of a bride wealth (lobola) to the bride’s family has also become obsolete.”
According to the report, fathers generally have casual encounters with the children’s mother, or the parents only cohabit for a short time. “The biological fathers play a marginal role in the children’s lives,” says the report
The HSRC report states: “Many women have ceased to pursue the ideal of marriage, and the stigma of single motherhood has receded. Many of these single women believe that raising children alone is preferable to suffering the abuse of a violent and unstable man.”
One woman is quoted in the report as saying: “Ndumiso left me before Jabulani was born. When I told him I was pregnant, he went away and I never heard anything about him.” Not all fathers desert their children, of course. The HSRC interviews do provide evidence of men who care for their children or grandchildren and constitute role models for them. “But such men are the exception.”
Statistics quoted in the report show that 18 percent of mothers abandon their children, but amongst fathers the rate of abandonment (not keeping contact or providing support) is as high as 75 percent.The change in attitude towards marriage is also reflected in the socio-macro report, A Nation in the Making – A Discussion of Socio-Macro Trends in South Africa, released by government on 23 June 2006. It reads: “There is a trend for the nuclear family to recede as a basic unit of organisation, with an increase in single or extended households. At one level, this reflects the dynamism of a society experiencing social change; but on the other hand, it presents serious challenges of household subsistence in poor areas and the social upbringing of the young.”
The question is – what effect does this have on children? And researchers pose a very valid question: “One wonders how boys who have been deprived of the presence of a father will ever learn how to become fathers themselves.”
According to the HSRC report, “some children express the pain of not living with their father and not even knowing their father’s name”.
“There was nothing I could do,” lamented one of the mother’s interviewed for the HSRC research. “The boy’s father claimed he was not responsible for the pregnancy. The problem was that my son wanted to know his father. One day he cried, saying his younger bother knew who his father was. He also wanted to visit his father.”
Linda Richter and Robert Morrell, compiling editors of the HSRC report, say that the physical absence of fathers – caused by situations of divorce, domestic instability, work and social dislocation, including wars – has been identified as a major problem.
They add that in the United States (US) work on fatherhood has identified absent fathers as one of a number of factors associated with poor educational outcomes among children, difficulties with psychosocial development, anti-social behaviour and delinquency, and disrupted employment trajectories.
The US Department of Heath and Human Services a 1993 survey of child health in Washington DC showed that “fatherless children are at a dramatically greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, suicide, poor educational performance, teen pregnancy, and criminality.” Numerous other studies throughout the US support these findings.
In a 1998 study of young men serving jail sentences or involved in crime, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (South Africa) found that most of those interviewed were “often abandoned or kicked out of their homes. Many expressed feelings of being unloved.”
Martin Schonteich, in research conducted for the Institute for Security Studies, says that the absence of a father figure early in the lives of young males tends to increase delinquency and that such an absence will directly affect a boy’s ability to develop self-control.
“It is a disaster to have no man in the home,” said Dave Metzler, founder of Cool Values, a Durban-based business that supplies teaching aids to facilitate the instruction of morals and values to school children. “My research shows that 98 percent of all prisoners in jail today have an absent father figure.”
“Absent father’s have a huge negative spin-off for the whole family. Men don’t give attention to their children and the children are deprived of tough moral guidance.”
One of the main reasons why fathers don’t take up their fatherhood roles, according to the HSRC, is lack of resources. Poverty is highlighted as the most important factor undermining the role of fatherhood and the involvement of fathers. Fathers, who are able to meet what they consider to be a father’s responsibility to provide for their family, are more likely to deny or flee the fatherhood role.
In contrast to the poorer sections of the population, fatherhood patterns in more affluent areas are changing as the country and the economy changes. Workers who now have their families with them are beginning to extend their fatherhood practice more into caring and engaging in play and school-preparation activities. Results from urban surveys show that parenthood and family are important to young South Africans, and young men are increasingly speaking out about their desire to be good fathers.
This growing awareness of being good fathers is not just evidenced in surveys. Zola, South Africa’s hottest kwaito star, tackles the issue of fathers and the need to step up and be real fathers