SA fathers ditch patriarchal roles

Zoheb Khan is a researcher at UJ.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of absent fathers in sub-Saharan Africa. As many as 60% of children in the country under the age of 10 don’t live with their biological fathers – the second highest rate of absence in sub-Saharan Africa after Namibia. This compares to one third in the US.

South Africa’s statistics are influenced by the history of migrant labour. Expropriation of the land of black Africans by colonial authorities, coupled with the levying of taxes, forced men (and later, women) to move to the growing cities to earn an income, while their wives and children stayed in the rural reserves or “homelands”.

But there are other factors at play, too. These include gender norms about child care and the different roles attached to fathers and mothers. These norms also generally lead to men – even if they are physically present – making minimal contributions to unpaid care and household work.

A large volume of research – including the Centre for Social Development in Africa’s “ATM Fathers” – has shown that among both men and women, fathers are widely considered as primarily being responsible for supporting the family financially. These attitudes frequently lead men – or enable them – to sidestep non-financial care responsibilities.

Tiisetso Mongalo, seen taking care of his daughter Tlotlo, is one of the new breed of South African men playing a meaningful role in their children’s lives.

But, in a context of widespread unemployment, inability to earn an income and fulfil the “provider” role often leads men to abandon their children. This leaves women with the double burden of being the sole breadwinner as well as the person primarily responsible for unpaid care and household work. This, in turn, reinforces gender inequality as women have less time to pursue market work, education, leisure and civic life, and are expected to sacrifice their own interests for those of children.

But there are men who choose to be involved fully in the care of their children despite economic difficulty. We have done research into the reasons for this involvement and have also examined men’s attitudes towards gender, and how they define their masculine and paternal identities in the context of caring for children.

We found that a significant number of men are doing this in progressive ways – “doing” fatherhood and manhood in ways that differ from the patriarchal archetypes that sustain gender inequality. Their examples point to the possibility of creating a more gender-equal society.

The first group of men we interviewed were fathers working in low-income jobs in Joburg – mostly security guards and fast-food restaurant staff. All were cohabiting with their partners and children. Almost all emphasised that providing for the family financially was central to their definition of being a good father. Given their low-paying jobs, they were constantly worried about their inability to do this which often led to feelings of inadequacy as a father.

Tiisetso Mongalo is seen taking care of his daughter Tlotlo.

But most men saw their father roles as encompassing more than just financial provision. Almost all spoke of a need to be available emotionally for their children, and to spend time with them. Most also had no problem with performing care work (such as changing nappies, bathing children, helping children with school work) or household work (cleaning, cooking, laundry, and ironing). But, importantly, most saw the mother as primarily responsible for this work, only stepping in to help when asked.

The second group of men were receiving a child-support grant provided to low-income caregivers with a value of R380. This group makes up only a fraction of those who get the grants – 98% are women according to data provided by the SA Social Security Agency.

Most of the men we interviewed in Soweto had applied for the grant because a female partner had passed away, or because their female partner was not a South African citizen.

Almost all the men were unemployed. Most put far less emphasis on providing financial support. They considered “being there” for their children – by providing love, guidance and protection – a key component of their masculine and paternal identities.

They frequently described taking care of their children, and not abandoning them or being otherwise neglectful, as central to what it means to be a man.

Many in the second group also subscribed to dominant gender norms about who should do what in the household. Care and household work were viewed primarily as mothers or women’s responsibility. Nonetheless, almost all regularly carried out these tasks, even those who were either living with female partners or who could rely on the support of female relatives, revealing a discrepancy between their beliefs and how they behaved.

Most men in both groups spoke about the pressure to conform to social expectations and the sanctions imposed on them if they didn’t. All men said they experienced some form of pressure. But some seemed less bothered by it than others. This was particularly true of those who held gender-equal ideas about “male” and “female” responsibility. Men who had always done this work – for example those who were brought up by single mothers, or who had to take responsibility for younger siblings growing up – were similarly unconcerned about conforming to dominant ideas of what it means to “be a man”.

Fathers in the country are often denigrated for being uninvolved and neglectful. But this research sheds light on fathers who, despite significant economic and social pressure, choose to remain involved in meaningful ways in the lives of their children, and to incorporate traditionally feminine behaviours and roles into their own masculine and paternal identities for the well-being of their children. – The Conversation (

* Zoheb Khan is a researcher at the University of Johannesburg

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.