Only 25% of children in SA are part of a nuclear family, and it's not such a bad thing

In a South African context, the largest single household type or category is that of the “extended family."
In a South African context, the largest single household type or category is that of the “extended family."

Years ago one would have defined a "family" in terms of the more conservative nuclear family, i.e. one that sees a couple living with their own biological children. But not only are we moving further away from that particular norm in South Africa, we’re also completely redefining what it means to belong to a household and modern family.

According to the recently released 2018 Children, Families and the State report, published annually by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, we can define a "household" as an “arrangement of co-residence with shared consumption and production.”

The term "family", however, is far more subjective but the report defines families as “social groups that are related by blood or bonds of marriage, non-marital union, adoption or some other affiliation, and which endure over time and space."

Both households and family can, of course, intersect. And this makes sense considering, in a South African context, the largest single household type or category is that of the “extended family.”

What do South African households and families look like?

Here is breakdown of the distribution of household types in South Africa according to the report.

It’s clear that most people are living in an extended family arrangement – one that doesn’t necessarily see a couple or parent living with their own children, but all members in the household are related. 

Below is a more detailed breakdown of children’s household types, and those living in a nuclear family, with a lone parent, in an extended family situation or a combination of the latter.

The above shows that 62% of children in South Africa live in an extended family situation, while only a quarter forms part of a nuclear family. In fact, children in Africa are most likely to live apart from both parents.

We seem to be following a global trend though as two-parent families are becoming less common, specifically in America, Europe and Oceania. Other global trends we follow include a decline in marriage rates, while non-marital childbearing increases. Extended family arrangements are common in other regions as well, particularly in Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America and other parts of Africa, namely, sub-Saharan Africa.

This is interesting considering the assumption, as mentioned in the report, that with processes of modernisation we’d move closer towards the nuclear family norm. So why then are we seeing a reported increase in three-generational households?

Who cares for children in the absence of biological parents?

When we delve further into the extended family, the stats reveal that children who do not stay with their biological parents are usually cared for by a grandparent (68%), aunt or relative (19%) or a sibling (7%), as the household head.

The report also revealed that very young children tend to live with their mother, particularly when they’re under 2 years old, but as they get older, co-residency drops. They then end up living in a skip-generation household – what we’re seeing in the above chart where most children are living with a grandparent. 

That being said, the good news: these living arrangements are far less dire and tragic than one would assume.

The reasons for parental absence

“The fact that parents are not resident members of the child’s household does not mean that they never see the child. They may remain in contact with the family and the child, they may stay in the household some of the time (for example weekends), they may be integrally involved in decision-making about the child and they might help to support the child financially. Widespread access to mobile phones means that it is much easier for family members to stay in touch than it was previously.”

One reason for parental absence is orphaning, with paternal orphaning rates higher than that of maternal orphaning.

Nearly 5 million children do not have a co-resident mother but only 22% of these are maternally orphaned, while 78% have a mother living elsewhere. This compares to 12 million children living without a co-resident father, but only 18% of these children are paternally orphaned. Nearly 10 million therefore have a father living elsewhere.

Other factors for parental absence include non-marital childbearing, urban housing contraints, limited availability of affordable care, schooling opportunities, and significantly, adult employment opportunities and labour migration. The report specifically mentions labour migration as a key reason for maternal absence.

More women are entering the workforce and becoming breadwinners for their families, which would explain them nurturing and caring for their children in infancy as only a mother could, before leaving their children over the age of two in the care of extended family when mom’s away.

While this suggests that we’re moving towards a new norm, and one that is perhaps sustainable in the South African context, it also highlights that policy makers need to accommodate for both employees and their children.

So while the report indicates that 69% of adults lived in urban areas in 2017, only 57% of children did. This has much to do with the fact that children either get left behind when parents migrate to cities, or, if they're born in urban areas, are sent to live with grandparents and relatives.

Policy makers need to address the lack of adequate, affordable and safe accommodation for the entire family, high costs of living as well as high crime rates. 

Then, of course, there is still the concern of who will care for children when mom's not home. So for now, an extended family arrangement, outside of the city, ends up being the best possible option, not so much for the family as a whole, but the children.

Also read: How Joburg moms travel (or not) to give their kids the best life

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights says that “the concept of the family may differ in some respects from State to State, and that it is therefore not possible to give the concept a standard definition.” Instead, we need to acknowledge that, if anything, a household and family must be “the most natural environment for the growth, protection, support and socialisation of children.”

And in South Africa, it is. So while only 25% of children form part of nuclear families, with modernisation we've established a new norm and one that may ultimately be better for us and our children.

Source: "PART 2: Children, Families and the State" by Katharine Hall & Linda Richter, in South African Child Gauge 2018: Children, Families and the State: Collaboration and Contestation; edited by Katharine Hall, Linda Richter, Zitha Mokomane and Lori Lake. Published by Children's Institute, University of Cape Town.  

Do you have a child who lives with your parents? Are you a grandparent taking care of your son or daughter's child? What is the reason for your living arrangment? Tell us by emailing and we may publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.

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