A soup kitchen can ward off hunger pains when feeding children, but there is a hunger that no soup kitchen can satisfy, and that is the need for an earthly father.

According to Eyewitness News (4/7/2018), detergent brand Omo featured in its advertising campaign a young boy reading from the Father’s Day card that he had made: “Thank you for always being there for me. You took me to my first soccer match and clapped for me when I kicked a goal. You taught me how to build a fire, to tie a tie and hammer a hammer.” The camera then turns to the person receiving the card. “Gogo, you are my hero!” the boy says, hugging his smiling grandmother.

Funny? Sadly not, as this is the reality that South African society is dealing with. South Africa has one of the highest rates of fatherlessness in the world. According to the 2017 Statistics SA General Household Survey, a shocking 61.8% of children under the age of 18 live without their father. Of this number, 10.1% of children’s fathers are deceased, while 51.7% of children’s fathers are alive, but not living with the child. According to a 2013 report of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), black children are hardest hit, while the absence of fathers amongst white children has increased 32% in the previous 15 years. Only 33% of South African children lived with both their parents and of the remaining 67%, only 39% lived with their biological mothers and 4% with their biological fathers. The other 57% lived in other kinds of care, including extended family, government institutions or child-headed households (Gerald Flurry, The Trumpet, 1/3/2018). These statistics do not take into account the many fathers who are living with their children, but are absent emotionally or are abusive in some way or another.

Why is this a cause for concern? When one looks at the role of a father in the home, it becomes apparent that the absence of a father potentially has serious and long-lasting consequences. A father is firstly the protector of his family. His wife and children look up to him and trust him to care for them and protect them from harm. He is the authority figure who leads by example and teaches his children to respect authority, including God’s authority, lead disciplined lives, and take responsibility for their actions. He does this by being a role model of healthy values and responsible behaviour, and by gently and lovingly disciplining and mentoring his children. Above all, he validates his children’s worth as human beings by spending quality time with them and demonstrating unconditional love and acceptance to them. This is true not only for boys but also for girls. A girl who is loved by her father does not feel the need to seek acceptance from other male figures, sometimes in harmful ways. Fathers are God’s plan to show in a flesh-and-blood way His love for children, to demonstrate that they can trust Him and believe in His goodness from an early age.

The SAIRR report concludes that children who grow up fatherless are more vulnerable to emotional problems such as depression. Girls are more likely to have lower self-esteem, which could lead to earlier and riskier sexual behaviour, teenage pregnancy, marrying early and getting divorced. Boys who grow up without a father are more prone to extreme aggression. Flurry (The Trumpet, 2018) speculates whether the aggression prevalent in boys who grow up fatherless perhaps correlates with the more than 2.1 million crimes that were committed in South Africa in 2017 since statistics collected by SSA in 2016 point out that males between 15 and 34 are the most likely group to commit crimes.  Studies in the United States of America have shown an incontestable link between fatherlessness and delinquency. F. Freeks (Stellenbosch Theological Journal, 2017) cites a few American statistics:

  • 63% of people who commit suicide come from fatherless homes
  • 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes
  • 80% of rapists motivated by displaced anger come from fatherless homes 
  • 85% of children with behavioural problems come from fatherless homes
  • 90% of homeless children come from fatherless homes.

The author worked as a social worker in schools for many years. She encountered fatherless children on a weekly basis. It never failed to touch her deeply how hungry these children were for fatherly love. Even when brave mothers or grandmothers cared for them superbly, they still yearned for their father’s presence in their lives. There were different scenarios. Some did not know who their fathers were, while some knew who they were, but said the fathers did not care about them. Still, others had contact with their fathers, but only sporadically and when it suited the fathers. There were numerous stories of a child who would wait in vain for the father who promised to visit him or pick him up for a day or a weekend but simply did not turn up.

When a father seems to a child to be uncaring and indifferent, the child puts the blame for this indifference on himself and assumes that he is not worthwhile enough for the father to care. It is hard to change this perception and it is the experience of the author that this is the root of many problems that stem from fatherlessness.     

What are the reasons for fathers failing to fulfil their role in their children’s lives? There could be many, including:

  • Fathers who grow up without a father have no idea what the role and function of a father is.
  • With societal changes in roles of males and females and the drive for feminine rights, men may experience an identity crisis and feelings of inferiority and not realise how indispensable their contribution towards their children’s upbringing is.
  • When teenagers become fathers, they are too young to take up their role as fathers. They often do not bond with their babies and they subsequently move away to start their own adult life elsewhere. Legislation in South Africa allows for sexual experimentation without serious consequences from the age of 12 years and because many parents fail to provide good guidance and clear boundaries, teenage pregnancies abound.
  • Second wives often discourage a man from keeping in contact with his children from a previous relationship and take responsibility for them.
  • A mother’s need for masculine provision and protection sometimes results in short-term sexual relationships with successive men, who do not take responsibility for the children that they leave behind when they move on to the next relationship.
  • There are also mothers who exclude fathers from the children’s lives due to anger and vindictiveness, especially after a messy divorce. Some fathers do not have the perseverance to fight for access to their children.

Can something be done to change this dire situation, and how should the church respond?

The situation is unlikely to improve unless decisive steps are taken. Here are a few suggestions:

  • The Registration of Births and Deaths Act of South Africa needs to be amended to compel mothers to add the name of the father when they register their children’s births. According to Risenga Maluleke, Statistician-General of SA, 62% of children’s birth certificates do not contain the name of a father. In 2017 the number of such children was 564 298 (Radio 702, 28/8/2018). This situation makes it impossible for fathers to be held responsible for their children’s upkeep and they consequently do not develop a sense of responsibility for their children. 
  • Existing legislation compelling fathers to take responsibility for their offspring needs to be enforced. There are good laws in place, but they are often not put into practice. Many mothers do not follow through on their maintenance applications, allowing the fathers to father several children with different mothers without taking responsibility for them.
  • The attitude of society towards sexual morality should change. There is a perception that, if the law allows children between 12 and 15 to have consensual sex, then it should be allowed. It is time that parents are encouraged and strengthened to take up their authority as parents and set boundaries in this regard. This will curb the tide of teenage pregnancies. A law cannot be allowed to undermine parents’ authority.
  • The church has a huge role to play. Men in the church can act as fathers to fatherless children and demonstrate to them the love and compassion of our heavenly Father. This is applicable to both boys and girls. Young fathers should also be supported and mentored by older men in the church.
  • Through church activities and groups, children should get the opportunity to build a relationship with their heavenly Father and see themselves through His eyes. In this way, they can be healed from the feelings of rejection and inferiority that is the legacy of fatherlessness.

God promised in His Word: “See, I will send you another Prophet like Elijah before the coming of the great and dreadful judgement day of God. His preaching will bring fathers and children together again, to be of one mind and heart, for they will know that if they do not repent, I will come and utterly destroy their land” (Malachi 3:6 The Living Bible).

The great Prophet has come to redeem all of us and if we as the church of Jesus Christ spread His Word and His love, change and healing are bound to come. It is time for God’s children to pray and take Him at His Word.

After attending a fathering seminar, a group of absent fathers shared the following insights that they had gained (Freeks, Stellenbosch Theological Journal, 2017):

  • They themselves had been fatherless.
  • They felt that men have lost their way and now feel inferior towards women.
  • They identified God as an important aspect of family and said that He should come first.
  • They saw their roles as fathers as a gift from God and realised they should reflect the heavenly Father in their fathering role. Mothers and children should put their lives and trust in the hands of the earthly father who receives his strength from the heavenly Father.
  • The role of the father is crucial in the lives of children, especially when they become adolescents who struggle with relationships and life’s challenges.
  • The father should be a role model for his children.

This should give us hope.

Dr. Jeanne Brown
Social Worker