A marriage made in hell
- Pierre de Vos
- 29 Aug 2012 12:08 (South Africa)
The late Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, called the traditional (nuclear) family “that primary, terrifying tool of the state”. He argued that the family was one of the most potent institutions relied on by the state (along with, amongst others, the school and the church) to help it socialise – and ultimately discipline and control – the population in a capitalist system.
To put it crudely, Althusser suggested that in a society in which traditional nuclear families dominated, the state would find it much easier to control the population in a seemingly non-violent and non-oppressive manner and to keep the population docile and subdued – no matter how vast the social and economic injustice in that society. One could add that nuclear families often help to socialise boys and girls into performing different gender roles and help to perpetuate the gender hierarchy which underlies patriarchy and legitimises the continued economic and social exploitation of women in our society.
Under the influence of Judeo-Christian teachings and traditional cultural beliefs and practices, the nuclear family – one man as the head of the household, in a monogamous marriage with one woman, together raising two or three children (and perhaps a dog) – is often held up as an ideal, despite the fact that in many societies this “ideal” family format is not statistically the norm.
This is particularly true in South Africa, with its wide range of family formats and its low marriage rates. According to a 2008 study by the Economic Policy Research Institute, the nuclear family comprised only 23.25% of all family formats in South Africa, followed by single adult families with 20.40%. According to Statistics South Africa, in 1999 the rate of registered marriages was 355 per 100,000 of the population.
Despite the fact that less than a quarter of South African families conform to the nuclear model, many policy makers and politicians continue to extol the virtues of the family – with a special focus on the nuclear family – and base policy initiatives, aimed at building social cohesion and combating poverty and social disintegration, on the idea of promoting marriage and the nuclear family.
The government Green Paper on families, entitled “Promoting Family Life and Strengthening Families in South Africa”, which was released last week after President Jacob Zuma’s sexist comments about the need for women to marry and have children to “give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother”, does not avoid these pitfalls.
Unfortunately, the Green Paper is conceptually and ideologically incoherent and intellectually shallow. Quite frankly, it reads like a set of first year Unisa study notes for a course in Sociology.
The starting point of the Green Paper is that the family in South Africa is under threat and is unable to play the critical roles “of socialisation, nurturing, care and protection” in an effective manner. It is not surprising that the government is concerned about this failure by the family. After all, if families were to fulfil these functions, it would lift a major burden off the state to contribute to the socialisation and support of individual members in families. If Althusser is correct, it would also assist the state in controlling the restless population.
However, it is striking that the Green Paper fails to engage in any meaningful manner with the manner in which the widely accepted traditional ideology of marriage and the nuclear family at the heart of this Green Paper entrenches and perpetuates gender inequality and the economic exploitation of women. It also fails to come to grips with the fact that the living arrangements of the vast majority of South Africans do not mirror those of an idealised nuclear family and never will.
Although the Green Paper acknowledges that there are different types of families in South Africa and that there is a need to recognise the diverse nature of South Africa’s families when embarking on policy initiatives, this diversity of family forms is not seen as a strength which would help us to address the effects of patriarchy, but rather as a problem to be addressed by government policies and interventions. It seems to me that at the heart of the Green Paper lurks a yearning for a full-scale return to the traditional nuclear family, with clearly-defined gender roles and the man as the head of the household.
Thus, the paper refers to the “plight” of family forms that differ from the idealised norm of the nuclear family and claims that “[m]arriages are essential for the stability of families and ultimately society’s well-being. Where marriages are flourishing, efforts will be made to promote them and where marriages are under threat, there will be a focus on strengthening them”. It then proceeds to make the claim (without any references to the “research” quoted) that “[s]ocial science research demonstrates two almost [my italics] incontestable conclusions: stable marital structures provide profound benefits for men, women and children, while, on the other hand, the breakdown of stable marital structures imposes significant social costs upon individuals and society”.
This statement wrongly assumes that marriages always involve a man, a woman and children, ignoring same-sex marriages as well as marriages in which spouses decline to have children. Elsewhere in the document migrant and refugee families and same-sex families are mentioned also as “emerging families in South Africa” – whatever that may mean – but the assumption underlying the document is clearly that the ultimate family form to aspire to is the heterosexual, monogamous, married couple who raise their biological or adopted children.
No wonder, then, that the document ignores feminist critiques of marriage which point to the often exploitative nature of the gendered division of labour inside many traditional marriages. Marriage robs many women of their economic agency and dignity and forces them into unremunerated or badly remunerated forms of work – including child-rearing and cooking and cleaning. Marriage often perpetuates and entrenches unequal power relations between men and women because men and women are expected to play different roles in a marriage relationship.
For example, in the Constitutional Court judgment of President of the RSA v Hugo, Justice Kriegler remarked that the assumption that women would serve as the primary caregivers of young children:
“is a root cause of women’s inequality in our society. It is both a result and a cause of prejudice; a societal attitude which relegates women to a subservient, occupationally inferior yet unceasingly onerous role. It is a relic and a feature of the patriarchy which the Constitution so vehemently condemns... One of the ways in which one accords equal dignity and respect to persons is by seeking to protect the basic choices they make about their own identities. Reliance on the generalisation that women are the primary caregivers is harmful in its tendency to cramp and stunt the efforts of both men and women to form their identities freely.”
Because it acts as a cheerleader in favour of traditional marriage (on the basis of the completely unscientific assumption that marriage is essential for the stability of families), the Green Paper ignores the fact that women often suffer acute trauma because they are trapped in loveless, abusive or even violent marriage relationships and that families often thrive without the destructive presence of an emotionally or physically abusive father. The negative effects of such marriage relationships on children are also not addressed – as if marriages (no matter how dysfunctional) are always the first choice. For some reason the Green Paper does not consider the possibility that in a patriarchal society, non-traditional family arrangements in which fathers and/or husbands play little or no role can often be far more beneficial to women and children than being members of traditional nuclear families.
Although the Green Paper mentions patriarchy (the authors think it’s a bad thing), as well as the problem of women’s subjugation that flows from it, it fails to come to grips with the fact that men often wield a disproportionate amount of power is in traditional family relationships – whether those relationships are cemented through marriage or not. One gets the impression that the author(s) of the Green Paper knew that they had to mention patriarchy, but either did not understand the consequences of patriarchy and power differentials for women and children in family structures, or chose to avoid this problem because of the political sensitivity of addressing it in a country where our president himself embraces patriarchal values.
This impression is further enhanced by the comment in the Green Paper that: “[t]raditional leaders have a very important role to play in the Green Paper. They remain the custodians of the traditional value system. They also preside over land, marriages and the family in rural areas. Their engagement by Government is crucial to the realisation of the vision of the Green Paper.” The Green Paper does not mention that traditional leaders embody patriarchy and that their control over land, marriages and family represent a major obstacle for the emancipation of women in our society.
Families, as the Constitutional Court stated in the Dawood case, come in many shapes and sizes. Some families provide a protective and nurturing environment in which individuals – including children – can flourish. But many families do not provide such an environment, whether these families are structured around a heterosexual, supposedly monogamous marriage or not. The refusal of the authors of the Green Paper to engage with the fact that marriage and families are not always beneficial to the individuals involved suggests a deeply conservative, traditional Judeo-Christian, ideological bent on their part – despite the flummery about respect for women’s rights.
The fact is that patriarchal attitudes, which often still underlie family relations in our conservative society, turn many families (of whatever kind) into oppressive spaces of exploitation and marginalisation – especially for those members of the family who happen not to be the male patriarch. Until we deal with this reality, talk about the importance of the state promoting policies to strengthen marriage and family life in South Africa will at best be no more than empty platitudes and at worst will amount to a self-serving attempt by some men to retain their dominance and their position of power over their intimate partners and children. DM
- Nkandla: Zuma’s convoluted series of Houdini moves
- Nkandla: That drinking-thinking
- Women’s month, beyond lip service
- The multiplicity of freedom
- Home Affairs vs The Constitution
- Hlaudi weather: The fog is even thicker than it looks
- Wishful thinking: If the public protector were helped to do her job
- White, Afrikaans universities – when will they truly transform?
- NPA crisis: Open warfare was just the beginning
- Censoring Malema: Tempting, perhaps, but not legally valid
- Tlakula: Stark truth, stark choice
- The law vs. religion: Let’s try that again
- Evictions: 0 out of 10, SANRAL – try again
- Gay Cabinet ministers: So what’s the big deal?
- Rights and law: The untold, human stories
- Nkandla report in court: Zuma's interest above the law
- Democracy: let the real work begin
- May the Seventh be with You
- Critical thinking: the vital sign more important to democracy than your vote
- Elections: How can we level the playing field?
- Oscar’s ‘involuntary action’: Thin ice, Mr Pistorius
- That Nkandla SMS: Why the ANC won’t have its way in court
- The unbearable lightness of being a Nkandla Report critic
- Nkandla – unlawful to the last
- The president and Nkandla: No ignorance, no bliss
- The Public Protector’s Report: Who’s got the power and what is at stake?
- Why EFF election challenge would not fly
- Pistorius and that controversial Twitter ruling: questionable at best
- Uganda: why quiet diplomacy is a devastating betrayal of gay men and lesbians on the continent
- All hail independent thought
- Pistorius on TV: The public's interest vs. the public interest
- In the age of consent, the buck stops with Number One
- DA vs. ANC: The importance of political tolerance
- Campaign fever: the ground rules
- Let’s talk about freedom of speech
- DAgang's divorce: The finer sticking points
- Challenging IPID’s appointment: Always a bridesmaid, never a McBride
- Democratic internal party processes? Hmmm, unlikely.
- Why redress measures are not racist
- News flash, folks: discrimination IS illegal
- Water is life, but the struggle for it is deadly
- Changing the Constitution: much ado about nothing
- Mandela legacy: Reconciliation – a process, not a once-off event
- To call Mandela a saint is to dishonour his memory
- Love me tender: Why ‘it’s complicated’ applies to corrupt private tender processes too
- Nkandla report - the incontrovertible facts no smokescreens can cover
- The colonial roots of conferring silk on advocates
- Structural racism: the invisible evil
- E-toll civil disobedience reveals lack of respect for democracy
- We recognise sex and gender as classifications, so why not race?
- Nkandla Report blackout: It is all about PW Botha's law
- Elections are coming: Can we have some substance, please?
- The JSC: It’s not all bad, and here’s why
- The remembrance and forgetting of things past
- Nkandla: Untangling that rather sticky web
- Employment equity: the trick is in how it’s implemented
- Justice: that elusive prize, and how to get it
- Elections: The tightrope of fairness
- Teen sex: The law can’t replace parenting
- The Hlophe conundrum, revisited
- Khayelitsha policing: among the shambles and turf wars, it’s the residents who suffer
- Media freedom is a right that benefits all
- Attempts to discredit Madonsela could backfire
- The Mdluli matter: Nxasana’s first big test
- Sparing the rod: what it really entails
- Secrecy Bill: a touch more confusion, and a glimmer of hope
- Zuma's Secrecy Bill move: The Darker Side
- Hoffman’s complaint: why it was bound to fail
- Freedom of expression – and the quest for living meaningfully
- When a joke is not a joke
- The bad news: Qwelane’s constitutional challenge might just work
- Restoring the Electoral Commission: What happens next?
- A vote of no confidence is not to be taken lightly, by majority or minority
- The murky marriage of money and politics
- FF+ vs. EFF: doomed to fail
- Spy Tapes: A clear and simple case
- Hell is other people (trolling the Internet)
- Colour me irrational
- Women’s day – just another day for men to call the shots
- Arms Deal Commission: It’s the moment to make or break
- Marikana Commission: More questions than answers
- The court of individual identity
- Pius Langa: A man who knew the meaning of change
- Dear Film and Publications Board, please review your own rules
- Animal antics, and the separation of powers doctrine
- Hypocrisy fit for a king
- Take care with those ‘insults’
- ‘Top secret’ Nkandla report: On the highway to embarrassment
- Traditional leadership: Cat can look at a king
- Equal Education: The Minister doth protest too much
- Willing buyer, willing seller works… If you have a lifetime to wait
- Polygyny: Our human rights half-job
- Trial by media? Actually, that’s impossible
- Pistorius: The horror of a broken (white) body
- Oh what a tangled legal quagmire... when first we practise an NDPP to hire?
- Breytenbach: too little fear, favour and prejudice?
- The curious case of the pastor punished for honesty
- What’s that smell? Must be the name droppings.
- KZN University: A storm in a (Zulu) teacup
- Nkandla: The details will, and should, be made public
- Great speech vs. hate speech: how it really works
- Cape Town evictions: Brutal, inhumane, and totally unlawful
- The new, tamer Secrecy Bill: Still not constitutional
- Zuma and the Guptas: the ‘symbiosis’ continues
- Discrimination is illegal. When will we learn this?
- It’s not a democracy if our children aren’t equal
- An upside-down world: What would happen if we cared about the ‘others’?
- JSC: Let’s inject some common sense, shall we?
- Rose-tinted amnesia: The struggle to ‘rebrand’ SA’s Apartheid past
- Cardinal Napier: the plot thickens
- Redefining ‘merit’: first task for a transformed JSC
- The dating race
- Putting the ‘dread’ into ‘dreadlocks’
- Liars, damn liars, and the SA government
- Constitution clear on troops in the CAR: Zuma must talk to Parliament
- SA in CAR: the questions that remain
- Why are South African soldiers dying in CAR?
- Covering up sexual abuse is a crime, Cardinal
- Nkandla: Oh, what a tangled web we weave…
- The education MEC, children's heads, and a knobkerrie
- In black and white: the truth about ‘unconstitutional’ race quotas in universities
- Losing battles: Why the FMF doesn’t stand a chance
- Democracy vs. traditional leadership: the delicate ballet
- Police brutality comes as a surprise? Really?
- Sometimes a Tweeter is just a Twit
- Lady Justice’s scales appear to be faulty
- Pistorius trial: The legal principles that will decide the case
- Oscar Pistorius case: Bail isn’t denied as easily as you think
- Public opinion: Is there really any danger of prejudice against Oscar?
- All we know is that a woman is dead
- The secret history: Unearthing the mysterious Presidential Manual
- Sexwale abuse allegations: Very much our business
- SA’s rape epidemic: The limitations of outrage
- Will the real freedom of expression please stand up?
- But what of the people of Khayelitsha?
- WWE Smackdown: Zille vs. TNA edition
- Nkandla: Everything that's wrong with the Zuma government
- Nkandla: The spinning, mincing, dicing - and the report we're not allowed to read
- Beyond all (t)reason
- Judicial transformation: South Africa's appalling non-commitment
- The criminal stupidity of criminalising teen sex
- Careful, Mr Mthembu: The re-emergence of Apartheid's 'volksvreemdes' mentality
- Unequal education: the problem with providing learning for all
- SA troops in CAR: Why we should all be worried
- Mulholland column: Ignorance squared is still ignorance
- Elective processes: Something is rotten in the kingdom of the ANC
- Outa application: Courts can't fix political processes
- Chaskalson, SACP and the Constitution: Don’t touch me on my liberalism
- Carlisle and car key confiscation: Don't go with the (traffic) flow
- Dear Contralesa, please approach your nearest healer for a diagnosis
- Simelane: You can't end what never truly began
- Playing by the rules: The balancing act of Judge Dennis Davis
- Sunlight is the best disinfectant
- Lenasia: The haunting abandonment of humanity
- Lies, damn lies, and Zuma's 'bond'
- Show us the money, Mr Zuma
- The opposition doth protest too much: Why the ANC is hellbent on crushing debate
- Note to Zuma: Try commanding respect, not demanding it
- Dear Nxesi, your fantasy is damaging South Africa’s reality
- Running the Gauntlett: Why the struggle for appointment?
- Affirmative action: a decidedly middle-class problem
- Hate crime: there is no such thing as an excuse - ever
- Mfeketo and Zuma: You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours?
- Ramaphosa: Where does corruption begin and end?
- The Zuma recordings: SA is the crayfish, corruption the boiling water
- No safety in numbers: Why a bigger opposition isn't a stronger opposition
- Specs, lies and audiotape - the hidden Zuma recordings
- The ANC on school closures: can they win?
- Thuli Madonsela: The difference between 'unpopularity' and 'misconduct'
- Democracy: it starts in Parliament
- The National Key Points Act: not just unconstitutional, but totally invalid
- Simelane and 'rational' thought
- Halt the witch-hunt, Minister
- Home is where the taxpayer's money is
- Will Malema's case stand up in court?
- South Africa's Striking Miners: A Menace to Society? Or just to the middle class?
- E-tolling judgement: Sorry for Gauteng, but it's perfectly lawful
- Silence is golden - if the speakers are criticising the State
- Malema at the SANDF: Inappropriate? Yes. Illegal? No.
- Freedom of religion: not so free after all
- Whites against Woolworths: doth they protest too much?
- From the NPA with fear, favour - and prejudice
- Marikana murder charge withdrawal: the first glimmer of sanity
- Abuse, Inc: The 'miners made us do it' murder charge
- A marriage made in hell
- Lonmin's Farlam Commission: not bad, not bad at all
- Marikana: Avoidable, unconstitutional… and entirely predictable