t 26, in the prime of my life, I was shot and paralysed by a bullet fired by the police during a 1986 march against rent increases in Sharpeville. I woke up in the intensive care unit of the hospital to hear this from a doctor: “I am not sure how the bullet got to the back of your brain, but you are paralysed. Removing the bullet is risky and you may die if we try. So we will leave it there. You may have fits in the first 10 years.” That was the most devastating news I’d ever heard, as one can imagine.
It was in that instant that I realised for the first time in my life that I missed having a dad intensely. The void that had been there all the years I was growing up without a father and not knowing who he was or where he was grew wider and wider at that very moment and caused me so much anguish, I even contemplated suicide as a way out of my pain.
My poor mum, who had been with me, could do nothing but break down in tears in hospital. I joined her and we cried together. There was nothing we could do.
My mother could not answer all those questions that were going through my mind as a man who had just learnt that he may never be able to walk again and would be bedridden because of constant fits. I felt that only my father would be able to understand how I felt and I needed him to hold my hand and say: “All will be well my son.” But he wasn’t there, just this lingering emptiness and grief.
Ever since that seminal moment in my life, I have realised that growing up without a father is probably the most difficult and painful life experience for any young boy or man, especially. It is one thing to know that your father isn’t alive to give you the moral, financial and spiritual support you need as a boy, or even as a girl child. But knowing that he is alive and kicking somewhere, and yet is not there with you when you need him so much must be the most difficult challenge to overcome for any child.
Yes, mothers play a huge role in many of South Africa’s female-headed households. But they too are swimming against a strong tide and can’t raise the boy child alone, judging by the increase in the number of social ills such as drug and alcohol abuse among boys and young men; and the increase in the number of teenage pregnancies among children who come mainly from families where fathers are absent.
Studies have put the number of children growing up without fathers in South Africa at a staggering 9 million (and still counting) and this includes an estimated 3.95 million orphans. It is estimated that 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes.
Research has shown that the absence of fathers has been associated with poor educational outcomes, antisocial behaviour, lack of confidence in girls and behavioural problems in boys.
As much as not all bad behaviour and social problems can be blamed on the absent father, statistics show a relationship between problem children and missing fathers that we can no longer ignore.
As men we cannot live with a clean conscience knowing that we are contributing to the destruction of our society and the future of our children. Time is against us and we need to change our behaviour drastically to try to avert a crisis. What more must be said and done for men to realise that they are part of the social problems faced by this country?
It is no longer acceptable for a man to abandon a woman with children only to go and start a new life and raise a new family elsewhere, far away from his other children, as if they never existed. Those tendencies that were fuelled by the apartheid migrant labour system cannot continue in a democracy where people are able to move freely between cities and provinces to find employment. As a man you can choose to have one family, or if you choose to have more children, then make it your responsibility to father all of them.
Men must come to the party and nurture their children, especially the boy child, if we are to succeed in ending this vicious cycle of fatherlessness.
I learnt good lessons when I was struggling to put my life together again without my father after that fateful day in hospital; I also learnt to understand and empathise with young boys who, through struggle and pain, have to find their way in the dark without a father.
On this Father’s Day I wish to extend greetings and encouragement to all the mothers who play a dual role as both mother and father to their sons and daughters. To them I say a well-deserved happy Father’s Day.
As for me and my only son Raphakisa, I have learnt to keep him close and to be the father I never had. It wasn’t easy for me because I had no point of reference.
Raphakisa is one of the few fortunate young men in this country who have grown up getting love and support from their fathers. I can see in the way he relates to his sons that we can succeed in breaking the chain of fatherlessness in our families, societies and in our country. It starts with just one man.
Botha is commissioner with the Commission for Gender Equality