Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

The ‘fatherless’ on Father’s Day: Voices from the Cape Flats

By Rebecca Helman

In the lead up to Father’s Day on June 21, I’ve been thinking about how important it is for us to redefine who fathers are. In a context where scientific procedures such as sperm donation, surrogacy, artificial insemination and male pregnancy are possible, the boundaries that define who fathers (and mothers) are have become somewhat unclear. A father is not simply a man who impregnates a woman.

Rates of absent fathers in South Africa are reported to be alarmingly high. According to Statistics SA in 2009, 38% of children were living without their fathers. The high rates of father absence have been interpreted in both academic and public discourse as a “crisis”. Not only are men regarded as failing to fulfil their roles in the lives of their children and families, but homes in which fathers are not present are regarded as ill-equipped to raise children.

Children in father-absent homes are considered to be “fatherless youth”, who lack moral guidance and discipline. These young people are seen to be destined to make bad decisions and ultimately end up abandoning their own children, thus continuing the cycle of “absent fathers” and “fatherless youth”. This notion of “fatherless youth” is often applied to young people living on the margins of big cities, since it is within these communities that rates of father absence are highest.

(Re)constructing “fathers”
In speaking with a group of young men and women on the Cape Flats. in Cape Town, as part of a research project I undertook under the supervision of associate professor Debbie Kaminer and Lane Benjamin of Community Action towards a Safer Environment, I was able to hear young people’s thoughts on issues of fathering in their community. I was struck by their stories which have important implications for the way in which we think about fathering in South Africa.

Although these adolescents acknowledged that there were many men in their community who did not fulfil their fathering responsibilities, such as providing for, caring for, and guiding their children, and many of them spoke about their own fathers as absent or disengaged, they did not represent themselves as “fatherless”. Almost all of the young people I spoke to, both male and female, identified other people in their families and their community who acted as role models, nurturers and supporters in their lives. These included uncles, neighbours, teachers, aunts, grandparents, pastors, community members, siblings and friends.

Bianca*, a 17-year-old girl who does not have regular contact with her own father, said that “not only your real father, your blood father could be a role model you look up to, but also someone from outside your family”. Aliyah*, an 18-year-old girl whose mother is the sole breadwinner in her family, spoke about how fatherhood is not just about fathers, but also about mothers because in many households in which fathers are absent, mothers play the roles of both parents.

The young people were driven and committed to creating change within their community. Some of them attributed this passion to the social fathers who have motivated and inspired them.

Winston*, an 18-year-old boy who does not have a good relationship with his own father, described how teachers play an important fathering role for children, through offering them support and advice. He also spoke about how one of his classmates who did not know her father jokingly called one of her teachers “dad”.

Social fathers
These young people’s thoughts indicate that we need to reconceptualise what a father is. Fathers are not simply men who impregnate women. Perhaps more importantly they are men, and sometimes women, who care for children, both physically and emotionally. If we can acknowledge and celebrate rather than overlook the contributions of social fathers to the lives of children, we may be able to provide children and young people with important sources of emotional support, and there will no longer be a generation of supposedly “fatherless youth”.

* Not their real names

Rebecca Helman is a research intern at the Institute of Social and Health Science at the University of South Africa and the Medical Research Council-Unisa Violence, Injury and Peace Unit. She completed her master’s degree in psychological research on fatherhood at the University of Cape Town.

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    • Sicelo Fayo

      Well Ms Rebecca Helman, yours is an interesting article touching on a subject I am sure most people are interested in if not passively curious. And of course, your opening statement as build up to your proposal makes for spectacularly fascinating if not downright worrying reasoning.

      It is not necessarily a false premise for making the proposal. Perhaps it is simply too flimsy, lacking in depth, and I say that in the most positive way.

      Nevertheless, your proposal is nothing really new to me as a black South African of middle age and who due to it had the pleasure of experiencing “social parenting” as denoting the existence and presence of dozens of ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ who were such because they thought and believed they were.

      When I grew up as a youngster in the 60s and early 70s, in those most rural areas of the Transkei, we were subjected without question to such type of parenting where every male of a parent age (let’s call them adults) were as responsible not only for their family children but the entire communities, as were women as ‘social mothers.’

      This even extended to professions, but especially school teachers, male or female; who were generously accorded the duty and responsibility as well as attendant authority to act as both teachers and parents, in the literal sense.

      As it were, while as naughty as any young people could be, we dared not do anything in front or in the presence of any adult (male or female) that which we could not do in front or in the presence of own fathers or mothers or relatives of either gender.

      Similarly, it took every homestead in the villages to feed and clothe every child at every available opportunity and as such, even as I had lost own biological parents quite early (with my dad departing much earlier while I was 8 years old), I never truly felt the odd one out as I lived in an environment that provided nurturing social parenthood its space as apparently alluded to by some of your research subjects in the article above.

      If ever there was any degree of abuse (as understood these days under the Bill of Rights), it was nowhere near prevalent as it is today. We all actually looked well after each other and would report as required any perceived deviation by anyone including adults. They were interesting days I am happy to reflect back on.

      As such, your proposal is valid, but requires more intense research for possible repositioning rather as a call for “restoration of community parenting”.

      Of course, in an environment now in South Africa generally where it’s everyone for himself and bugger the rest, whether your proposal (as currently positioned in your article or as modified with time as I propose) will lend you any success is anyone’s guess.

      Good luck anyhow