Are South African fathers really absent from their children's lives?

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Published Jul 12, 2018


A television advertisement for Omo washing powder which was recently flighted for Father’s Day started with words about how most South African children are ‘raised without fathers’.

That statement was based on information gleaned from General Household Surveys conducted by Statistics South Africa that most children in South Africa do not live in the same household as their biological father.  

In similar fashion, every year around Father’s Day calls are made to ‘bring back the father as the head of the household’ and phrases such as ‘we have too many fatherless children’ and ‘two-thirds of children grow up without a father’ appear frequently in the media.

The solution that is often proposed is that men need to step up and act more responsibly, in order to deal with the ‘scourge of absent fathers’.

However, this dominant view that children are ‘growing up without fathers’ is driven by the fantasy of the nuclear family when very few South African families fit this model. 

This view also sidelines parents who are not in heterosexual partnerships and non-resident parents. Just because a father is not living with his children does not necessarily mean that he is an uninvolved father or not involved in childcare.

The overemphasis on biological fathers’ absence also ignores the role that ‘social’, non-biological fathers such as uncles and other men who take on fathering roles play in the lives of children.

It is time to get a clearer picture of how fatherhood actually occurs in the daily lives of children in South Africa, and acknowledge what is working and how the different varieties of fatherhood could be better supported.

Of course, stories about the lack of fathers’ involvement are based on the very real experiences of children and mothers. The feeling of not having a dedicated and involved father has sadly become a familiar feeling for most children in the country.

In the State of South Africa’s Fathers report published on Wednesday, a girl writes: ‘And my dad, well, he left when I was four years old. All through my childhood and into adolescence I had this image of him being just too heartbroken, too grief-stricken to carry on. It seemed more acceptable than the truth, which was that he abandoned me. He never made any contact for almost 14 years. I, all the while, internally repeating, “Daddy’s happy. Daddy loves me.’

The co-residence data from Statistics South Africa shows that 36% of children live with their biological fathers in the same households:  34% with both biological parents, and 2% with their biological fathers only. This information is useful, but there are several problems with the interpretation that the other 64% of children then ‘grow up without a father’ or live in ‘fatherless homes’.

Firstly, the co-residence statistics do not speak about involvement, but only about children living in the same household with their biological father. A father’s co-residence is often mistakenly treated as equivalent with father involvement.

Non-resident and non-custodial fathers are not automatically uninvolved with their children; in fact, the National Income Dynamic Survey has shown that a small portion of non-resident fathers are very involved in their children’s lives and development.

This usually happens when mothers and fathers have managed to ensure that both biological parents remain constructively involved in the child’s development, regardless of the conclusion of the parents’ relationship and changes in where children live.

And of course, the opposite also occurs:  a father living with his biological child does not automatically mean that he actively parents his children or is involved in childcare.

This is movingly expressed by a child in the State of South African Fathers’ report: ‘One would think that after 16 years of living with someone, you would know the person. But that is not the case with me and my father. My father never talks to me or even acknowledges me. To him I am just an asset.’

Secondly, the statistic of 64% of children not living with their biological fathers does not mean that they therefore live in single-headed households with only one adult. 

Children in South Africa are mostly cared for by women; and we know that when fathers leave, mothers and children are more financially and emotionally vulnerable, and that it is usually the kinship network around the mother and child – such as grandmothers, aunts, uncles and sisters – who assist in raising the children.

These family arrangements are not a new situation for most children as they are the way most South Africans experience family life: about 70% of children in South Africa live in extended households and many children are cared for by grandmothers. 

In fact Omo’s Father’s Day advertisement finishes with a celebration of precisely this with the words ‘Gogo, you are my hero’.

The kinship and community networks that surround a child include men that may play a social fatherhood role. An estimated 71% of children co-reside with an adult man with just over half of this number being their biological fathers. The rest are grandparents, uncles, brothers or mothers’ new partners.

So it is clear that the majority of South Africa’s children do not live in ‘fatherless homes’. However, the nature of involvement of these various types of fathers has not led to their picking up more of the unpaid work of childcare. 

A recent time-use survey has found that for every eight hours that a woman does unpaid care work in South Africa, a man only does one equivalent hour.

We should therefore be hesitant to assume that the variety of fathers we have described are taking on all aspects of care-giving roles.

State interventions like the Child Support Grant and recent changes to labour laws about fathers’ parental leave are of huge benefit to fathers.

The focus of policy and health, social and educational programmes for children and their families need to be less focused on ‘how do we bring the father back?’ and more on ‘how do we support care-giving and fatherhood that is available in the networks surrounding children?’

*Van den Berg and Makusha are editors of the inaugural State of South Africa’s Fathers report. 

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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