Oh, fathers, where art thou?
A new report on SA fathers gives pause for thought, and highlights the painful space men occupy in our society
Being a journalist in South Africa, particularly one with a keen interest in social issues, has given me a very specific lens on the men of South Africa.
Over 20 years of going into the private spaces of people’s homes – often shacks, crumbling RDP dwellings and featureless houses on the barren ground of the Cape Flats – I have always been struck by the same themes which have calcified into stereotypes in the public mind.
From absent fathers to dangerous male neighbours, South African men have occupied a particularly painful space in the complicated picture of our country.
And very often they have stood in alarming contrast to mothers in those communities; mothers who are raising their children under the most challenging circumstances. Giving love, preparing food and carrying, physically and emotionally, burdens that are far broader than their shoulders – these themes have often made the word mother and martyr synonymous in the inevitable stereotyping that ensues.
But of all the interviews I have done, it was the words of a mother in Langrug, a small township of grinding poverty tucked behind the emerald farms and over-priced restaurants of Franschhoek, that have stayed with me because of the bigger picture that they paint.
Xoli (not her real name) was a little girl of three who had been left in a shack all night with her five-year-old sister while their parents went on an all-night drinking binge. Xoli was brutally raped when a neighbour, known to the family, made his way into the shack knowing that the girls were defenceless and alone.
I went to Langrug a few days later, not only to find out about Xoli’s own family, but the general safety of children there.
I found myself sitting on the broken couch in the shack of Florence Mciteki, a mother who was trying to explain what had happened to the men there over decades of being pushed to the edge.“The children look like ants; they look like small things to stand on,” she told me. “It is the same story for everyone: people looking for jobs, no place to stay, and suffering due to unemployment. That’s when you get young people hurting the children. They look like ants and the men want to stand on them because they themselves are so frustrated.”
Far from justifying any violence, she was explaining the very cycles of that violence.
Now, a new report by Sonke Gender Justice and the Human Sciences Research Council that was released this month called The State of South African Fathers 2018, has shone a light into the heart of our nation – asking us not to consider the psyche of disenfranchised men, but more specifically, the psyche of fathers.
The most striking thing about the report is not that it proves how “useless” our country’s fathers are. Neither does it smash the stereotype of the absent or destructive father who cannot hold a torch to the caring mother.
Instead, it tells us that the main thing we need to know is that we don’t actually know the full picture.
The findings of the report are so pronounced and nuanced at the same time, that I hope this crucial document makes its way into the files of every government department where policies are minted.“There is no typical father in South Africa,” the report says. “There are many types of fathers and many types of fatherhood in the country.”
Statistically, it does tell us that most children in South Africa are cared for by women as their primary caregivers, and that “these women are usually their biological mothers or maternal grandmothers”.
Surprisingly, and yet unsurprisingly, we learn that only 36% of children in South Africa live in the same household as their biological father and that 35% live in the same household with another man who is not their biological father.
Also, “biological father non-residency does not necessarily equate to fathers being uninvolved” and that “when non-resident fathers are involved, it is usually financially by paying for school fees and groceries”.
The report says that “despite high levels of father non-residency, reported violence and neglect by men”, the role of fathers who do provide care in the lives of children and families “is very important and undisputed”.
The report, then, is not a stick with which to beat the fathers of South Africa.
It is, instead, a call to those fathers and everyone else in our society to recognise their worth and the huge role they could play in turning things around for the next generation. It calls on the public mind to see how “the potential of fathers, in all forms, could contribute to the future of South Africa”.
It says that while only a small proportion of men, “mostly those who are better off”, live with their children, it doesn’t mean that all those who live apart from their children “don’t care or don’t want to see their children or don’t want to support them”.
Men are sometimes living apart from their children “as the result of many factors”, most of which are “socio-economic vestiges of our shameful political past, and the painful challenges of couples remaining attached under social and other pressures”.
And fathers living apart from their children doesn’t necessarily mean that all those children are being raised “without loving father figures in their lives”.
“Nonetheless”, they conclude, “it is not good enough.”
And therein lies the rub and the challenge: we need to acknowledge the profound reasons behind the state of South African fathers. We need to highlight the positive role that fathers can play.
And, most importantly, we need to set the bar much higher of what is normal when it comes to the caring role that fathers can play.