Who needs a father? South African men reflect on being fathered

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Peer-Reviewed Research


The legacy of apartheid and continued social and economic change have meant that many South African men and women have grown up in families from which biological fathers are missing. In both popular and professional knowledge and practice this has been posed as inherently a problem particularly for boys who are assumed to lack a positive male role model. In drawing on qualitative interviews with a group of South African men in which they speak about their understandings of being fathered as boys, this paper makes two key arguments. The first is that contemporary South African discourses tend to pathologize the absence of the biological father while simultaneously undermining the role of social fathers. Yet, this study shows that in the absence of biological fathers other men such as maternal or paternal uncles, grandfathers, neighbours, and teachers often serve as social fathers. Most of the men who participated in this study are able to identify men who - as social rather than biological fathers - played significant roles in their lives. Secondly, we suggest that while dominant discourses around social fatherhood foreground authoritarian and controlling behaviours, there are moments when alternative more nurturing and consultative versions of being a father and/or being fathered are evident in the experiences of this group of men.