Have we normalised it? An expert weighs in on the challenge of absent fathers in South Africa

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A child plays with a piggy bank.
A child plays with a piggy bank.
Photo: Getty Images

The introduction of the State of South Africa’s Fathers 2018, a report compiled by Sonke Gender Justice and Human Sciences Research Council, talks about the colourful scope of different fathers we have in our country.

“There is no typical father in South Africa. There are many types of fathers and many types of fatherhood in the country. There are biological fathers, social fathers, gay fathers, straight fathers, young fathers and older fathers. We have self-identified fatherhood, ascribed fatherhood, long-distance fatherhood and proximal fatherhood, to name only a few.

“The texture is rich by age, race, class, geo- type, ethnicity or family type. Mothers, fathers and children experience a wide canvas of fatherhood portrayals,” the intro partly reads. 

We even have ATM fathers who pay for the needs of their children but don’t have a relationship with them. While the scope of fatherhood may be wide, the shocking reality is that many children are raised by their mothers and grandmothers alone because  South Africa is battling another scourge that has been passed on from generation to generation – absent fathers. 

An absent father struggles to formulate a father- child relationship with his children because they could not simulate that father-son experience or even contextualise it
Fundi Ndaba, Life Coach

Cry the beloved country 

It’s true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the olden days, a man would leave his pregnant wife to become a migrant worker so that he could be able to provide for his family. But in a twist, the woman would be confronted with the reality of raising the children alone while the man starts another family in the city.

Fast forward to today, this still happens but in a different way, which explains Statistics South Africa’s General Household Survey 2018 that revealed that, “among the various population groups in the country, Black children aged 0 to 17 were the least likely to stay with their biological father at home compared to their peers of other races”. 

“This is a generational curse!” Fundi Ndaba, who is a life coach, exclaims before shedding light into why this might be the case.

“A father figure is absent in the 21st century as a result of apartheid and colonisation. The apartheid policy controlled the movement of people in ways that entrenched migrant labour and disrupted family life. Children were left with their mothers who also eventually became migrant workers, leaving the children to be taken care of by their elder siblings or grandmothers. The boy child did not have a role model of a father. 

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Therefore, an absent father struggles to formulate a father-child relationship with his children because they could not simulate that father-son experience or even contextualise it,” she explains. 

Some men cite their reason for their absenteeism as being due to the failure and shame they experience when they cannot provide for their children as a result of being unemployed or not being able to generate enough income. To escape the shame, they make a run for it. 

As a country, we’re faced with a high rate of teenage pregnancy. As a result, children grow up without their fathers because when the child was conceived, the father was not emotionally ready to step up to his role
Nthabiseng Lebina, Social Worker

A social worker, Nthabiseng Lebina, explores another reason why we have many absent fathers in the black community.

“As a country, we’re faced with a high rate of teenage pregnancy. As a result, children grow up without their fathers because when the child was conceived, the father was not emotionally ready to step up to his role. Extra marital affairs, substance abuse and domestic violence are among other reasons that force children to grow up without their fathers,” she explains.

Lebina adds that the inability of parents to handle break-ups and separate the parent/child relationship from their romantic relationship also contributes to the problem. 

Have we normalised it? 

Unfortunately, according to Lebina, we have unconsciously normalised absent fatherhood.

“Mothers, regardless of why the father is absent, are the ones left with the child and as the community, we focus on empowering the mother more than holding the father accountable.” 

Ndaba couldn’t agree more. She highlights that in some cases, a present father may be absent through his actions. “In some family household, even with both parents cohabiting, the fathers are still absent as they are not emotionally involved in raising their children. They are forever glued to the TV screens or mostly out with friends. 

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In some incidents, the only common vocal exchange shared by the father is greetings only and caring for children is a role left to mothers only. The explanation often given by these kind of ‘absent fathers’ is that they were raised by their mothers and they don’t know how to act as fathers,” says Ndaba. 

Effects on kids 

While it might be business as usual with moms solely raising their children as if nothing is wrong with it, children without fathers playing a role in their lives are bound to be impacted.

“It is natural for a child to long for a relationship with both their parents and having to deal with the reality that their father is not in their life could have emotional and psychological effects on the child. The child may continue to live with these unresolved conflict caused by the none existing relationship between them and their father,” says Lebina.

Empowering and educating fathers on the importance and the effect of a healthy parent/child relationship between a child and their father can help them realise they are equally important as mothers
Nthabiseng Lebina, Social Worker

Ndaba points out that children who don’t have father figures in their lives have a diminished self- concept and comprised physical and emotional security, as children consistently report feeling abandoned. 

“They struggle with their emotions and suffer episodic bouts of self-loathing. Behavioural problems include difficulties with social adjustment as they may develop intimidating persona in an attempt to disguise their underlying fears, resentments, anxieties and unhappiness,” says Ndaba. 

Better or worse? 

Lebina says while she may not say that the scourge of absent fathers is not far worse, it’s more in the open now.

“Back in the day, there would be excuses that daddy is working but today, we’re fast running out of excuses and fathers are exposed,” says Lebina. 

But the rise in shows such as Mzansi Magic’s uTatakho and SABC1’s Khumbul’ekhaya begs to differ as more and more children go onto these shows in such of their paternity. 

“Empowering and educating fathers on the importance and the effect of a healthy parent/child relationship between a child and their father can help them realise they are equally important as mothers. This will change the stereotype that mothers are only best parents. As a community, let us also support fathers and hold them accountable towards their children,” Lebina concludes. 

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