Black single fathers: a forgotten, but ever-present phenomenon

We must normalise the idea of men as primary caregivers.
We must normalise the idea of men as primary caregivers.

Lesego Linda Plank and Portia Tsotetsi are masters and PhD students completing their studies at the University of Johannesburg. They are funded by the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Human Development, based at the Wits School of Public Health. 

The two students aim to add to the narrative around the provision of social services, notably social grants, to fathers as currently women carry the caretaking burden. 

Below is a reflection taken from the years they've spent researching the topic of single fatherhood in South Africa.

It's easy for us to label South Africa's fathers as "deadbeat dads" because, at first glance, the statistics reveal that more than 60% of homes are fatherless.

The narrative about the number of struggling single mothers in South Africa has gripped the country, and while this is a pressing and real social concern, we wanted to tell new stories about parenthood, particularly those of single fathers.

Our aim is to draw attention to where single fathers have difficulty accessing critical state resources, like social grants, because South Africa's social services are designed to serve a very narrow definition of what "caretaking" means.

One of our research projects focuses on African families from Soweto, but delves into the personal experiences of being raised by a single father.

"My father has always been my hero; his presence in my life was what I needed. Having to always share that I was raised by my biological father and my paternal grandmother and that my biological mother was absent, is always received as an abnormal experience.

However, I did not see anything wrong with how I was raised, because my father, grandmother and my extended family (paternal and maternal side) and 'abomakhelwane' (neighbours) played a significant role in my upbringing.

I do not think my father should be applauded for raising me as a single father because he was supposed to raise me, as I am his daughter.

However, what I have always yearned for since I was young is for such experiences to be documented and acknowledged, so that men like my father serve as role models to absent fathers." (Taken from Plank's reflections in her PhD.)

Also see: "Men in South Africa get no real support": A dad's story about his life as a single parent, fighting for his kids

Men are often excluded from social support

In South Africa, the typical family is not the "nuclear family" (comprised of two adults and their children). We must, therefore, normalise the idea of men as primary caregivers.

Even though primary, the caregiving role is still highly gendered, with women being responsible for it. But, men are often excluded from social support, making caretaking difficult.

What we found, in particular, was the high number of fathers not accessing the social grant. There are few awareness campaigns to point to the contrary. 

Their voices are often marginalised

The other research study focuses on the lived experiences of single black fathers from Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg.

Fathers were hungry for these kinds of conversations as their voices are often marginalised and not taken seriously. One of the participants in the research shared the following: 

"I wish more work could be done on fathers like myself, in how we exist as single present fathers. It is always about the absent dad or single mothers.

I do not even feel comfortable sharing my experiences with other men because the role I play in my children's lives is still seen as the role a woman should play, because of how parenthood has been portrayed in movies, newspaper, and TV shows like Papgeld."

The joys of fatherhood

Even though most of the participants mentioned that there are challenges they face as single fathers, they also acknowledged the joys of fatherhood.

Some stated that it is a privilege for them to be primarily present in their children's lives as it has made them better men and better fathers. 

We believe our research is significant in informing family policy in South Africa. Furthermore, we want to move beyond the damaging narrative that fathers in South Africa are useless and absent.

Importantly, we hope that the stories of single fathers will indeed encourage absent fathers to play a close role in their children's lives.  

By Lesego Linda Plank and Portia Tsotetsi

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Read more:

A dad's maintenance story: ‘Fathers are not always the ones in the wrong’

South African dads share what being a father means to them 

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