Twenty years ago, fatherhood wasn’t much of a political issue. Gender activists in South Africa focused on the ravages of HIV and gender-based violence. concerns about fatherhood centred on men as abusive or absent fathers, not accepting responsibility or paying maintenance for their children. This trope in the media and popular discourse in many parts of the world ultimately prompted a global fatherhood movement calling for men to be more engaged and for governments and society to be active in facilitating their involvement with their children.
In 2002, Linda Richter began working on the issue of fathers. Then at the human Sciences research council, she had recently completed co-editing a book on the sexual abuse of pre-pubertal children, prompted by the gruesome rape of Baby Tshepang in Louisvale in 2001. Details of cruelty perpetrated by men on children struck deep because, in her own life, she was surrounded by good and loving men – her father, brothers, husband, son, friends and colleagues.
Together with her late husband, Dev Griesel, she started the Fatherhood Project, initially a naturalistic photographic record of men in affectionate and caring moments with children. From this grew a research network with strong outreach to men. The imagery of fatherhood remained strong, showing the many forms that fatherhood took and recognising men who assumed fatherhood.
At about the same time, Robert Morrell drew on his research on masculinity to suggest that fatherhood was an important feature in the identities of many men. he wondered if fatherhood could be promoted by gender activists to contribute to gender equality with the outcome of happier, more engaged and fulfilled men; new representations of masculinity that emphasised the contribution that men made; and more harmonious gender relations between men, women and children. Bringing these two perspectives together, we edited a book, “Baba: Men and fatherhood in South Africa”, which was published by the HSRC Press in 2006.
Activists involved in the Fatherhood Project, like Mbuyiselo Botha, Desmond Lesejane, Wessel van den Berg and others, extended their work, linking with other concerned men, and with international organisations to consolidate a focus on fatherhood in South Africa.
Since then, a lot has happened. research on the topic has deepened and expanded, with several centres of concentrated work. In law the rights and involvement of fathers have steadily been reinforced, for example, with respect to the child Support Grant and, recently, the landmark decision to extend the general family responsibility leave provision (of three days) to a proposed law for 10 days of paternity leave, inclusive of same-sex and other types of parents. We have also seen the growth of a concerted, energetic, politically savvy campaign by non-governmental organisations to promote fatherhood and father involvement.
This volume builds on earlier foundations and changes over the last decade and adds to their momentum. although gender-based violence and HIV infections remain critically important issues, the terrain has changed. South Africa remains a troubled and violent country, but with commitments to gender equality, of which we are all proud. Making commitments real is hard, but active citizens and organisations bite determinedly at the heels of a foot-dragging government and Gender commission. We must keep at it.
The potential of fathers, in all forms, to contribute to the future of South Africa is being recognised, as this collection shows. Only a small proportion of men, mostly those who are better off, live with their children. Men living apart from their children is the result of many factors, most of which are socio-economic vestiges of our shameful political past, and the painful challenges of couples remaining attached under social and other pressures. It does not necessarily indicate that men don’t care, don’t want to see their children or do not support them. and it does not necessarily result in children being without loving father figures in their lives.
Nonetheless, it is not good enough. as Graham Lindegger pointed out in his chapter (“The father in the mind”) in “Baba: Men and fatherhood in South Africa”, “a father” is a powerful and deep archetype in our cultural history. all of us long for a father who is loving and constant. as a corollary, men who participate in the pregnancy, birth and early years of their children’s lives are often transformed by their experience, with a deep and enduring emotional attachment to their children.
We salute the researchers, policymakers and activists who have brought a fuller understanding of fatherhood to the attention of our country and the world, including through this report.