“I want to do things for my child so she can have a better life than I did and guide her not to experience the things that I did due to lack of a father figure in my life.”
On 26 August 2020, Heartlines, the Centre for Values Promotion, in partnership with the DSI-NRF Centre of Human Excellence and the National Research Foundation, hosted a webinar entitled “Becoming Men! Overcoming toxic masculinities in South Africa”. This was the second in a four-part series that considers issues around men, masculinities and fatherhood.
The webinar was moderated by Wessel van den Berg, head of the Children’s Rights and Positive Parenting unit at Sonke Gender Justice and included presentations from Prof. Malose Langa, author of Becoming Men: Black Masculinities in a South African Township, and Prof. Mzikazi Nduna from the School of Human and Community Development at Wits University.
One of the key themes presented by Langa was the pain, tension and contradictions of fatherhood that were expressed by the participants in his study. His work focused on a long-term exploration of different aspects of masculinity for a group of boys from Alexandra, Johannesburg. Several of the boys became teenage fathers during the course of his study.
“It’s important that fatherhood is not idealised. We need to talk about the sadness and complex feelings that come with it,” said Langa. Many of the teenage fathers accepted their new roles and used the challenge and pain of the situation as an opportunity to grow and become more responsible. As one participant, Oupa, explained, “I can’t enjoy it [being a teenager] anymore since having a child, eish, it’s difficult. Everything I do I must do to please her because I brought her into the world and not to make her suffer.”
This work shed new and interesting light on the attitudes and behaviours of teenage fathers in South Africa. Langa indicated that considerable research has been done on teenage pregnancy in South Africa, but most of it has focused only on teenage mothers and the research into teenage fathers has often been neglected. Teenage fathers are usually portrayed as unsupportive, neglectful and unable to provide for or abandon their children, but perhaps this needs to be re-examined as the participants in the study did want to be involved, despite having no positive male role models or father figures themselves. This goes against dominant research on this issue, which supposes that men without a father figure have a greater chance of also becoming poor male role models.
Disputed, denied or unacknowledged paternity
Nduna’s presentation on the links between gender-based violence (GBV) against women and father (dis)connections emphasised the impact of disputed, denied or unacknowledged paternity on children. She explained that disputed paternity often deprives children of a relationship with their fathers when they are young. Delayed acceptance of paternity means that they don’t have a relationship with their father until much later in life, and this can have a negative impact on their life experiences.
Father (dis)connections are associated with higher levels of life trauma and distress, and Nduna cited evidence from studies conducted in South Africa which suggest that young people who grow up with absent fathers sometimes display behavioural problems.
Her work also noted the different ways in which fathers can be absent, including emotionally, physically and economically. This is supported by Heartlines’ formative research report which explored the impact that positive, active and involved fathers can have on children. The Heartlines report specifically found that the quality of the relationship between a father and their child was more significant than just a father’s physical presence.
More insight needed
Both panellists emphasised that further research is needed into the impact of absent fathers on children. Nduna noted that understanding of the complex links between GBV and absent fathers is currently inadequate.
In addition, the impact of cultural practices such as inhlawulo on the acceptance of paternity needs to be better understood in different contexts, such as in rural or urban communities and within different generations. The participants in Langa’s study, for instance, felt that inhlawulo wasn’t a significant factor, or deterrent, in their acknowledgement of paternity.
However, for the teenage fathers, the reactions of their own mothers was very important and both Langa and Nduna confirmed that more insight is needed into the ways that broader family attitudes and dynamics influence a man’s understanding of his role and responsibilities as a father.
The power of conversation
Langa commended the public conversations that are happening in contexts such as the webinar, and through the work being done by Heartlines in its Fathers Matter project, as an important tool for facilitating behaviour change in society. He said that challenging some of the normative narratives of fatherhood in South Africa can begin to change the way that men relate to the role.
The next events in the webinar series will cover the topics of fatherhood and the first 1 000 days and positive interventions for fathers.