SA Today: It’s time for a new take on Father’s Day

zilleToday is Father’s Day. Tomorrow is Youth Day. The sequence makes sense. The bond between these two categories of people should begin with conception, and grow throughout the child’s life.

Father’s Day is not a celebration of men who happen to have made a baby. It is a day to celebrate men who are committed to being responsible parents. Unfortunately, they only constitute about half of South Africa’s fathers.

Turning your back on your child is not a personal decision. It has incalculable social consequences, and society therefore has a right and a duty to intervene.

It starts with the distribution of free condoms, so that men can avoid making babies if they do not want the life-long responsibility of being fathers.

But once the baby is born, there is no opt-out clause. Our entire society, including our criminal justice system, must align to reinforce this crucial point. Indeed, this is the most important thing South Africa can do for her youth.

That is why two recent court cases – one in the North Gauteng High Court and the other in the Kempton Park Magistrates’ Court – deserve to be highlighted this Father’s Day.

They are both of huge significance to single mothers and particularly to their children.

In both cases, the court supported mothers fighting for unpaid child maintenance. But here’s the kicker: Instead of demanding outstanding payments from the fathers, both courts ordered bungling prosecuting officials to fork out the arrears.

For years, both these women had to fight not only their ex-husbands, but also a totally inefficient, unsympathetic and incompetent maintenance court system.

Last Tuesday, an acting chief magistrate in the Kempton Park Magistrates’ Court ordered the Head of the NPA, Mxolisi Nxasana, to pay almost R30 000 in maintenance arrears to a Germiston mother who had been battling for five years to get payments from her ex-husband. She had to take so much time off work for court appearances that she lost her job. She has three children, one of whom is disabled.

The maintenance officer dealing with her case simply failed to turn up in court, time after time.

In his judgment the magistrate ordered the NPA to pay her and then recover the money, not only from the ex-husband, but also from any prosecution officials found to have acted recklessly or negligently. The message was clear: the buck stops with the people who are employed to protect the rights of single mothers and their children.

Three weeks earlier, in the North Gauteng High Court, a similar story unfolded. A judge ordered the Justice Minister along with the NPA to pay a Mpumalanga hawker and mother of two R25 000 in maintenance arrears.

Her maintenance payments had dried up when her ex-husband left his teaching job. Fearing he would squander his entire pension, she pleaded with the court to attach it before it was paid out, but they wrongly told her they had no authority to do so. The husband repaid a portion of the outstanding money, but it didn’t take him long to withdraw the remainder of his pension at a nearby casino. Inexplicably, the magistrate decided to write off the remaining maintenance arrears.

Acting Judge Jan Hiemstra was scathing in his judgment, saying that all the legal remedies with which maintenance orders can be enforced had simply been disregarded. He accused the officials of gross incompetence and dereliction of duties.

Again, the court decided that the buck stopped with the people who had failed this woman and her children.

So why are these two cases so important?

They’re important because they’re a huge step in the right direction in ensuring that men cannot collude with an inefficient or corrupt criminal justice system to avoid taking responsibility for their children. When judicial officers have to pay arrears themselves, they will ensure that fathers are held to account.

The number of children raised without fathers is staggering. According to a report published by the South African Institute of Race Relations in 2011, an estimated 9 million children are growing up in South Africa without fathers. From 1996 to 2009, the proportion of living fathers who are absent from their children’s lives increased from 42% to 48%.

This means that almost half the children in South Africa are raised without a father even though their fathers are alive. For black children, this figure goes up to more than 50%.

The effects are devastating. Most children born to single parents in South Africa today will be born into poverty. This applies particularly to teenage girls who have babies. With an absent father and a “child-mother”, these babies are usually doomed to a life of poverty and marginalisation.

It’s a cycle that gets repeated over and over, and not only because of the lack of a father’s income. Children who grow up without a father are affected emotionally, socially, intellectually and in terms of their behaviour.

Girls often suffer from low self-esteem, engage in risky sexual behaviour from a young age and are more likely to fall pregnant, marry early or get divorced. In boys there is a tendency towards aggressive “hypermasculine” behavior, which contributes to the growing “gang culture” across South Africa.

A 2009 study by the Human Sciences Research Council found that 73% of men who admitted to having raped a woman were raised in homes where the father was either absent or very rarely at home.

Studies have found that fathers often have more influence on children’s behaviour than mothers do, particularly when it comes to choices that children later make around alcohol and drugs. Children who grow up without caring fathers are more likely to drink excessively and use drugs.

This further fuels teenage pregnancies in a cycle that won’t be broken without urgent intervention. The effects of foetal alcohol syndrome in poor communities across South Africa are well documented, as are the effects of Whoonga/Nyaope/Tik-use during pregnancy. These children are born with an impossible disadvantage – limited cognitive function.

And it’s not only the affected children that suffer. In the classrooms of affected schools across the country, the pace of learning caters for the slowest children. Every pupil has to drag this heavy anchor.

Absent fathers have much to answer for youth unemployment being at a record high of 36%. It is their children who, statistically, will battle most to find jobs. And so the cycle continues.

Active parenthood has innumerable facets which no government can replicate or even enforce. But if fathers refuse to stick around, government can and must ensure that they shoulder their financial responsibilities. Walking away cannot be an option.

Which brings me back to the two cases I spoke of earlier. Holding the officials, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Justice Ministry responsible for failing these two mothers and their children paves the way for other desperate mothers to do the same. It also sends a powerful message to uncaring, incompetent and negligent officials to up their game or face real consequences.

There are other avenues we can explore too.

The Maintenance Act of 1998 makes provision for blacklisting defaulters with the Credit Bureau. However, non-payment of child maintenance does not currently affect your credit record. According to the Office of the Credit Ombud, this is not considered the same as failing to pay an installment on a credit agreement, and is not necessarily an indication of whether you’ll honour your credit commitments.

However, this can and should be changed. Child maintenance is a legally binding agreement to pay regularly and on time, and failure to do so should carry real consequences.

This issue must be dealt with in national legislation because it requires uniform application across the country. Defaulters cannot be allowed to duck their responsibilities by moving to a different province.

I believe this is one area in which all parties in Parliament could agree to the introduction of new laws (or amendments to existing legislation) that create:

  • Mechanisms for inter-agency co-operation to locate maintenance defaulters;
  • Provisions to “black-list” and limit the credit-worthiness of maintenance defaulters;
  • Requirements for institutions such as SARS, UIF, Home Affairs, vehicle licensing, banks and the Deeds Office to enforce payment;
  • Means to withhold documents such as driver’s or vehicle licences, passports, ID documents and professional registration until the maintenance backlogs are paid;
  • As a last resort, the freezing of bank accounts.

I suspect a substantial number of maintenance defaulters will pay what they owe when they’re unable to register a bond, renew a driver’s licence or buy an item on credit.

On the eve of Youth Day we speak of remembering and honouring young South Africans for their sacrifice. We promise that we will never again allow an entire generation to start life with a disadvantage.

The African Proverb tells us that “it takes a village to raise a child”, but, in an urban context, nothing can substitute for committed parents. They provide the role models, the inspiration, the encouragement, the sense of belonging and love that enable a child to resist the many destructive forces that surround them, especially in adolescence.

While the “commercial” tradition of Father’s Day encourages us to spend money to spoil our dads, it is perhaps more important that fathers should take the opportunity to think whether they are fulfilling their responsibility towards their children.

Helen Zille

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