Reflections on role of extended families

2017-01-18 06:02

I HAVE great respect for the extended family institution, even though I may not be in a position to uphold it in my personal context or family.

I remain a helpless member of the industrialised societies of the world who are dependent on the cash economy, which encourages selfishness due to limited resources.

What is the extended family? It is a family unit comprising grandmother and grandfather, father and mother, aunt, uncle, cousins, nephews and nieces, who may or not live together in one home or compound.

I have great respect for the extended family institution. It is even more important nowadays with the rise in the death and divorce rate. As we die as a result of so many illnesses and catastrophes that have engulfed the world, we could do with the revival of the extended family institution.

Nowadays we die as a result of HIV and Aids-related illnesses, cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, road accidents, crime, politics, the list of the causes of deaths is quite long.

It is touching to hear stories of families where grandmothers survive and take care of children after the parents of their grandchildren have been mowed down by Aids-related diseases and illnesses as well as road accidents, for instance.

Hence, I believe that if there is a government social grant that deserves to be increased substantially each year, it is the old-age pension grant.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the role of grandparents, especially grandmothers, who happen to be in the majority and blessed with longevity, is crucial to desperate or vulnerable members of society, especially children. Therefore capacitating old people to play this noble role of taking care of orphans and abandoned children is a direct contribution to the development of society.

Alas, the extended family is fast becoming like an endangered species. And what do we have today as a dominant form of family institution? It is the core family or what sociologists refer to as the nucleus family i.e. a family where there is only mother, father and their children.

Thanks to industrialisation and the cash economy, the core family is helping to produce so-called children who live in the street on account of poverty, retrenchments, poor parenting skills and failure to manage young delinquents. Children are left vulnerable in the hands of relatives and community members, who neglect them or leave them to fend for themselves and this has a direct bearing on the increasing rate of criminality.

The core family is fast succumbing to enormous pressure due to limited resources. Taking care of orphans is not as easy as we would like it to be since the cost of living is too high and what parents earn may not even be enough to take care of their own children.

Single parent households are on the rise due to the increasing rate of divorces, separations and deaths. The success of step families in taking care of their young where children are raised by a step father or step mother depends on the quality of personalities and nature of parents.

The quality of life of children can be compromised by the unwillingness of a step parent to take full responsibility for the children whom he or she regard as not his or her biological offspring.

Only government grants are encouraging the rise in the emergence of foster families. Even in these situations, it is not uncommon to see relatives abusing the foster grant and failing to use it for the good or welfare of children. Indeed our corrupt society has seen the rise of government officials, including social workers, school principals, employees in the justice department, as well as members of the community, who collude to defraud the state and create ghost beneficiaries or simply using children who have productive parents that are still alive to get these government benefits through foul means. In other words, we are stealing government money that is meant for the starving.

I think the state can use incentives to preserve the extended family institution, for example, by considering giving special privileges to members of the extended family who provide proof that they are taking care of vulnerable children i.e. children whose parents have died or are unemployed.

Government-subsidised coupons for extended families to buy food from shops would be one form of meaningful incentive to keep the extended family intact.

If overpopulated China can improve birth control by providing incentives for parents with fewer children, then we can also do something to preserve and promote the extended family institution.

• Simphiwe Mkhize is an employee of the KZN Department of Social Development and writes in his personal capacity.

What is the extended family? It is a family unit comprising grandmother and grand-
father, father and mother, aunt, uncle,
cousins, nephews and nieces, who may or not live together in one home or compound


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