The Biggest Problem in South Africa

South Africa is a fatherless nation.

As we try to patch together our economy and infrastructure, there is a far more basic fabric that lies in both serious disrepair and unconscionable neglect – the fabric of fatherhood, evolved over millennia of culture and religion which binds men and their offspring together.

Say what you want about the concept of fatherhood, but there is simply no getting around the fact that everybody’s lives are much better when fathers take their duties seriously.

Raj Chetty of Stanford University recently released a study in the US which showed that the mere presence of fathers in a boy’s neighbourhood would indicate a better future.

The Brookings Institution famously revealed three basic rules to stay out of poverty – finish high school, get a job, get married, and only then have children – because marriage and family are the ultimate poverty killers.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg – google it. Fathers matter more than we can imagine.

A multitude of research, both international and local, indicates that the presence of a father increases intellectual ability, emotional intelligence, and career achievement. An absence of a father increases on average both sexual deviance and incarceration rates.

And that’s what makes the South African data on absent fathers so incredibly shocking and tragic:

In 2009, the Institute of Race Relations recorded that 48% of South African children have a present father, while only 35% of children live with both their parents. By 2014, Stats SA was reporting that 64% of children had no reference to the father on their birth certificate – which seems to suggest the fathers absconded sometime between conception and birth.

In South Africa, it is common to assume that this is simply the result of our wicked migrant labour system and its long shadow cast on the previously oppressed black majority.

Clearly that must have had some role – but if it were the only cause, why then is the problem of absent fathers getting worse, as the black middle class grows?

We see the same pattern in the US.

The (black) US economist, Thomas Sowell, wrote that, ‘Nearly a hundred years of the supposed “legacy of slavery” found most black children being raised in two-parent families in 1960. But thirty years after the liberal welfare state found the great majority of black children being raised by a single parent.’ See here.

Sowell believes he has found the culprit as identified in the quote above – he believes the launching of mass welfare states eroded the sense of responsibility required to make a success of one’s personal and working life, and thus despite mass government spending on the poor, poverty rates and dysfunctionality in the ‘under classes’ of welfare states are perpetuated.

I don’t know enough about the subject to confirm or disprove Sowell’s theory, but it certainly merits attention. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So perhaps he is right – the de-stigmatization of divorce and illegitimacy via welfare grants has certainly had unintended and profound consequences.

It is this kind of stuff that makes me so mad whenever people start talking about white privilege as though that was the main problem in South Africa.

Our society is literally going to hell and we are having a pointless (and racist) conversation which assumes that privilege is unfair and possibly needs to be eradicated.

The greatest privilege in life is to grow up loved by your parents. This is simply a fact. We need more and more privileged kids, not legions of kids angry and/or feeling guilty about privilege.

But the problem of absent fathers is made worse by an additional problem – the current fashionable notion that fatherhood and masculinity in general are somehow essentially problematic notions. You can’t restore something you don’t believe in.

In my previous post, I wrote that masculinity is something that no politically correct academic type can simply wish away. The male body and its potential for fatherhood are biological facts (which are, admittedly, unfashionable concepts in our day’s fetish for fluidity).

Therefore, we need a culture that knows how to deal with these facts and harness and refine them.

I recently read an achingly sad piece of writing from a township-raised young man, who began a recounting of his past and background by noting that in his township, he, like most black children in his neighbourhood and perhaps even in his entire country, grew up without ‘having a father looking out for me’. In his world, ‘the norm was to have multiple partners or just lash out in violence’.

Tragically, this is what becomes of unfettered testosterone-fuelled masculinity.

Masculinity requires structure and initiation. But with society having torn down the notion of any kind of positive sense of patriarchy or fatherhood, without thinking of the consequences, young men simply have nothing into which they can be initiated. No models, no structure.

With all this in mind, I can’t help but believe that crime and poverty in this country can simply not be solved if we don’t get to the human root of the problem – the fact that our society is filled with young people who were never given any hope, structure, or, most crucially, encouragement, from their fathers.

But how do we get to such a deep root?

I wish I knew. I wish the ANC knew.

Perhaps there is something to be said for the compelling research done by Thomas Sowell. His basic thesis is that the reinforcing loop of the sexual revolution and welfare system of the 1960s basically traps people in an underclass of passivity and despair. I think he is probably right.

We need to re-look at everything that happens to young men from birth till the age of 28 (from that age onwards, criminal activity seems to decline rapidly).

You can’t simply give young men a basic and spiritually impoverished education at a school and expect everything to turn around. Some kind of initiation needs to happen. Maybe we need a national service programme.

As I wrote last time, we also need to tell big stories again – stories about wrestling with your father. Without a story, one’s life remains aimless and chaotic. The bottom line is, our enlightened and liberated world may not provide as much enlightenment and liberation as we may have hoped.

On the positive side, all of the above also seems to confirm an age-old, empowering truth for us men: by being a good father, you literally change the world for the better, perhaps permanently. No cultural or national crisis can prevent you yourself taking on this responsibility.