Father absenteeism is a serious issue in SA, especially among black men

The perception of a father stems from a colonial perspective of the nuclear family that ignores the historical effects of the migrant labour system on black families, say the writers. Picture: File

The perception of a father stems from a colonial perspective of the nuclear family that ignores the historical effects of the migrant labour system on black families, say the writers. Picture: File

Published Oct 4, 2023


Nokuthula Pheza and Fuzile Jwara

Pretoria – Fatherhood is an extensively explored topic and concept in the social sciences.

Often, the perception of a father stems from a colonial perspective of the nuclear family that ignores the historical effects of the migrant labour system on black families and how this has shaped the role of the father in the black household.

Historically, black male bodies were commodified as cheap labour in the extractivist economy of South Africa during British rule, a pattern that continued into the apartheid era and lingers today. In turn, there have been generations of children who grew up with only one parent in their immediate surroundings.

Today, statistical data in South Africa has the tendency to portray men, especially black men, as absent fathers. Data published by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) in 2021 states that only 3.9% of South African children live with their fathers only while 43.4% live with their mothers only.

The rest reside with both parents. This illustrates there might be an exaggeration of the notion of single motherhood. Another report published by Stats SA in 2018 says 62% of 989 318 births had no “reliable information on fathers”. This poses further questions on how we portray father absenteeism.

What we found to be interesting about these statistics is none of them seem to offer what we think are realistic reasons as to why ‘father absenteeism’ is such a serious issue in our country, especially among black men.

Furthermore, we argue these statistics do not depict a realistic image of family dynamics. By this we mean that statistical data has continuously fed us the idea the majority of South African households are female headed with the absence of men. They do not consider the nature of matrifocality within black households. In many black families, power tends to be centred around women and that is not because of the absence of men, rather it is due to power being situational and flexible. For the most part, the oldest person in the household is usually the grandmother, who generally places higher on the hierarchy due to seniority, in spite of gender.

From the historical perspective, one can argue that the mainstream analysis of fatherhood propagates a colonial imposition of fatherhood and the roles of a father. It is from this standpoint that we can ask the question: what is a father? How do we accurately define fatherhood through a contextual framework that reflects the historical implications of colonialism and the commodification of the black male body?

These questions focus on the historical extraction of black men from their communities as cheap labour.

As a starting point, we look at the subject of social fathers – men who play a fathering role to children who are not biologically theirs. These are usually maternal/paternal uncles or neighbours. These men embrace fatherhood by fathering children who are not their own. Some studies have also not explored the role of these men in our communities. In this instance, we can argue that statistical data overlooks lived experiences.

In the case of biological fathers, our society only seems to recognise “fathers” who have the ability to provide financially for their child, while statistics only recognise men who appear on their child’s birth certificate and are living in the same household with their child.

Judging a father’s involvement based on these elements is rather limiting as there are men who are struggling financially but are actively engaged in their child’s life. These men may not have the ability to pay Inhlawulo (damages), yet they are still very much involved in the raising of their children.

It is unfortunate that in a country like South Africa with a rich history of colonialism and apartheid that “dismantled” most black families, we treat non-resident fathers as if they are not present at all. Furthermore, we treat men who are trying, men who are hustling as if they are not good enough, yet we praise men who are physically absent but act as an ATM. We must remember that money is not the only factor in raising a happy child. A child's well-being also depends on the physical presence, love, affection, and care they receive.

Interestingly, there are two issues that can be extracted from the discourse around fatherhood.

One, there is a tendency to conflate fatherhood, manhood and husband-hood. In that, stereotypically it is assumed that one can only be a father if they are a spouse, in turn proving their manhood. This is rather problematic as it erases unmarried active fathers that opt to look after their children whether they have a spouse or not.

When grappling with the concept of fatherhood, it is very important to understand that one can be a good husband but inept as a father or a good father but inept as a husband. Nor does reproducing define fatherhood or manhood.

Subsequently, this argument presupposes that we rethink the concept of fatherhood and what we define as a father, is it a specific role or is it based primarily on the idea of reproduction? This question is critical when considering that in many African societies, the role of ubaba goes beyond reproduction and biology. It is a role that is assumed on the premise of presence, involvement and acknowledgement.

* Pheza and Jwara are MA in Sociology candidates at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.