You may have heard quite a bit recently about the release of a report entitled “The State of South Africa’s Fathers,” published by the Sonke Gender Justice NGO and the Human Sciences Research Council. Now there are dozens of very important reports that make it into the public domain every year, but I consider this one to be THE most critical to our future as a safe and emotionally balanced society. And that’s because I have always believed that men are generally responsible for most of the social challenges we are facing, especially the violent ones. What I like about this report is that while it contextualises with academic justification for our shameful status quo, it also takes a very optimistic view of the progress that has been made and how the current crop of fathers are being moulded by a very involved and present breed of men.
To quote: “This is the first issue of an evolving report, planned for recurring publication every three years; it is our hope that the report galvanises this shift in priorities towards a more nuanced approach and better support for families in South Africa.” One of the paragraphs that best emphasises this, is: “The aim here is not ‘to blame the father’ or coerce fathers to conform to one model, but rather to understand how men play beneficial or harmful roles in the lives of their children. If it is understood why men make certain decisions with regard to their children, they can be better supported to play more active roles in the lives of their children – whether they live with them or not.” Its sentences like that that makes this such an engaging report that I found hard to put down.
But it is a long and extensive report, so I haven’t been able to get through all of it just yet. But I thought I would look at some of the comments, paragraphs and conclusions that have leapt off the page for me so far. I find these fascinating, because they manage to eloquently highlight the current variations of fatherhood in our society, with a specific emphasis on what is termed “social fathers.” This is a topic I have written in support of before, largely because it is my belief that absent fathers have a catastrophic effect on the lives of young people. Subsequently, I have encouraged men of conviction to stand up and fill the role of father figures to the children around them, especially the ones in high risk communities. In my opinion, if we have enough social fathers, giving children consistent love, care and guidance, it could change our future social landscape considerably, driving down scourges like crime and rapes.
The report actually quotes research by the SA Institute of Race Relations, saying “children growing up without fathers are more likely to experience emotional disturbances and depression. Girls who grow up with their fathers are more likely to have higher self-esteem, lower levels of risky sexual behaviour, and fewer difficulties in forming and maintaining romantic relationships later in life. They have less likelihood of having an early pregnancy, bearing children outside marriage, marrying early, or getting divorced. Boys growing up in absent father households are more likely to display ‘hyper-masculine’ behaviour, including aggression.” So this becomes a clarion call for all South African men to step up and play an active role in the life of even just one child that’s not our own. By changing that one child’s destiny, we are in fact contributing to the betterment of society and the safety of ourselves and our biological children.
The report starts by reminding us that fatherhood has traditionally been a neglected research topic and has suffered from some societal stereotyping: “In the last 25 years, however, there has been considerable academic interest in fatherhood worldwide. This academic field has lagged behind somewhat in Africa, but in South Africa it has grown exponentially in the last 15 years.” It states that there have now been several very enlightening publications on the topic, “ensuring that fatherhood became a vibrant topic of research.” Another sentence that caught my attention, because it highlights the social changes that have happened since 1994, is “Fatherhood in South Africa cannot be understood as mainly flowing from a nuclear family household where a married, heterosexual couple live with their offspring.” And the reason for that is because we are the only country in the world where both polygamy and same-sex unions are legal, so fatherhood also takes on many dimensions and the report is at pains to point out that the nuclear family is fast becoming the exception, not the norm. But this does not mean that fathers who live elsewhere are not interested or involved in their children’s lives.
To the contrary, it appears South African men are very willing to accept greater fatherhood responsibilities, as this paragraph indicates: “Men are increasingly involved in childcare. Although men’s involvement in the lives of their children may not be to the same degree as women, they are in general far more involved in childcare compared to their own fathers.” I find this heart-warming, considering that while my own father was physically present, he was emotionally absent. The report says this is changing fast, because “Bargaining for paternity rights and paternal custody cases supports the view that many men are eager to be involved in the lives of their children from birth onwards. The belief that men are inherently violent or set in their ways has been disproven and their ability to care for others is undeniable.”
The last sentence is especially reassuring, considering that we often read and hear stories of men having perpetrated terrible violence against women and children.
I plan to finish reading the report, and bring you some more of the highlights, but let me leave you with the last bit of encouraging findings, in the form of this paragraph: “In order to “move towards a gender-equal society one requires men and boys to think and act in new ways, to reconsider traditional images of manhood, and to reshape their relationships with women and girls. In their roles as fathers, men should thus be supported to become involved in care and fulfil various other forms of engagement with children.”
“The State of South Africa’s Fathers” is a long-overdue report that must be read by every single citizen, especially men and especially those who work at changing the status quo in our society. It provides well-researched context and an academic platform from which to work and reason our way forward. Most importantly, it is much-needed inspiration for us all to become involved in building the South Africa we all long to live in one day.