Disconnected Dads

Posted by Flux on 

30 April 2024

Absent fatherhood is a significant challenge in South Africa. In a tweet made by president President Ramaphosa on the 29th of August 2023, he stated that, “Only a third of South Africa’s children live with both parents”. Most children either live with their mother only or with neither parents. 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.

Our data* hints at this trend, with 23% of the cohort being raised by their mothers alone. Most of them reported having happy childhoods but a current happiness level of 2.7 out of 5 suggests that, as young adults, they may be experiencing some challenges. Our data further indicates that 17% have taken antidepressants, 33% have had suicidal thoughts and 33% have gone for therapy, which substantiates the assertion that these individuals are struggling with their mental health.

“No, my father was never around until I got older when I went to look for him.” Black female, 28

“My dad left us when I was four years old. He died of an accident so I don’t have any father figure but our grandfather did his part for us not to feel the absence of losing our father.” Black female, 29

“Just minor issues after losing our dad [passed away], family changes and all that. That’s what affected us a bit. But for now we are good. I am good. At the end of 2017, beginning of 2018, I had depression so they took us to a psychologist.” Black female, 25

It would be easy to criticise these fathers for their inaction but the problem is much more nuanced. This situation is linked to the broader historical, social, economic and cultural context. Our staggeringly high unemployment and poverty levels means that many of these fathers are likely to be unemployed and unable to pay for child maintenance. In a culture where fatherhood is narrowly defined as the ability to provide for one’s family financially, such men feel emasculated and failures as fathers, leading to depression and anxiety. In the case of divorce, our legal framework also focuses on the fathers paying child support and ignores the non-monetary aspects of fatherhood that are important for a child’s development. Experts say that absent fathers can negatively impact child development. Children may struggle with behavioural issues, educational performance and mental health problems without a positive male role model present in the home. Boys are more likely to become involved in crime, and girls are more likely to become pregnant as teens. A 2013 UJ study found that fatherless fathers felt ill-equipped to assume responsible and caring fatherhood roles, as they had no experience of this in their own lives, thereby perpetuating a vicious cycle. A high school learner went viral on TikTok in November 2023 after his school content videos on the topic of absent fatherhood were shared by social media users. In the one video he promises to neglect his child when he gets one, stating that he wants his child to suffer and not know his dad like himself.

Society as a whole is negatively impacted by widespread paternal disengagement. Such children are less likely to become well-adjusted and high functioning adults. Being estranged from their children, fathers are likely to experience low self-esteem and be less motivated to seek employment. Studies also show a link between absentee fathers and gender based violence, another societal scourge in South Africa. 

Lawmakers have a role to play to curb this phenomenon. It is important to work towards deconstructing dominant notions of fathers as merely financial providers. They should work with the media to produce content that influences societal attitudes towards positive gender norms and promotes engaged and gender equal fatherhood. Government needs to work together with civil society to ensure that support groups are available to men where they are made to feel that other men are there to support them and not to criticise or denigrate them. Alternative means of providing maintenance need to be explored such as time or skills. 

Communities should be encouraged to meet and discuss traditional practices such as “ilobolo” and “inhlawulo” – damages paid to the family of a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock by the father of the child – to address the potential harmful effects of these practices.Counselling groups could establish mentoring programmes that connect fatherless children with positive male role models. Fathering skills could be taught at secondary school (through extracurricular activities) to equip all of them, irrespective of the condition of their fathers, with the necessary skills to be a good father.

*The data and quotes mentioned above refer to a project that we are in the midst of, in conjunction with Student Village called “The 30/30/30 Project” whereby we collected insights from 30 South Africans, under the age of 30, 30 years into our new democracy.

By Flux Trends 

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Image credit: Katherine Chase

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