Fundamentals for the Future – The Family in Society

Apartheid and the policy of separate development had many negative implications for the majorities in southern Africa but one of the most damaging and serious, in my personal view, was the systematic destruction of normal family life. As a consequence, when South Africa was democratized in 1994 some three quarters of all non white children in that country were being raised in single parent families. This arose from policies that created employment for mostly single men in many industries, fostered migrant labour practices and provided no security for urban workers who were forced to maintain two homes – one in town and the other in the rural areas.

In Zimbabwe if you asked a person in town where their home was (Kumusha) they would respond by identifying their rural home. If you asked them where they stay and you would get a quite a different response – they would identify where they stayed in the town in which they worked.

Last week the South Africans published the latest census of their national population and many of the figures shocked. I was especially disturbed by two facts – the fact that the percentage of single parent families was actually increasing. Then the fact that there are now 3,6 million children with no parents at all. Our own census will only be published next year so we have to wait for a similar analysis but I am sure we will find that our own population has many of the same characteristics. We know for example that we have at least 1,6 million orphans – actually a higher percentage of the population than in South Africa.

The question is why is this important in the overall state of our nations? It’s important because any threat to the family is a threat to our entire society. Children from dysfunctional families are simply not as productive or balanced as compared to children raised in whole families. My wife and I used to run two Scripture Union camps for boys every year for ten years. Each camp was for about 60 kids and we were assisted by University Students or other senior students from the High Schools.

We used to sit down after the first two days and conduct an appraisal of each child. It was quite astonishing but at that early stage we could tell which of those kids came from dysfunctional families, either by divorce or some other influence. In particular it affected the child’s leadership capacities and sense of social integration and self worth, all critical issues in any society.

The family is the most basic social unit in society. The family is the best place to raise children and provides both the man and the woman with a relationship that can be fulfilling and satisfying. No other form of human relationship provides the same environment and the rules for such engagements are well known. In our current cultural environment these values are being degraded and we allow that at our peril. More and more young people go into a relationship that is not solemnized by marriage. When they find that it gives then neither security nor satisfaction in the widest sense it is often too late for them.

Children of divorced parents are deeply hurt by the failure of what is the most important relationship in their lives at the time. Girls are left without a role model or father, boys, the same. Girls going through puberty need their fathers; they are more likely to fail in the same field of human experience if their parents fail. 90 per cent of a successful marriage is commitment by two adults, within a consensual relationship solemnized by marriage.

It is critical that societies ensure that marriages are given the best possible start and then an environment where they have the best chance of survival. This means we need to teach our children in school about marriage and family values. We need to talk about keeping yourself for marriage and then once in a long term relationship, not to mess around. Such principles are regarded as being archaic when in fact they are the basic foundations of a sound and productive society.

But all the teaching in the world will not help if dad has to travel several hundred kilometers to find a job and then has to live away from his family for months at a time. It will not help if a young married couple cannot find accommodation that gives them the required facilities for family life and privacy for their private lives.

Severe overcrowding in low cost housing areas is almost a universal in southern Africa and housing provision remains one of our greatest challenges. But this is exacerbated in South Africa by the policy that denies poor families the opportunity to own their own home. The millions of RDP houses built since 1994 are leased to their occupants and are not big enough to act as family homes. Families need security, space and gardens.

We need minimum wage policies that will give urban families enough income for whole family needs. We need to educate the girl child, give them sufficient education to educate their own children when they come along, education will empower girls and women – give them greater independence and sense of worth. We need to support poor families so that they can feed and clothe and educate their children.

Children who have lost one or both their parents are a special problem and again we need to recognise that institutions are not the answer. These children need to be taken into families or special family units created to accommodate these children. African culture that takes these children into the extended family as a natural extension of their own must be protected and encouraged by our policies and systems of social support.

The experience of the world in the past 200 years has taught us that successful societies and cultures are based on sound families supported by good education and health services. This is the fundamental foundation for everything else, In Africa we have to pay attention to these issues if we want to compete in the new globalised world we all live in.