Breaking the mould of the ‘deadbeat dad’

A still from the Fathers Matter film series, Family Portrait. Picture: Supplied

A still from the Fathers Matter film series, Family Portrait. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 24, 2023


CELEBRATIONS for Father’s Day wrapped up recently, while Youth Month will be commemorated until the end of the month. It’s the spirit of the two occasions that the Fathers Matter project aims to draw attention to fatherhood in South Africa.

Research shows that 65% of children in South Africa live in a home without their biological father, and in South Africa children are mostly cared for by women.

Dr Garth Japhet, the CEO of Heartlines and the founding CEO of Soul City, said having more men involved in children’s lives would help alleviate the burden on women and would also benefit children.

Heartlines is a social change organisation that encourages people to live out positive values. Soul City is a South African multi-media health promotion project.

Japhet said the Fathers Matter project was advocating for positive father figures and role models; where men were not perpetrators of violence and did not take advantage of vulnerable children or women.

He said there were a number of research studies that backed up the importance of fathers being positive role models.

“There was a research study called The State of South African Fathers (2021) conducted by Sonke Gender Justice. It was also researched under the Human Sciences Research Council. There has been a fair amount of research on the number of children who are growing up without their biological fathers.

“This is not just a South African issue, but we probably have one of the highest levels of absent fathers in terms of children who are growing up without biological fathers. A lot of research is being done in the US. Not a huge amount is being done in Africa, but we anecdotally see exactly the same patterns.

“In the US, more than 90% of men in jail for violent crime come from father-absent families. We do work here in prisons as well and see exactly the same pattern: that when the dad is absent, or a positive male role model is absent, then young boys are attracted to crime and gangs. It is almost as if they are surrogate fathers, and that starts the (downward) process.”

Japhet said crime and aggression, including gender-based violence (GBV), set in.

“There are a lot of initiatives that aim to get older men to understand that GBV is not okay, but we have got to tap into the younger generations. Getting more men positively involved in the lives of children is probably one of the key things we can do to reverse these trends.”

What’s holding fathers back

Japhet said the challenges were a multi-generational issue, and it started with addressing perceptions of what it meant to be a man. He said many young men were growing up with no positive male influences to teach them about toxic masculinity and how it played out in issues such as abuse and cyclical violence.

“We have to ask the question: Is it because men are just the perceived deadbeat dads who couldn't care less after they get a woman pregnant? And the answer is yes, that may be the case in some cases, but it is not the norm.

Fathers Matter Film Series – Everything a Boy Could Want. Picture: Supplied

“We have to change the narrative about this perceived concept of deadbeat dads because our research clearly shows that the vast majority of men would like to play a more positive role in the lives of their children.”

But there are obstacles, he said.

“One is that both men and women have the same perception that a man's primary role as a dad is to provide financially, and if he can't financially provide then he can't be present. So a man will keep himself away because he is unemployed, for example. But that's not what the child wants. He or she wants their dad to be present.

“Interestingly, research has shown that women feel the same. A telling quote, which came out of one of our groups, was where a participating woman said: ‘If he can't bring money into the home, then I don't want another child in this house’.

“We have to change the narrative that men are just not interested. Yes, there definitely are those fathers who are like that, but we have got to change the perception that a father's main role is to be a provider, to one of saying that even if you can't provide materially, you can be present and help the mother.


Men need to deal with their own “father wounds”, and many lack practical skills.

“When we look at the skills, we talk about the fact that if you have not been fathered yourself, where do you begin? It is good for women and children if the father, even if he is unemployed, is more more involved in the life of a child. It shares the burden of childcare. For example, men can help ensure their children are immunised, which is often seen as something that women must take care of in terms of children's health.”

Changing perceptions

From individuals to communities, Japhet said we must change the narrative.

“The first point to addresses is to establish that fathers do matter. We must understand that and create access to positive male role models for children. If there is abuse, physically or emotionally, and it's just not possible with the dad, then we need to look for other role models and be intentional about getting involved in a child's life. It may be a brother or an uncle, but to reach out to them and ask them to spend a bit of time with the child. And this is as important for girls as it is for boys.

Fathers Matter Film Series – In Time. Picture: Supplied

“At the community level, the good news is that over the past four to five years we are beginning to see an understanding that we need to support men to be fathers. Heartlines, via the Fathers Matter project, runs workshops across the country. We have just launched a WhatsApp platform in the form of a Fathers Matter Coach.

“You sign up, it's free and it sends you fatherhood parenting tips, depending on the age of your child. On a societal level, I think we really would have succeeded when we get to a point where we say ‘father's really do matter’ and we create greater access at all levels for men to be empowered to be more present and involved fathers,” he said.

Awareness, help

Heartlines has made six 24-minute short drama films set in various contexts around South Africa. Each film explores some of the complexities of fatherhood in our nation and its impact on men, women and, notably, children. During June, SABC 2 has been broadcasting the Fathers Matter television series on Saturdays at 8.30pm. They can also be accessed via

Resources in English,Zulu, Sotho and Afrikaans are also available on the website on social media (Fathers Matter ZA) to help community groups.

“We are there to support men and women. This is not just a man issue and it cuts across communities, not just black communities or white communities or poor communities. This is an issue that resonates across the country. I have never come across an issue that touches more people more deeply than this one,” said Japhet.

The Fathers Matter WhatsApp application (Coach) sends weekly notes for positive action to help men on their fatherhood journey based on the ages of their children. They can also ask questions on WhatsApp and receive answers powered by ChatGPT. To sign up, WhatsApp “Hi” to 060 058 2107.


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