Yehoshua Kurland tells an anecdotal story about a lonely boy who waited eagerly for his father to return from work so he could play ball with him. But dad would arrive late, tired and often with more work to do on his laptop. The boy would persist and pester his father. In frustration one day, the father, sought to teach his son a lesson. He took a page on which was pictured the map of the world and tore it into tiny small pieces and said to his nagging son, “If you can put that back together, I’ll have time to play ball with you”. Five minutes later the son returned, with the page nicely glued together. “How on earth did you do that,” asked the father in amazement. “You see, on the flip side was a picture of a little boy. If you can put the little boy together, you can put the whole world together,” said the son to his father.
On Sunday June 21, South Africa celebrated Father’s Day. In total, more than a 100 countries celebrate this day. In a world where positive models of manhood are few and constructive models of fatherhood even fewer, perhaps the idea of a father’s day is not a bad one.
But Father’s Day should not be construed merely as a day when over-the-top praise is heaped on males with children to bolster their huge egos, appease them for their fiery and often violent tempers or pay them back for their money, power and glory. It happens, but it is wrong to conceive of Father’s Day as yet another day for the worship of patriarchy and veneration of dead and living patriarchs. It would be a pity if Father’s Day was to unconsciously and secretly become a “Man’s Day” in direct competition with and reversal of the ideals of Women’s Day. Comedian Steve Harvey’s definition of a man is short, generally true, pointed, painful and somewhat embarrassing: “Men are driven by who they are, what they do and how much they make.”
Perhaps some qualitative element needs to be introduced in the way we think of fathers and fatherhood. In the ideal world, boys grow into good men, men grow into caring partners or husbands, partners and husbands grow into loving fathers. In reality, life has no such inevitable linear progression. Each life phase is important in it its own right and not merely as a stepping-stone to another. Thus the role of father deserves study and appraisal in and of itself. Fatherhood cannot be merely about biological or even gender roles. Nor is biological fatherhood inevitable for all men who have the biological ability to contribute to the production of offspring. Some may chose not to become biological fathers and that is fine. And yet, some of the best fathers may be found among those who have chosen not to father children. Fatherhood — biologically and socially defined — is a choice. Unfortunately, we have far too many biological fathers who shirk their role and responsibilities.
Celebrated African author Chinua Achebe is immensely thankful for the powerful and positive impact of his father, Isaiah Achebe, “an orphan child born into adversity, heir to commotions, barbarities, rampant upheavals of a continent in disarray”. Similarly, he is thankful for the role played by his great uncle, Udo Osinyi, who acted as father to his own father.
The figure of Gadla, Henry Mphakanyiswa Mandela, father of Nelson Mandela, looms large in the first three chapters of his biography. Not because all three chapters are about him, but because of the emotion one senses in all the brief references made to him. “My father was a tall dark-skinned man with a stately posture, which I like to think I inherited,” writes Madiba. Following the death of his father, which Madiba witnessed, he describes his emotion as one of feeling “cut adrift” because “I defined myself through my father”.
And yet there are many whose fathers have not given them cause for admiration and joy. For such people, the word father may inspire a sense of shame, ambivalence or worse still a sense of horror. Franz Kafka’s famous open letter to his father, published in the book Dearest Father, testifies to the complicated love-hate relationship that can develop between children and the authority figure called father.
Part of the flaw in the larger-than-life character of Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, is the shame he bore about his weak and cursed father, Unoka, so that Okonkwo deliberately set himself to be everything his father was not and could not be. Okwonko was a stern man who regarded the showing of emotions a weakness. Often Okonkwo would have to actively dispel any thought of his father’s weakness and failure.
There are two disturbing books regarding the possibility of a father’s less than constructive role in the lives of his children. The one is Annelie Botes’ novel Thula Thula — a book about incest which, though fiction, is written so powerfully it will wrench the guts of the sternest of readers. The other is McIntosh Polela’s My Father, My Monster, which is autobiographical. Read the ending of Polela’s book and be devastated: “I was proud that I had managed to confront my father and succeed. Although it hurt, it was important to finally hear him admit that he did have something to do with my mom’s death.”
Children do not expect their fathers to be superheroes who never fail, but they do not deserve monsters for fathers either. Children do not expect fathers to be perfect, but they do expect fathers to be dependable.
Having been brought up by a stern, loud and boisterous Okonkwo type of single parent, my father, Obed, it is the moments when he was weak and when he confronted failure that have endeared me to him. I admire my father for having acknowledged being “cut adrift” after losing his mother. I admired him when I saw him acting humble and being humbled before his white bosses at No 216 Bree Street, Johannesburg, where he worked as a “tool boy” sometimes doubling up as a “tea boy”. To endure this kind of humiliation, in order to provide for us, he must truly love us, I always thought.