Maverick Citizen

State of our Fathers Report

Experts agree it’s high time that perceptions of fatherhood in South Africa are challenged — in some cases corrected

Experts agree it’s high time that perceptions of fatherhood in South Africa are challenged — in some cases corrected
“Embodied male care" refers to men caring for their children. Such care can be through mindful bodily presence. It can be in the form of psychosocial availability or words of counsel when needed. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

What does it mean to be a father, or to be a good father, in South Africa? The 2021 State of South Africa’s Fathers report was launched virtually on International Men’s Day — Friday 19 November and it considers these questions.

On 19 November 2021, International Men’s Day, Sonke Gender Justice, the Human Sciences Research Council, and Stellenbosch University jointly launched the 2021 State of South Africa’s Fathers (Sosaf 2021) report. This report forms part of the MenCare Global Fatherhood Campaign, which aims to promote men’s and boys’ involvement as equitable, non-violent caregivers, and is the second report on South African fathers. 

The 2021 report, which includes academic research interspersed with personal essays from children, examines fatherhood in its entirety, and builds on the previous research which encouraged us to see that there is no single typical father in South Africa. It emphasises the potential of men to be carers in their families and broader communities.

The report reminds readers that there is a difference between being a father and fathering, being a biological parent and being a social support system, between being physically present and being present in a child’s life. It also highlights the profound impact that South Africa’s unequal economic system has on fathers’ ability and willingness to be present in their children’s lives, and on fathers’ mental health. As the introduction to the report notes:

“Embodied male care refers to men caring for their children. Such care can be through mindful bodily presence. It can be in the form of psychosocial availability or words of counsel when needed. Spiritual guidance, a clinic visit, financial support, helping with homework, or other kinds of practical support also form part of caring behaviour. A caring father to us also means a man who supports those who help him raise his offspring…Finally, fathers who care also refers to men taking care of themselves, their health and relationships.”

In a world where the bar for male parents is low, a man can be considered a good father by doing basic parenting duties, for instance doing homework or preparing a meal or taking a child to the clinic. (Photo by Gallo Images/Foto24/Bongiwe Gumede)

The report also included primary data from surveys with fathers, reflecting on their involvement in care, which will be analysed in more detail in forthcoming studies. 

Daily Maverick spoke to report authors, Wessel van den Berg, Research Monitoring and Evaluation and Learning Unit Manager at Sonke Gender Justice, Professor Kopano Ratele of Stellenbosch University, and Dr Tawanda Makusha of the South African Human Sciences Research Council about the report findings. 

DM: One of the fundamental distinctions that came up in the report and the launch was the distinction between ‘a father’ (noun) and ‘to father’ (verb) and the way in which our conception of fatherhood should go beyond a biological relationshipWhy was this important for the writers, and what impact do you think it will have on the way we think about supporting fatherhood relationships in the future?

Dr Tawanda Makusha (TM): Fatherhood in South Africa is a social construction, where people who are socially connected take part in childrearing, regardless of paternity. 

Wessel van den Berg (WB): Acknowledging the work of ‘fathering,’ in other words caregiving, rather than conception of a child allows for the definition of fatherhood to include social fathering. Since most children live with men, it’s important to animate the men who are not directly biologically related to children as their fathers, but who may do some of the care work. If we focus on fathering, rather than progeny we can mobilise more care.”

Professor Kopano Ratele (KR): Using ‘father’ as a verb also parallels the use of ‘parent’ as a verb. To father is to parent, [it is] more than to donate sperm.”

DM: One of the things that was interesting was the ‘types’ of activities that fathers saw as caring for their children and how these didn’t tend to address the gendered imbalance of domestic labour. For example, fathers identified care as playing with children vs doing laundry, or eating a meal with their child vs preparing that meal and doing the dishes afterwards. Now that you have created this important data, in future surveys will you ask respondents to comment on their views and participation in domestic chores and, in your views, in what ways are fathers’ conception of caring for their children separate from being an equal (or equitable) partner in a domestic relationship, and what is the impact of that?

KR: In a world where the bar for male parents is low, a man can be considered a good father by doing basic parenting duties, for instance doing homework or preparing a meal or taking a child to the clinic. These activities are desirable, it should be clear. But in a country soaked in men’s patriarchal violence against womxn and girls (without minimising men’s violence against men), many men probably still think they should get awards for ‘helping’ women parent. That is patriarchal thinking, needless to say. It regards things like preparing a meal for one’s child as ‘woman’s work’. And care is a gender labour issue, tilted against women. So what would be great is if fathers understood that doing homework is only a little bit of a whole lot of gender labour in the household, and possibly it is only when this consciousness lights up do men begin connecting doing care work with gender work.

WB: We plan to do a more representative survey in 2024 that will also reflect mothers’ and childrens’ voices. That survey will implement the first Father Involvement in Childcare Index, to provide representative data about father involvement.

DM: The section on mental health revealed the importance of considering fathers’ mental health in order to ensure that they are supported and more resilient for themselves and for their families. Can you outline some of the interventions that are necessary to begin conceptualising and implementing this?

TM: We need to start focusing on addressing mental health at an individual, familial and community level. We need to acknowledge and deal with the stigma around depression and anxiety. We need to normalise mental health in the health system. The introduction of routine screening and testing for depression, anxiety and stress should be normalised at every primary health care facility [and] encouraging men to take up these services early is important. Sensitisation of the symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress is very critical. 

DM: In the chapter of the report on economic provision and fatherhood, fathers expressed how central the idea of being the financial or economic provider was to their identities. At times, this conception led some fathers to avoid seeing their children when they couldn’t provide for them financially (and to feelings of shame for the fathers themselves), as well as meaningful obstacles for working fathers to seeing their children because they were seeking economic opportunities in order to meet what they saw as their perceived obligations. In a country like SA where almost half the population is unemployed, and where job security is poor, how do we go about addressing or reshaping this identity construct in a way that benefits fatherhood, more equitable co-parenting, and children’s access to their fathers?

TM: We need to be pushing for more involvement of the state to provide social relief for poor families. Long-term social protection has been seen to benefit children and families in the long run, with better health, educational and social outcomes. 

WB: We can achieve this with a general increase in the value that we attach to care work, rather than re-emphasising certain aspects of fatherhood. If we can have the value of care ‘appreciate’ in the economic sense, then people, including fathers can identify with the value of the care they provide whether it be emotional, material, or relational. An example would be to pay ECD teachers the same as matric teachers, since brain development in the early years is so important as a foundation for life and economy.

KR: Other strategies include encouraging or mobilising public sentiments for the workplaces to relocate gender-equal parenting, which is to say fatherhood and motherhood, to the centre of human capital policies, for example. Another way to put it is equitable work-life balance. Similarly, we need to persuade the state to connect issues of fatherhood to concerns about the economy; unions to see that their male members are or will be fathers and to expand their lens about union matters; and media, a powerful vehicle for reshaping identity and self-representation, to help men and women connect the dots between macro-economic issues and what happens in people’s lives.

DM: The report also includes examples of fathers that people don’t normally write much about (social, incarcerated, single, teen, gay, and student). It says “those of us who study fathers must resist the easy temptation to summarily dismiss a man who, for example, neglects his child, without carefully studying the circumstances of his life and actions within their complex, dynamic context.” In your views, what does exploring these various types of fatherhood help us to understand about fatherhood in South Africa, and the opportunities to shift our ideas of a ‘good’ or ‘caring’ father?

WB: My take is that when we broaden our notions of care and fatherhood we have more opportunity for father involvement to happen. If we stick to the narrow conception of fatherhood as nuclear-family-based-heterosexual-financial-provision it blocks the potential for the full range of fatherhoods to be manifested.

KR: The contribution on non-normative fathers in the report brings to the surface a central and limiting norm when thinking about who can be a father and what constitutes a good father. Is it not absurd that, to differing degrees, people in our country and many other countries regard being gay, for instance, as a lack of qualification that precludes a man not only from being a caring father but from being a father at all? Just so we are clear: man becomes a caring father by enacting care, not because of his sexual preference.   

DM: The section of the report fatherhood and violence reminds us to conceptualise father’s neglect and violence as part of a cycle of violence, where very often men were exposed to these same social challenges themselves as children, and to link tolerance and prevalence of violence to social norms that tolerate and promote gender inequality. What are some next steps or necessary policy / programmatic recommendations that would help us address violence against men, women and children in SA?

WB: [One necessary intervention is to] ensure the Children’s Act Amendments underway at the moment match the Constitutional Court finding that prohibited corporal punishment by establishing practicable measures to regulate and support the prevention of corporal punishment. 

KR: The problem we have as a society is precisely that the magnitude and gratuitousness of men’s violence against women and children is so overwhelming and so every day that we appear not to want to admit an obvious fact: men’s physical and sexual violence is also directed at other men. In some cases, male victimisation is at much higher rates than females victimisation. The first step is therefore to encourage each other to allow this fact into policy and social consciousness. Understanding that men are both victims and perpetrators of violence is also a gender issue. I don’t say that lightly. Violence is baked into masculinity. Among other interventions then, the social conditions that contribute toward the reproduction and performances of the violent form of masculinity that endangers children, women and men are what must be addressed in policy on gender violence, health, families, and fatherhood. Addressing boys and young men’s vulnerability is also missing in programmes and policies. DM/MC

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Geddes says:

    Great to see this report being published in the Daily Maverick! It’s heartening to know that good stuff is happening in these troubled times.
    I am grateful for the men doing this essential work.

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