When there are no fathers

2018-06-17 12:19
Rams Mabote runs an organisation called Future Kings, a mentorship programme for boys between the ages of 13 and 18 that teaches them to become better people and then better fathers. PHOTO: Mpumelelo Buthelezi

Rams Mabote runs an organisation called Future Kings, a mentorship programme for boys between the ages of 13 and 18 that teaches them to become better people and then better fathers. PHOTO: Mpumelelo Buthelezi

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It was a newspaper article he read three years ago that convinced radio personality Rams Mabote to do something.

In the interview, a man who was convicted of raping and beating his girlfriend, was asked how he arrived at that point.

The interviewer asked: “Is it because of a lack of role models?”

The man responded: “No, we have role models; we know them and we see them, but don’t have contact with them. The guys we have contact with are other guys who drive good cars; they are with us in the townships and they allow us to wash their cars and drive the cars. Next you realise you are on the job with them.”

It was then that Mabote – who thought he was a role model to the boys in the Soweto neighbourhood from which he came – decided he could no longer be a father only to his own son. He had to be a father to more.

“And that’s how Future Kings was started. I decided to get my friends involved.”

Mabote’s initiative mentors boys between the ages of 13 and 18 who are sons of single mothers, and aims to teach them how to be good men and fathers. He also conducts programmes at schools.

“Society is going through tough moments and it is because of men. When you look – when you watch anything or listen to the radio – we have men problems. It’s abuse, rape, crime, wars,” Mabote said.

“We are trying to give boys new stories that will make them think differently about their role in society. I think boys function in a vacuum in which they don’t know what they can do better for society, or even for themselves.”

Mabote said his life couldn’t have been more different from those he mentors.

“The only bad thing about my upbringing was that I grew up during apartheid. But, really, outside that, I had both parents present and generally was brought up well,” he said.

“And, for me, as this Soweto boy who did things by the book, I thought I was an example of good for young men in my community. But the interview I heard changed my perspective and convinced me to become more involved.”

Future Kings started with Mabote getting his friends together and going to the township once a month to play soccer with the boys.

“Because of our age, they would always beat us. And the men I am talking about included former Bafana Bafana stars. And it made these boys feel special because someone was reaching out to them. But it was also a bit taxing on my pocket,” he said.

“Last year, I changed the concept and I picked 10 boys who were sons of single mothers. I would see them every fortnight and chat online about stuff. I became someone they could talk to, man to man. Some things aren’t serious, like watching sport. But we would speak about sexuality and deeper stuff. I got to speak to them about the kind of music they listen to and asked how they relate to some of the lyrics.”

Mabote said raising his own 16-year-old son helped him to interact with boys whose fathers were absent from their lives.

“I’m a divorced dad and I have started to treat my son as a peer. I speak to him as a man and respect him as a man. I don’t order him, I advise him. And I appreciate that he is coming into his own,” he said.

“Future Kings has taught me to respect young men. I don’t treat them like children; I see them as being men like me – just a bit younger and more handsome.”

He helps the boys with their relationships with their fathers. One boy told him how wealthy his father was, but said he had heard this only from other people and had no contact with him himself.

“I told the boy: ‘Your father is scared to approach you. He wishes to reach out to you, but he’s scared you won’t welcome him. I want to challenge you to write to him and tell him the door is open.’ He wrote the letter and a few weeks later, he came back to me saying he now sees his dad about once a week.”

"They can start afresh"

Mabote said he was thankful for the role his work on TV, radio and as a lecturer and author has played in advancing his work with Future Kings.

“All I am trying to teach boys is to think differently. I chose their last stages of boyhood to teach them to think differently. I just need 10 000 more men to start this, then we will have 1 million boys becoming great future kings. Boys are ready for this, each of us could change one boy at a time.”

Mabote’s message to absent fathers is: “Come home. Your sons will forgive you; they miss you. It doesn’t matter to them the extent of what you are able to provide or give to them, they just want you there, to chat to and laugh with, watch the game with and do all those things that aren’t easily done with their mums.

“I wish men would understand that, whatever the past was with their parents or own children, it doesn’t matter. They can start afresh. Be around, be present. Come home.”

Ever fewer children are growing up in a nuclear family in South Africa. Less than 35% of households are made up of a mother, father and their children. Instead, more than half are headed by grandparents and 36% are headed by single mothers, according to 2015 statistics. Often, there are multiple generations and extended families in a single household.

Research by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection – as part of its Indlulamithi Scenarios 2030 – shows that most households are run by single mothers. But the good news is that fathers have been taking on more responsibility for their children without the children’s mothers being involved.

The study shows that, in 2010, 38.9% of households were headed by single mothers, as opposed to 3.4% run by single fathers. Five years later, the number of single mother-headed homes was on the decline at 36.7%, and the number headed by single fathers increased slightly to 3.5%.

Dr Beth Vale, the lead researcher of the study called Social Cohesion and the South African Family, said healthy families were crucial for social cohesion.

“The association of family in the South African context is that of a place where we learn to be with others. Many see the home as a place where we practise how to love, share, forgive and argue constructively. It is also where children learn their values and develop their social habits,” she said.

“This means that, if we want to understand the possibilities for social cohesion in South Africa, we must understand the family.”

The study found that it was becoming less common for working-age men to be the breadwinners in a family. This was partly because so many young men struggle to find work, making it difficult to bring home an income. Unless they were primary caregivers for children or living with a disability, young men did not benefit directly from social grants.

“We need to start defining masculinity and ‘fatherhood’ beyond being a ‘breadwinner’,” said Vale.

“Men have important roles to play in nurturing children and partners. We need to escape the idea that you are not a man if you can’t provide materially.

“The phenomenon of absent fathers is often explained away as men who don’t care. But there is a much deeper story than that.”

South Africa has a long history of colonial and apartheid migrant labour, which separated men from their families.

With increasing urbanisation, many fathers still work far away from their family homes, sending remittances and visiting only occasionally, the study found. Many men – including relatives, step-fathers, or foster fathers – also play the role of father for children who are not biologically their own.

Even though fathers were often absent from homes, the role they continued to play was very important culturally in South Africa, Vale said.

Acknowledged biological fatherhood, at least as a manifestation of lineage, was an important element of identity development. Children took their clan names from their father.

“Another contributing factor is the roles ascribed to men and women, which shoulder women with childcare responsibilities, while men can more easily opt out. Denying maternity is not possible in the way that denying [and sometimes remaining ignorant of] paternity is,” said Vale.

“But I think it is very important not to slip into a single narrative that men don’t care. The changing nature of the South African family has come from decades of structural and economic injustice and radically shifting gender relations.”

The future of parenting and the role of men as fathers in the household, Vale said, was likely to result in smaller households with fewer children, but the family structure would still be headed by women.

“Women will collaborate, connect and gain access to support through stokvels, nongovernmental organisations, churches and so on, but working-age men appear to be increasingly socially disconnected. Added to this, many will struggle to find social belonging through work because of unemployment. This has deep and worrying implications for men and women, with many suggesting linkages to alcohol abuse, violence and so on,” Vale said.

For the researchers, it had become more important to constructively reimagine the role of men and fathers in South African society.

“We also need to acknowledge that the role of ‘parent’ [whether male, female or gender nonconforming] does not necessarily require that one is a biological parent. All men can take on a ‘fatherly’ role for someone.”

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