Different to our dads: how the nature of fatherhood has changed in SA

Local dads seem to be getting better at this whole fatherhood business, but what does 'better' mean?

09 June 2019 - 00:12 By
There are now probably as many different ways to be a father as there are types of pasta.
There are now probably as many different ways to be a father as there are types of pasta.
Image: Unsplash/Sebastian Leon Prado

Father's Day is the one day of the year when you can exercise unilateral control of the remote and eat breakfast in bed without starting a fight about toast crumbs. It's a day-long "thank you" from the people you love for all the badly drawn pictures you pretended to like and the early-morning small talk at Saturday soccer games you had to endure. It's a high five for not strangling the little shit that broke your kid's heart, and patiently listening to gossip about grade 5s on your way back from school.

Father's Day is a celebration of the roles dads play and what it means to be one - but that role hasn't always looked like it does today. Many dads had very different relationships with their fathers from the ones they have with their children now. The skill set needed to be a "good" father in society's eyes has changed faster than the gears of an F1 car, but is that a good thing? 

According to television and literature, there was once a time when being a good father meant being an autocratic ATM. If you're the bread winner, made sure your kids married suitable people and did your best to keep the prejudices of the day alive then you had it in the bag. Thanks, in large part, to ze Germans, all of that began to change.

States a recent report by the American Psychological Association on the changing role of modern-day fathers: "In recent decades, the changing economic role of women has greatly impacted the role of fathers. Between 1948 and 2001, the percentage of working-age women employed or looking for work nearly doubled - from less than 33% to more than 60%. Their increase in financial power made paternal financial support less necessary for some families."

On our side of the pond, fatherhood was beset by a different set of issues. Thanks to apartheid and its love for migrant labour, many fathers had to be absent and were routinely assaulted and humiliated by the state. This created multi-generational trauma that has severely impacted father/child relations, while also birthing a persisting negative narrative around black fathers that recent data is only now beginning to disprove.

The children's rights and positive parenting unit manager at Sonke Gender Justice, Wessel van den Berg, says: "We do see from household surveys, though, that as the emerging black middle class grows, the numbers of co-resident fathers [dads who live in the same dwelling as their children] and children increases for the upper 20% of earners in the country. This is really encouraging. It shows that the likelihood of a father living elsewhere is more related to their income status than it is to being black or previously disadvantaged.

"This group of middle-class black fathers are stepping away from the legacy of the apartheid regime's impact on families and establishing new patterns," says Van den Berg.


The old idea of the father as an all-powerful patriarch is crumbling, and in its place the new edifice of fatherhood is a warmer, more inviting and, most importantly, diverse place. There are now probably as many different ways to be a father as there are types of pasta.

Not so long ago the very concept of homosexual fathers was illegal and, to many, the idea of a stay-at-home dad was akin to saying the moon was made of cheese. Yet both of those things are now an increasingly destigmatised reality. They're not yet normalised, but also not unheard of. The same is true of being a non-residential father - and being a stepfather is practically de rigueur in some places.

That said, apparently parenting trends seldom change dramatically and a lot of the hype around the modern, involved dad may just be a facade.

"SA has one of the lowest rates of men's contribution to care work compared to women's contribution. The most recent time-use survey showed that men do only one hour of care work for every eight hours of care work that women do," says Van den Berg.

South African men are not alone in this. In an article published in the New York Times last month, psychologist Darcy Lockman says that American women still shoulder about 65% of the child-care work burden.

"Sociologists attribute the discrepancy between mothers' expectations and reality to 'a largely successful male resistance'. This resistance is not being led by socially conservative men, whose like-minded wives often explicitly agree to take the lead in the home. It is happening, instead, with relatively progressive couples," writes Lockman.

In the South African context, the unequal division of household labour may, in part, be the result of our past and the fact that only about 37% of children live in the same house as their biological fathers and that dads may be emotionally under educated.

"Many fathers lament the fact that they did not have great role models of involved fathers when they grew up, and that this leaves them at a loss on how to be caring and involved," says Van den Berg.

Many modern dads are living lives completely alien to how they grew up ... Mistakes are guaranteed

Many modern dads are living lives completely alien to how they grew up. Their wives are no longer their servants, nor are they interested in clomping around the house like Joseph Stalin, but they also have few blueprints on how to be better. Mistakes are guaranteed.

Overall, however, the signs for South African fatherhood look good. There are positive developments on the paternity-leave front and, more importantly, recent research shows that fathers are not as irresponsible as we were led to believe.

Van den Berg notes that a recent study from the University of Johannesburg found that fathers who received the child-support grant use the money in the same way as women who receive the grant.

"They spent the grant on food, school fees and clothing for children, and not on alcohol or tobacco," he says.


Dads may be getting better at this whole fatherhood business but what does "better" mean? Is the role of a father to let his child know in no uncertain terms that the world is cruel and unfair, or should he give that child the tools to be happy? The answer probably depends on the father and neither is necessarily incorrect. What is more important is approach.

"Children respond much better to attention that is given to things that they are doing right, rather than attention given to things that they do wrong, for example. Using corporal punishment to try and discipline children is a poor alternative to the host of effective parenting techniques that are grouped under the banner 'positive parenting'," says Van den Berg.

How one parents is one's own business. Trying to compare which style is or was better is like passing judgement on a culture you know little about. The fathers of yesteryear were raised by different men, the kind of men who enjoyed apartheid, Nazism and hyper-masculinity. There probably were a lot of nice things they enjoyed too, but those are hard to see over the piles of bodies. It took a different skill set to survive back then and those fathers passed on the lessons they thought would help.

Things are different now. The modern father's job is to look at the world as it is and where it's going and pass on the lessons he thinks will help his child flourish, bearing in mind that this task will be part of the role of the next generation of decision makers. Climate change is looming, as are water wars and a world in which the US may not be the only hegemonic power.

If we want our grandchildren to survive, we're going to have to do a better job of raising our kids than Trump's dad did.