Families Foundering in SA

Despite the fairly large drop in crime rates since 1994 (this year’s upward blip notwithstanding), and steady increases in real incomes and material possessions owned in this time, South Africa remains a lawless society in worldwide terms. To what extent this may have to do with a breakdown in our family structures isn’t well understood, but surely important.

Decades of enforced family separation through the migrant labour system are widely accepted to have been hugely destructive to family cohesion, all the way back to Alan Paton’s 1948 depiction in “Cry, the Beloved Country”. But this cannot on its own explain an accelerated self-destruction in families since apartheid’s ending. South Africans are increasingly marrying less, divorcing more, and having children out of wedlock.

Just between 2003 and 2010, registered marriages fell 8%, with civil marriages falling 4% and customary marriages fully 42%. Half of our children now grow up with absent but living fathers, while the fathers of another 16% of children are dead.

Only 28% of black African children grow up in households of both parents. For Indians the figure is 81%, for whites 78%. The proportion of households with absent but living fathers has increased significantly for Africans and whites since apartheid’s ending. Unsurprisingly, studies consistently show that children growing up without a father tend to live in poverty and are more vulnerable to negative behavioural, emotional and intellectual outcomes.

Teenage pregnancies jumped by 150% from 2003 to 2008, the latter year seeing 144 girls under 18 years falling pregnant every day. That the number of births from teenage mothers also fell significantly in this time appears to be the result of abortions easily had in law. For his part, President Jacob Zuma has said that “It is not right to be single” and he would know. Confusingly, he adds that “kids are important to a woman because they actually give extra training to a woman to be a mother”.

Government has issued a raft of Green Papers, White Papers and legislation since 1996, but seldom speaks of individual responsibility or morality being societal and familial bedrocks. Sometimes government opposes itself.

So the Department of Health has authored legislation making the provision of contraceptives and abortions to children aged 12 years and up legal, while other law prohibits sex between children under 16 years. For its part, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) declines to allow nationwide contraceptive distribution at schools (leaving this to individual school governing body decision), while the Health Department would prefer this. In one instance, health authorities provided contraceptive injections to children at an Eastern Cape school, with parental knowledge and to the fury of the DBE.

Meanwhile, foster care of orphans attracts social grants of R770 a month, while adopting children attracts nothing. This may be one reason why more than 500 000 children were in foster care by 2011, but little more than 2 000 were adopted. Still, not everything is worrying.

The number of child-headed households fell 26% between 2002 and 2010, the proportion falling 29%. This may have a lot to do with a decrease in parental deaths from HIV/Aids. Yet, overall, the family as core societal institution is in trouble, and from that will flow all manner of problems.


· South Africans are getting older, with a mean age of 25 in the 2011 census. In 2001 it was 23.

· The number of children in child-head households fell from 118 000 to 92 000 between 2002 and 2010 (-29%)

· Only 34% of children live with both parents; 39% with their mother only; 3% with their father only; and 24% with neither of their parents.

· Marriage registrations in 2003 were at 196 000, down 8% to 181 000 in 2010.

· Projected orphans: 2010: 565 000 with a minor decrease of 0.02% to 553 000 by 2025.

· Children in skip generation households in 2010: 8.5% black African, 1.3% white

· Births per 1 000 girls/women aged 15 to 19 years: 81 in 1997 down to 54 in 2010. But the proportion of sexually active girls of 15 to 19 years who had been pregnant rose 28% between 2002 and 2008 (that is, from 19% to 24% of such girls).

· Termination of pregnancies under 18 years: An increase of 124% from 4 423 in 2001 to 9 895 in 2006.

Sources (including for main text): SA Institute of Race Relations; Census 2011; National Adoption Coalition; World Bank; Department of Basic Education.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 26 September 2013)

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