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.


  • PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives to serve the needs and interests of a post-apartheid country by advancing psychology as a science, profession and as a means of promoting human well-being. This blog hopes to engage psychologists and citizens in debating issues, from mental health to the socio-political. Visit


Psychological Society of South Africa

PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives...

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