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The role of fathers and rethinking the concept of fatherlessness


Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

In this age of artificial reproductive technology, the very idea of parenthood is being redefined. While these technologies can contribute to different family structures, such as same-sex couples and single mothers by choice, it does not necessarily result in fatherlessness.

In the aftermath of Father’s Day in South Africa, I contemplated the role that fathers play. A grim reality, particularly in the context of our country, is that fatherlessness has emerged as an epidemic.

For many, Father’s Day represents a distinct void. The American politician John Hickenlooper – whose father died when he was a young boy – once said that “when you grow up a fatherless son, in many ways you have to raise yourself. No one tells you what looks good on you, how to carry yourself, or provides the approval. Without a father, you grow up never knowing what you didn’t have. There is no intimate model of who you want to become, so it’s as if you’re always guessing.”

Hickenlooper’s words speak to this scourge that presents significant social and developmental challenges. In South Africa, the statistics on fatherlessness are particularly damning. The country has a concerning number of absentee fathers, as about half of our children are growing up without regular interaction with their dads.

According to data from Statistics South Africa, only 31.7% of black children stay with their biological fathers, compared with 51.3% of coloured children, 86.1% of Indian or Asian children and 80.2% of white children.

First, it is important to outline the very notion of a father. In the words of psychology Associate Professor Mzikazi Nduna, “fatherhood is a socially constructed phenomenon. Any other adult can assume the role of father and nurture, provide for and discipline. We have socially constructed for our children the idea that the presence of a person equates emotional support. Nowhere does it say that another human being, regardless of gender, cannot perform those functions.”

In other words, what is important is not the biology but rather the role that “a father” plays. Nduna outlines that the loss of this figure is often accompanied by distress and anxiety accompanied by a range of emotional, financial and psychological support deficits.

In this age of artificial reproductive technology and “designer babies”, the very idea of parenthood is being redefined. While these technologies can contribute to different family structures, such as same-sex couples and single mothers by choice, it does not necessarily result in fatherlessness.

In these cases, alternative male role models, co-parenting arrangements or supportive family and community networks can help address the absence of a traditional father figure. It is important to consider the broader context of family relationships and the overall support system available to children. Yet, in cases where fatherlessness does occur, we must understand its root causes and impact if we are to combat it.

Crisis in context

A study of absent fathers in Johannesburg conducted by Mazembo Eddy et al for the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Sonke Gender Justice in 2013 found that the crisis of fatherhood in South Africa is linked to the broader historical, social, economic and cultural context.

Additionally, the study found that the absence of fathers emerges from various factors such as materialist constructions of fatherhood and masculinity; socioeconomic factors such as poverty and unemployment of fathers; cultural factors; and relationship issues.

The understanding of the links between GBV and absent fathers is currently inadequate and requires greater scrutiny.

The authors asserted that “although a father’s physical presence alone is not necessarily a positive outcome in itself, widespread father absence has detrimental consequences for families and for society as a whole”.

The National Center for Fathering outlines the impact of this scourge. While it is challenging to attribute all social problems to fatherlessness alone, research suggests that the absence of fathers can contribute to various negative outcomes for individuals and communities.

Fatherless homes tend to be poorer; there is a greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse; behavioural problems linked to poor emotional and physical health are more prevalent; educational achievement is negatively affected; there is a greater likelihood of delinquency; and sexual activity and teen pregnancy are more widespread among fatherless youths.

Moreover, there is an argument to be made for the challenges in a child’s social and emotional development that impact on their sense of identity, self-esteem and emotional well-being.

There is also often an intergenerational impact as fatherlessness can perpetuate a cycle of father absence across generations. Children who grow up without fathers may face difficulties forming stable families themselves, leading to a continuation of this problem. This intergenerational impact can further strain social structures and contribute to broader societal issues.

In the South African context, there are links that can be made between fatherlessness and gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is so prevalent that South Africa has been compared to war-torn nations. Calls for action go largely unheard, and the scourge persists as the root causes often remain unaddressed.

As Yandisa Sikweyiya et al found in 2016, children who grow up with absent fathers may be at an increased risk of experiencing various forms of GBV in their lives. However, the understanding of the links between GBV and absent fathers is currently inadequate and requires greater scrutiny. What is apparent, however, is that there is a sense of stability in homes with father figures.

Strategies to tackle the problem

Comprehensive strategies are required to focus on family support, education, employment opportunities and community engagement to provide support systems and promote positive male involvement in children’s lives.

As Eddy et al concluded, “seeking to address the prevalent absence of fathers will have to tackle both the predominant restrictive notions of masculinity and fatherhood and the current problematic dynamics that exist between men and women.”

There are some interventions that we can focus on. For instance, it is important to promote a healthy and stable family by emphasising that parenting skills, communication, conflict resolution and relationship building can help strengthen family bonds.

Parental education and support specifically targeting fathers could be beneficial. To allude back to the thought of Professor Nduna, establishing mentoring programmes that connect fatherless children with positive male role models could have a significant impact.

Furthermore, strengthening community support networks can provide additional resources and assistance to families affected by fatherlessness. Raising awareness about the importance of fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives is essential through public campaigns, community outreach programmes and educational initiatives, for instance.

Addressing inequality and the lack of economic opportunities could alleviate financial burden burdens and address disparities elsewhere. Additionally, investing in quality education and skills development programmes can equip individuals with the necessary tools to break the cycle of fatherlessness.

Read more in Daily Maverick: It’s Father’s Day — but South African society suffering profound absence of father figures

Policy and legal reforms should be implemented, such as flexible parental leave policies, child support enforcement and initiatives that encourage shared parenting responsibilities. It is important, of course, that in our approach, we are culturally sensitive and acknowledge the context of our country.

I am reminded of the words of Anaïs Nin, who said that “the human father has to be confronted and recognised as human, as man who created a child and then, by his absence, left the child fatherless and then Godless”.

This is not to take a religious bent but rather to be Godless speaks to the void. Demonstrably, this is a phenomenon we cannot allow to prevail, these are statistics we must actively combat, and this is a plague we must continuously challenge. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    The breakdown of fatherless children shows what could be a culture problem. Cultures where it is normal to father children to be seen as masculine, then not be responsible for them, is a problem. When a President has a number of wives and fathers many children does not set an example for the rest of his followers. Change will only come in SA with a change in culture.

  • Robin Smaill says:

    The statistics quoted are alarming but also misleading. If statistics on behaviour had also been collected the racial or cultural differences would have become insignificant and behaviour would have explained the extent of being raised without a father. Behaviour is the culprit and not the race. Race is a bad generalization, it is the individuals behaviour that is important. No race has the prerogative on good parenting and to say or imply anything else is wrong.

  • Carlos dos Santos says:

    A good introduction to the subjet matter. However it is very superficial and there are many more avenues for discussion. Such as the role the wife plays in the absence of fathers. Cause and effects.
    Great topic though that should be studied and researched. After all it is the very foundation of a strong family and therefore a strong society/community in any culture.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Perhaps social grants for unmarried and or single mothers is encouraging the practice of bringing fatherless children into the world? Why not encourage birth control and better education rather than assisting a practice which has no solution. Fatherless children brought up in poverty and dire circumstances will be physically and mentally undeveloped ( at best) compromised totally( at worst) and will just become a further burden on the taxpayer who is already trying to deal with the problem. Might be a good idea for the current government to stop stealing from taxpayers for themselves and rather find solutions for those that need them.

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