The way we father can reshape the nation

While fatherlessness may be one of the justifications for a wide range of societal ills prevalent in South Africa, it is essential to understand the complexities surrounding the role of fatherhood. If more men can be encouraged and equipped to be positively present fathers, and father figures, to the children in their lives, it would result in many positive societal outcomes.

A webinar hosted by Heartlines on 19 August 2020, presented in partnership with the DSI-NRF Centre of Human Excellence and the National Research Foundation, focused on the State of South African Fatherhood. This is the first in a four-part series that considers key issues around men, masculinities and fatherhood.

Importance of social fathers

An often-cited statistic is that “only” 36% of children in South Africa live in the same household as their biological fathers. However, panellist Wessel van den Berg from Sonke Gender Justice stated that this does not mean the remainder have no male presence in their lives. Many may have “social fathers” that include uncles, family members, teachers, pastors or community members. That said, research has shown that for every one hour of unpaid domestic care provided by a man, a woman does eight. To equip men to be more involved in children’s lives, a better understanding of the role played by social fathers is needed.

“In the community there are fathers that we look up to. The way they lead their lives and stuff”, said one of the Heartlines Fathers Matter study participants when asked how he learnt to be a father. In this regard, young fathers are looking to churches and leaders in their communities for guidance.

The emphasis on fatherhood is not intended to undermine the role of extraordinary women who raise children single-handedly, said Dr Garth Japhet, CEO of Heartlines and panel moderator. Rather, extensive studies have shown that the positive presence of a father or father-figure in a child’s life yields many benefits. Heartlines’ Research Manager, Latasha Treger Slavin, mentioned that these include a higher chance of succeeding in school and getting a job, as well as contributing mental health and behavioural advantages. Conversely, children whose fathers were absent were more likely to drop out of school, become addicted to drugs or end up in prison. In understanding the impact of fathers and father-figures, it is critical to understand that while the absence of involvement by a father has been found to be a risk factor, it is not a determinant of a child’s life story, Slavin said.

Another key finding from the State of South Africa’s Fathers 2018 Report by Sonke Gender Justice was that co-residence of children with their father seemed to be more prevalent among the wealthiest 20% of families in South Africa — irrespective of race. Co-residence in this wealthier group was at 68% among black families and 71% among white families.

Barriers to fathers being positively present

The Heartlines Fathers Matter Report also focused on the impact of financial status on fatherhood as one of the six barriers to fathers being positively present. Other factors included the apartheid-era legacy of migrant labour, cultural influences such as lobola, and definitions of masculinity that dictated the role of father to be limited to that of financial provider. According to one of the study participants, “When you start playing with your kids, culture will say: ‘This one is not man enough, he's busy with children’”. Relational conflicts between mothers and fathers also deter fathers from being present in their children’s lives. In addition, the institutional barriers imposed by the education, health and legal systems make it harder for a father to participate in a child’s life in the same way a mother would.

Slavin pointed out that the research findings also demonstrate how dynamics around fatherhood are shaped by, and shape, both unemployment and gender-based violence (GBV). Due to the emphasis on a father as a financial provider, in some cases, unemployed men are kept from being involved in their children’s lives. Or, as one of the study participants put it: “If I can be a good father, I have to have money…so just because of unemployment I end up like running away”. In the context of GBV, some men who do have the ability to provide consider themselves entitled to use violence against their partners. Research found that a woman was less likely to object to GBV in cases where the perpetrator provided for her children financially, said Slavin.

“You can give me a million, but most of the thing I need is the bond with you…like I need you, not what you have. I need you when I’m in need of a motivator, or when I need someone who will advise me, so I need you”, said one of the study participants. This illustrates that despite the evidence that across all strata of society South African fathers are regarded primarily as financial providers, the over-simplification of this role has detrimental consequences. Respondents in the study emphasised the need for a father figure who gave his time, advice and encouragement — and not necessarily just his money.

How churches and community leaders can get involved

Heartlines will use these findings to inform the creation of edutainment and resources that will support men to be positively present as fathers and father figures. Community leaders and churches can play an invaluable role in starting conversations around these topics and providing guidance to men seeking to be more positively involved as fathers and father figures.

If you would like to take active steps in promoting positively present fatherhood in your community, we would like to suggest the following:

  • Gain a deeper understanding of the challenges by reading the formative research report on Understanding Fatherhood in South Africa.
  • Start the conversation about positively present fathers and father figures in your circles of influence. Aim to address misconceptions and support with a view to inspire a change in behaviour. Sharing the Fathers Matter video on your social media platforms may be a good way to get the conversation started.
  • Equip yourself with resources that will help you facilitate meaningful engagement that leads to change. Visit Heartlines’ Fathers Matter website and sign up.
  • Join us for the rest of the webinar series as we continue to unpack key issues around fatherhood in South Africa with a wide range of experts in their respective fields.


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