Reconstructing fatherhood

“I don’t know when I was born and I don’t know who my father is,” says Mbuyiselo Botha.

Warm and charismatic, Mbuyiselo is now in his late 40s and a father of three children of his own, aged 25, 14 and 10. Yet he continues to hunger for knowledge about his father.

“I had a wonderful mother,” continues Mbuyiselo, his voice rich and deep. “But when I asked her about my father, she had difficulty in telling me. Perhaps she wanted to protect me from the fact that my father walked away from me.”

All Mbuyiselo knows about his father is a tiny scrap gleaned from a neighbour.

“Eventually I went to an old man who lived next door. He told me that my father was always clean and shining like me, that he liked to speak English and that he was a priest.”

Mbuyiselo’s fatherlessness has left an indelible mark on his life, and he acknowledges that it was often difficult for him as a young man without a male role model. But it also left him with a fierce determination to become the father he dreamed of for his own children.

“I don’t want to just be an ATM father. That is too easy. I want to give my children emotional, psychological and physical support. I want them to know that they can depend on me. I want to be the opposite of that which I did not know. But sometimes when my son comes to me for advice, I wonder what my life would have been like if I had had a father to help me,” he says.

Today Mbuyiselo is secretary general of the South African Men’s Forum, an organisation devoted to getting men involved in stopping violence against women.

His organisational skills were honed in the hard school of township strife. In 1986, when he was a leader of the Sharpeville Civic Association, he was attacked by unknown gunmen.

Although one of their bullets is still lodged in his head and has partially paralysed him on his left side, Mbuyiselo’s experiences seem to have enabled him to be open about his emotions rather than embittering him.

Recently, the Men’s Forum joined forces with the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) to promote the Fatherhood Project aimed at encouraging men’s caring for children.

“Apartheid destroyed family life and is responsible for so much of the social dysfunction that we see. There is an emptiness, a void, inside many black men. They lack a sense of purpose. I want to make men realise that masculinity can also mean being caring, loving and compassionate,” says Mbuyiselo.

The Fatherhood Project is the brainchild of the HSRC’s Professor Linda Richter who says she got the idea while working with child abuse and baby rapes.

“I realised that there were a lot of programmes focusing on women and children but not men. It was as if we had decided that men were the problem and we didn’t want to include them,” explains Richter.

The Fatherhood Project celebrates both biological fathers and “social fathers” – perhaps older brothers, grandfathers, stepfathers and neighbours – who nurture and care for children without fathers.

“Social fathers” are particularly important as the high rates of AIDS and homicide take their toll on men.

“We want to celebrate the positive. It has been well established that people don’t change their behaviour if they are simply told ‘you are wrong’. Blame just closes men down and they don’t bother to try. We want to encourage men to change and offer them support to reach a position where they can care for children,” says Richter.

Dr Mamphela Ramphele, writing in “Steering by the Stars: Being young in South Africa” about a group of young people growing up in New Crossroads in Cape Town notes that “in almost every case it is a woman who has kept these young people’s hopes alive”.

“The troubling question raised by these stories of women-headed households,” says Ramphele, “is how this affects young men growing up without positive male role models. How do poor young black men model their emergent manhood in the absence of adult male guidance?

“Or even worse, how do young men shape their own manhood in the presence of negative models: unemployed, alcoholic, abusive and destructive men in such large proportions in their own homes and neighbourhoods? How do these young men learn to give as men when men seem overwhelmingly recipients of care and not its givers?” Mamphela asks.

While apartheid systematically undermined black family life, forcing men to leave their homes and become migrant workers, no racial category is exempt from problems with fathering.

Divorce is highest amongst white South Africans, while in most communities a father’s role in a family is defined as a breadwinner and somewhat distant authority figure.

But recent research makes a link between emotional engagement of fathers – be they biological or “social” – and the psychological well being of children.

Babies with good relationships with their fathers are found to have better cognitive development and they are likely to be more sociable. Clinical psychologist Julie Manegold, who is working with the Fatherhood Project, says that men tend to play more adventurously with young children, and this stimulates their development.

Children whose fathers are involved in their school also tend to perform better academically and have a more positive attitude towards school.

Children are good for men too. Fathers who are involved in caring for their children are also likely to be healthier and happier, more likely to remain married and less likely to be violent towards partners.

“As men learn to relate to babies and young children, they often find new qualities in themselves, and discover themselves relating in quite different ways. This can be quite liberating, if also painful when it reminds us of how little contact we often had with our own fathers,” remarks author Victor Seidler in his book Men, Sex & Relationships: Writings from Achilles Heel.

But men worldwide are struggling to rise to the challenge of being there for their children.

In 2001, 34% of children in the US did not live with their fathers, and 40% of these children had not seen their fathers for at least a year.

About half the divorced dads in the US default on maintenance payments despite the Responsible Fatherhood Act of 1999, which makes it possible for a range of sanctions against defaulting dads, including wheel-clamping their cars.

In the US, fatherlessness has become the single biggest predictor of teenage delinquency.

Research conducted by the US Congress in 2002 found that children without contact with their fathers were five times more likely to live in poverty, twice as likely to commit crimes and drop out of school, more likely to commit suicide, more than twice as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs and more likely to become pregnant as teenagers.

“But we need to be careful not to overstate the importance of fathers,” cautions Education Professor Robert Morrell from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“Poverty and the quality of parenting and family life are critical. The simple presence of a father is not in itself a predictor of better-adjusted or cared-for children. The nature of the father’s relationship with his partner and children is key,” adds Morrell, who researches masculinity and is editing a book on fatherhood with Richter.

Morrell also stresses that most mothers offer their children a lot of love, and children who grow up without love are the most at risk.

It is very hard to develop a picture of fatherhood in South Africa as little research is available.

What we do know is that South Africa has one of the lowest marriage rates in Africa, one of the highest divorce rates in the world, around 40% of babies are born to teenage mothers and that thousands of parents have died of AIDS.

In 1998, Statistics SA reported that 42% of children lived with their mothers only and 1% with fathers only.

The 1996 Census reported that 35% of all households were headed by women and that women-headed households had half the income of male-headed households.

But, as Morrell notes, we simply don’t know how many South African men are fathers, mainly because none of the official surveys, including the Census, ask men whether they are fathers and how many children they have.

“As a result, we don’t know anything about the status of South African fathers, the effect on children of not having fathers or about substitute fathers,” says Morrell.

However, small surveys shed some light on the state of fatherhood in South Africa.

One of these is the “Birth to 20” Study based at Wits University, which is following 2 500 children across all racial and income groups born in Johannesburg and Soweto in 1990 until they are 20 years old.

According to project manager Shane Norris, only 20% of children in the study were living with their fathers at the age of 12.

“The remaining 80% had minimal contact with their fathers and many expressed a yearning for father figures in their lives,” said Norris.

In the early 1990s, a study found that half the 22 000 babies born at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital had no male support.

Interviews conducted by the Planned Parenthood Association of SA last year with 794 young people under the age of 19 in six provinces found that over half the girls had babies.

Morrell says a high proportion of teenage girls are impregnated by 30 to 40 year-old men.

“There is a relatively large group of older men, often taxi drivers, policemen and teachers, who seem to have little difficulty in making very young girls pregnant then taking little responsibility for the children that result,” says Morrell.

Failure to pay child maintenance in South Africa is likely to be high, given that there are inadequate measures to enforce payment. A 1988 study showed that 85.5% of men had defaulted at some stage.

Some have criticised governments’ focus on getting fathers to pay, saying that this reinforces the traditional role of the father as breadwinner and could scare off unemployed dads.

But for Morrell, payment is fundamental. “There is a new age notion that a man must have an emotional engagement with his child to be a good father. But this pays no attention to the developing world context where there isn’t a strong social security blanket.

“In our context, there is something heroic about a father who goes out and works hard to bring home the bacon against the odds. The self-sacrifice of these men must be recognised,” she says.

Many South African men have negative memories of their fathers, and some are replicating their own experiences by fathering children that they do not care for. But others, such as Mbuyiselo, see in fatherhood the chance to address their own painful lack of loving fathers. These are the men being celebrated by the Fatherhood Project as offering hope in the face of the widespread neglect and sexual abuse of South Africa’s children.


This feature originally appeared in Fair Lady magazine and may not be used elsewhere without permission.

E-mail Kerry Cullinan


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