On Fatherhood in South Africa
In one of the works of Mbe Mbhele, he invites us to a poignant meditation on what to do with broken things: “Do we let go of them or do we mend them? If we do mend them are the cracks not going to be a reminder of how dangerous one can be? What does that reminder mean and what are its consequences?”
Taking Mbe Mbhele’s words to heart, what do we do with fathers who have broken us? Do we let go of or mend our relations with them? Then, are the cracks not going to be a reminder of how dangerous one can be? In the end, we should strive for peace even amid to blackness as a lived impossibility; while also questioning if there is any room for us to heal from the traumas of being fatherless as result of structural challenges impacting upon us, black people.
Where does one begin to write about fathers, whose existence in our lives is minimal if not non-existent? Do we write them off as unethical men who ran away from their responsibility or write about them from a position of anger and frustration, that our fathers zizinja (dogs) who abandoned us, as some of us were told by our mothers every time we asked ‘Uphi utata?’ (Where is my father?) Should we become typical liberals in university corridors who, during their seminars purport that south Africa is a “fatherless nation” without considering the role dispossession and conquest may have played in the disruption and destruction of African social lives both at the level of the personal and of the family? All these questions are difficult to wrestle with since they carry the real and ugly experience of growing up without the father figure, the painful experience of having the streets as a classroom in which we learn to be men by men who long ago lost their path in life.
In this short reflection, I wish to critically reflect on this quagmire of growing up without a father in South Africa. In doing so, I wish to speak about my personal experience as window to societal contradictions as a black boy who grew up on the outskirts of a Cape Town township. Furthermore, I’m acutely aware of the limitation of speaking about experiences of an individual self in a world that constantly groups black people as collective. However, the experiences which I intend to write about are not necessarily unique to me and neither are they universal but are shared by many who belong to a group in South Africa which has been historically, socially, politically, and culturally discriminated against, as Biko once stated (Biko, 1996). The main argument which I intend to make is that for black people, because of the structural position in which they find themselves, it becomes difficult to carry out moral values of (shared) humanity, like caring, sheltering and loving those one holds dear in their heart. It is this difficulty to perform basic traits of care and kindness which I argue is at the center of the failure of so many black males to be present in the lives of their children.
When theorizing about fatherhood Mkhize (2006) argues in African Tradition and Social, Economic and Moral Dimensions of Fatherhood and Masculinity in South Africa, that we must see fatherhood as socio-moral practice that pays tribute to traditional values in African communities, like the belief that it takes a village to raise a child. In this sense of the saying, the cultural or social takes prominence, more than the biological, as the process of raising a child is a socio-culturally driven initiative (Mkhize, 2006: 132). Morrel (2005) expands on Mkhize’s argument, that parenthood and fathering are extended beyond the biological family to social roles that one plays in practices of care and responsibility. For Morrel as envisaged in his paper tentatively titled “Fathers, Fatherhood and Masculinity in South Africa” foregrounds fathering as something beyond the framework of biological parenting (see Dermot, 2008) and ‘breadwinner mentality,’ but more within the social contexts of a display of care and responsibility. Put differently, Morrel challenges us to think of the absence of some African fathers in the lives of their children as a consequence of economic issues whose essence are structural.
Mkhize and Morrel both speak on the socio-economic condition as one of the constitutive elements which create the condition of possibility for the absence of fathers in the children’s lives. Though the argument is convincing, that the socio-economic disadvantages do negatively affect the ability of many African males to be fathers to their children, authors such Mkhize and Morrel, in their grounding of socio-economic issues, disavow the role of conquest, land dispossession and general settler colonialism in South Africa, as central themes which contribute massively to the dysfunctionality in African families. Even when in other cases those socio-economic issues are discussed, settler colonialism as the fundamental contradiction barely features as more than a footnote in the main thesis of the argument.
The centrality of settler colonialism must not be looked at through a reading of conquest and dispossession merely as historical ‘events,’, but settler colonialism should rather be seen as a structure which shapes institutions and whose logic is embedded in all social relations in South Africa. To see this played out, one needs to consider the television show Khumbul’ Ekhaya which rocked our screens back in 2006.
The show, though sincere in its approach to assisting people in finding their loved ones who disappeared from their lives, there are two striking observations to be made when watching the stories aired on the show. Firstly, that it was mostly black people who were looking for their loved one; and secondly, it was mostly black men found missing in action. This alarming number of black men who disappear from their families, though insidious to some viewers, shared the experiences of migrant workers who had to leave their homes and work in distant places, earning an income so they are in position to feed or look after their families back home. And because of having had to work, under extreme conditions, and still barely having enough, most eventually lost their financial muscle to fulfil that basic task. This is the point that I’m trying to drive home: the loss of land, the conquest of African people, led African people to being forced to sell their labour power to put food on the table, as a means of living up to their responsibility as sons, husbands, and fathers, and, indeed, as men in their rural communities back home.
It was also Stompie Mavi, a well-known musician from the Eastern Cape, who, through his creative ways, brought to the country’s imaginary the role of migrant labour in the destruction of the African family. Mavi’s song UTeba laments the role of the mining company called TEBA ltd that was responsible for recruiting men to become mineworkers in the city. Here, Mavi reconnects with how migrant labour contributed to the dysfunctionality of African families. This can be read as natal alienation, as family ties are broken up. It is then through the violence of conquest and dispossession that Africans are made to become vulnerable to exploitation, humiliation, and general loss, whether as adults or children. The link between labour migration and dysfunctional black families is evident to see in the number of households in South Africa which are currently headed either by single parents or older children who must look after their siblings. This reality was not born out of wishful thinking but is a consequence of both institutional practices grounded on the structure of settler colonialism in South Africa.
It is thus within that context that I never got to know my father. Just like those people on Khumbul’ Ekhaya. The structural setup, through settler colonialism, deprived me of an opportunity (read possibility) of having a father. This is because the likelihood of growing up in a stable family for black people in South Africa is so slim that the nation has been declared, indeed, as in liberal circles, a fatherless nation. But be that as it may, I grew up knowing who my father was and later learned about his history. Lion Makhunzi lived from March 1962 until 6 July 2020. The man, unlike the typical narrative of the drunken father, was sober from the cradle to the grave. (And I suspect that sobriety may have made him miss out on the spoils of life.) Common to other black folks in South Africa, my father was asecurity guard for over 20 years for a security company, ADT. A job that is commonly reserved for black folks, to protect other’s people businesses and property, while their own children sneak out at night to have some beer at the local pubs, experimenting with drugs or with prostitution.
My father would later become the character I got to sing about in struggle songs, during Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall student unrests across the country from 2015. “My mother was kitchen girl, and my father was a guarding boy and that why I’m socialist”. And as Fallists* at the time, we were acutely aware that the structural conditions of black people have not changed, that’s why a song which was popular during the struggle against apartheid could still find resonance even in this “new” dispensation. Thus, we sang the song with a bit of insight that our mothers were not merely kitchen girls and our fathers guarding boys, but were fungible or mutually interchangeable, as anyone’s parent or any adult could have been a boy or a girl, so long as they were black. Again, this shared reality of fungibility brought out natal alienation, as in other cases, where parents worked with their children, their relations were not recognised as such, as sons and their fathers were ‘boys,’ daughters and their mothers were ‘girls’ to their bosses and their children.
I cried when my father passed on. Not because of some deep love I had for him, but I was amazed at how much I could feel for someone who was barely around when I was in my childhood. When I needed a father to teach me how to be a man in society and having to live with that loss of a wish that never became, my father was being dehumanised and emasculated by the world, sacrificing his time; putting his life on the line; protecting white people’s private property; while his own children, nephews and nieces chased pavements which led them nowhere in the township.
My father and I have not been close. I was angry about his absence in my ‘life.’ Growing up without a father in the township was hard. To look for inspiration from another man in the township, men who have long given up on their lives and have succumbed to violence and humiliation, it was difficult. I felt so much for my father, a black man who was refused roles as a father, and a husband, and failed to show us love and care. He failed not because he was inadequate to love and be there, but precisely because the world is structured in a way that makes it impossible for black people to even do the basic labour of love and care for their loved ones. And this, for me, the crux of the matter: a love that is underpinned by the conditions of impossibility.
Through my journey, I had to learn and understand the impossibility of black life, under extreme and unliveable conditions. My father, like all black people, wrestled with the impossibility of black life. For that, I forgive the elder for not being there. What else could I do if not seeing it for what it is: natal alienation and blackness as a lived impossibility make it hard for black people to hold and maintain strong family ties.
Therefore, black life makes life impossible for blacks to participate in adventures where they could be recognisable as human beings; raise their children in harmony and peace. Therefore, until we can fully comprehend the ongoing structural conditions of settler colonialism and antiblackness, we will never understand the reasons for black families being broken up.
Biko, 1996,. Write what I like
Bray, R., Gooskens, I. Moses, S., Kahn, L. and Seekings, J. (2010) Growing Up in the New South Africa: Childhood and adolescence in post-apartheid Cape Town. Pretoria: HSRC Press.
Mkhize, N. (2006). African traditions and the social, economic and moral dimensions of fatherhood. Baba: men and fatherhood in South Africa, 183-198.
Morell, R. (2006) Chapter 2: ‘Fathers, Fatherhood and Masculinity in South Africa’, in Ritcher, L. and Morrel, R. (Eds) BABA: Men and Fatherhood in South Africa. Pretoria: HSRC Press.
Dermot, E. (2008) chapter 1 ‘paradoxes of contemporary fatherhood’, in Intimate Fatherhood. London: Routledge.