Heartlines study on fatherhood in South Africa: 'It's complicated'

Fatherless children are deprived of physical and emotional security.
Fatherless children are deprived of physical and emotional security.

The South African nuclear family is largely a myth and worryingly large numbers of children are being raised without their biological fathers, reports Heartlines, the Centre for Values Promotion

Their ground-breaking research on fatherhood in South Africa, conducted to inform a broader social cohesion campaign, has shed new light on the state of fatherhood in our country.

And, it's complicated.

While many children, raised by single mothers, grow up and thrive for many others the absence of positive and active presence of men in their lives puts them at risk. These fatherless children are deprived of the physical and emotional security that an involved father brings to the family dynamic. 

The stats are grim

Both international and South African studies show that active and positive fathers matter, which is what the Heartlines study found.

Children without involved fathers, or a significant older male father figure, are at great risk of both perpetrating and becoming victims of violence - both as children and adults - and of becoming victims of substance abuse; teen pregnancy; poor academic achievement; mental health problems and delinquency. 

Children without involved fathers are five times more likely to be sexually abused and they are at greater risk of dying when young; experiencing mental health problems and committing suicide.

As adults, they are more likely to experience unemployment; have low incomes; and experience homelessness. 

Attitudes and beliefs 

Pamela Kgare, project manager at Heartlines told Parent24 that the study is important because it dug deep to understand the attitudes and beliefs that contribute to the lack of positive involvement by fathers across race and class in South Africa.

Children who are denied full participation of their fathers feel the absence keenly, and express it not in terms of missing material support, but as a profound loss of the presence of a dad.

As one Heartlines study participant explained "For me as someone who did not have a father, I would love the small  things. Like someone to say, 'I love you'." 

The fatherhood role 

Latasha Treger Slavin, who headed the research study, says the findings are important because not only does this provide insight into how fathers are defined and how they live out their fatherhood role, but also because it sheds light into both barriers and enablers of active participation.

The findings are enormously rich and unique because they capture the voices, experiences, beliefs, and practices of the participants themselves, she said.

The study found that there is a strong and deeply embedded South African culture that equates fatherhood with material and financial provision.

"It’s a transactional view of fatherhood. When fathers fail to, or are unable to, provide materially for their children, they are either denied involvement in the lives of the children or deep shame drives them to exclude themselves from being involved in other, non-material but very important, ways," she explained. 

Beyond providing money

The impact of Covid-19 has brought additional economic pressures and will most certainly compound the problem as more and more people lose their income and it becomes increasingly difficult for many fathers to provide materially for their children. 

"But it’s very clear from the Heartlines Fathers Matter research that a father’s responsibility goes way beyond providing money," Treger Slavin adds.

"Women need to encourage fathers to play an active and positive role in the lives of their children. The protective role that a father plays cannot be understated. It’s at the core of the wellbeing of children and its importance extends as the child matures and becomes an adult."

One participant in the study, expressing the views of many others, said "It’s difficult, when you see other children with their father and you just wish your father was there. You can see other children taking photos with their fathers and wish that if only you were in the photos." 

Additional barriers to involved fatherhood

While the transactional view of fatherhood is by far the biggest reason for non-involved fathers, the study has identified a number of additional barriers to involved fatherhood. 

Migrant labour is an important barrier, as many men are forced to work away from their families. 

Unemployment is also seen as a huge barrier to men’s involvement. 

"A surprising finding," Treger Slavin said, "was that many men told us women were often barriers to them being involved in their children’s lives. If they couldn’t provide financially, women sometimes denied them access to the children." 

Another participant in the study, whose experience was typical of many who participated, shared that "When I’m fighting with the mother, she says: This is not your child. And when you give money, the mother is happy and then suddenly your child is yours again. And that’s when you also start distancing yourself, not understanding where you stand." 

Other barriers include institutional and systemic practices, such as in healthcare and legal services; difficult personal relationships between parents; culturally assumed gender roles and gender practices which include women returning to their parental home after giving birth and certain aspects of lobola, for example.

Heartlines embarked on the research, Treger Slavin says, to better understand South African family dynamics.

"It’s a leg of our journey into understanding social issues in South Africa. We need to understand family dynamics and offer organisations and individuals insights and possible solutions to issues that undermine social cohesion.

"This is the ultimate aim of our work: to create understanding so that behaviour may change for better social cohesion." 

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