Melanie Verwoerd

Where are all our fathers?

2017-02-22 08:36
Child abuse. (iStock)

Child abuse. (iStock)

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In 2014 the author Sonwabiso Ngcowa and I went around the country to collect stories of young people who were born in 1994. 

Following the publication of the stories in a book we have often been asked to facilitate sessions with young people during which we encourage them to tell their life stories. Every time we do, we are blown away by the trauma so many young people in our country endure – irrespective of their race, gender, class and sexual orientation.

When we started with the book we knew that many young people in our country face severe economic hardship. What we did not anticipate and what truly shocked us was the role fathers play in some of the worst suffering we have ever encountered. 

Recently we facilitated a session with a group of teenagers. (I won’t give any details of the session or participants in order to protect the identity of the young people whose stories I will refer to.)

With very few notable exceptions fathers were either completely absent or a very destructive presence in the lives of the children that we interviewed. Only five out of all the young people we had spoken to had any semblance of a stable family life.

In almost every interview we were met with amazed looks when we asked if there was or had been domestic violence in the family home. The answer was almost always, “of course!”

We were almost matter-of-factly told how they and their mothers were beaten and sexually abused.

“You know, my mum is deaf in her left ear, because my dad beat her with a hammer on the head,” one young person told us.

For the three years we have done this work, the stories have just kept on coming. Young person after young person has talked about either the absence of, or abuse and neglect by their fathers.

In the recent workshop one young man, told the group how his mother left him and his five-year old sibling with their dad while she had to go away to work. He was nine years old at the time. His dad then disappeared for two weeks and left them without food or money.

The young man resorted to washing dishes for a neighbour who gave him R5 per day so he could buy something for the two of them to eat. When his dad eventually arrived back in a drunken state in the middle of the night, he beat him for not opening the door quickly enough. The beatings continued on a daily basis, but even though the young man considered committing suicide, he said he stayed. “I needed to protect my sister," he said.

Another young woman broke down as she told us how her father would force her and her siblings to eat rotten food, if they had forgotten to put it in the fridge. He would also severely beat them for anything that irritated him. “He knew my mother would protect us, so he always did it when she was not around and threatened us with more beatings if we told her anything”, she whispered.

Her mother eventually left her father, but the young woman broke down as she told us how she has to borrow money from friends for basic toiletries, since their father is not supporting them at all now. And just in case you were wondering, her father is very well-off.

As the young women put it, “He is a senior man in the church – everyone thinks he is this good man. And of course he says he always needs to look good so he only wears expensive clothes.”

The pain and even hatred of many of the young people towards their fathers can perhaps best be summed up by the response of one young man we interviewed for the book.  When asked if his life would have been different, had he known his dad, he responded: “Yes, for sure. It would have been even worse.”

South Africa has a very high rate of absentee fathers. Research has shown that only one third of preschool children live with both of their parents. Of the other 67%, 39% of children live with their mothers, only 4% with their fathers, 8% with other family members, 0.5% are in child-headed households and the remaining 15.5% live in care homes or with non-biological parents.

According to the South African Institute of Race Relations (Statistics SA, 2011) the “typical” child in South Africa is raised by a mother and has an absent but living father. Stats SA also indicated that in 2014, 64% of children born had no reference to the father on the birth certificate, which would suggest an absence already prior to birth. 

Although death can play a role the number of absent but living fathers continues to rise and it creates havoc in children’s lives.

In a very moving cry to fathers on behalf of what she calls the “fatherless generation” Farai (not her real name) wrote in 2014 in The Independent: “When you demonstrate a passionate willingness to engage in our conception, and then simply flee when your sexual acts produce another being; are you proud of yourself? Do you understand … the emotional void that your actions cause?"

Of course it is true that there are many good fathers in this country. But what I know from listening to so many young people over the last few years and backed up by the statistical research, the majority are not.

How are we then surprised by the cycle of violence that continues, or the high rate of school drop outs, or that young women seek out other older men to “bless” them?

One of the saddest stories we heard, came from a young man in Port Elizabeth who ended up living on the streets. He told us how he was so hungry at times that he would “burp hunger”. After his mum died he was forced as a young boy to live with his father. “But”, he said, “the only thing my father would share with me was space, unwillingly. His love lay at a distance. I could never reach it, no matter what I tried. I wanted to chase it … but I realised that it will never come, like the lie I was told at crèche that the moon would gently fall to the earth and that I would be able to touch it.”

There is no doubt that apartheid played a huge role in the destruction of the core family in our society, but fathers need to stop making excuses and step up to their responsibilities.

If your actions result in the birth of a child, you have a life-long responsibility to that child. Children do not have to love their parents, but parents (and that includes fathers) have a duty to love and take care of their children. 

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    child abuse  |  domestic violence
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