More than nine million children are growing up without their fathers in South Africa, but only a very small percentage have died.
An overwhelming number of them are either living elsewhere or are at home physically, but are uninvolved because of a laissez faire attitude or commitments outside the home like work, community and social entanglements.
The South African Institute of Race Relations (SARRI) says the typical child in South Africa is raised by a single mother.
Too many children live without positive male role models. But why is fatherhood is in such a crisis in our country? Where have they gone? Who is the role model for their sons?
According to the Human Sciences Research Council and SARRI, 60% of our children have absent fathers, and more than 40% of South African mothers are single parents, compared with 25% in the US.
In our country, you are far more likely to be raised in a single parent household if you are both black and poor, the SARRI study found. Single parenting correlates strongly with class and race.
Poverty disrupts family stability anywhere in the world, but in our country, apartheid damaged the very structure of family life. Without the ability to own land and live close to their low-paying jobs, black men were subjected to the migrant labour system that took them away from their families for months or years at a time.
Geographically disrupted families are still the norm for many in this country. Generally, women understand the need for fathers in their families. Many of them just don’t know how to get the father to be interested in being there for the baby, even if they are no longer a couple.
Many young women, despairing of receiving emotional sustenance or a stable family life from their partners, treat these fathers as cash cows instead.
In his book, Daddy Come Home, former Isidingo: The Need actor Zane Meas speaks of the danger of too narrowly defining fathers only as breadwinners and then, secondarily, as disciplinarians, moral guardians or sex role teachers.
A healthy relationship with his father can give a boy a sense of identity and connectedness, a sense of his place in the world.
Furthermore, it allows him to know his name, his ancestors and his place in history. Importantly, a father who adequately understands his role in the family is able to teach his son how to treat women with dignity and as equals.
Although a father’s physical presence alone is not necessarily a positive outcome in itself, widespread father absence has more detrimental consequences for families.
Little is known about the reasons why so many fathers disengage from their children’s lives.
The more children grow up in homes and communities where only mothers are involved in childcare, the more they might learn that there is no space for boys or men in families.
In fact, many boys equate fatherhood with financial support. They believe if they can’t provide, they have nothing else to offer.
Other important aspects of parenting, like emotional and physical support, love, guidance, teaching and being a good role model are seldom thought of.
Men need to learn that there is more to being a good father than just being an ATM.
Fathers are important for many reasons. The presence of a father can contribute to cognitive development, intellectual functioning, and school achievement.
Children growing up without fathers are more likely to experience emotional disturbances and depression.
On the other hand, girls who grow up with their fathers are more likely to have higher self-esteem, lower levels of risky sexual behaviour, and fewer difficulties in forming and maintaining romantic relationships later in life.
They have less likelihood of having an early pregnancy, bearing children outside marriage, marrying early, or getting divorced.
Boys growing up without a father are likely to display hyper-masculine behaviour, including aggression, violence and sexual abuse.
Fathers are critically important, but an absent father is preferable to an abusive one. A child needs good caregivers who love and guide him. And it’s highly preferable that love and guidance come from his biological father.
A father who chooses to absent himself from his child is a loss for both. Many single mothers have the time and resources to provide their children with a network of positive role models in the form of daddy replacements – relatives, friends and sports coaches.
This is all secondary. Every son needs his father, because boys will become men later.