Rebuilding our broken families

04 December 2013

Phumla WilliamsEver since assuming office President Jacob Zuma has stressed the importance of building strong families and strengthening communities. He has sought to reverse the legacy of apartheid policies that deliberately set out to destroy family structures of black people.

A recent report by Statistics South Africa highlights that there has been an increase in the number of children who grow up with absent but living fathers. We have to reverse this trend, as building a nation starts with strong families.

The absence of strong family structures in South Africa has led to a myriad of social ills, and all too often women and children bear the brunt. Our annual 16 Days of Activism for no Violence Against Women and Children Campaign aims to mobilise all sectors of society to put an end to the cycle of violence against women, children and people with disabilities.

The President has been at the forefront of encouraging South Africans to play their part in building strong families. “We must promote unity and social cohesion. We must also enhance positive values and build stronger families and communities to strengthen the social fabric of society”, he said when addressing Parliament during this year.

The apartheid system forced black families to live apart; men had to travel long distances to find work in the mines and on farms as cheap labourers. This migrant labour system saw men leaving their wives and children for months at a time. The economic circumstances also pushed women to seek employment in towns as domestic workers. As a result children were often left behind and taken care of by grandparents or extended families, mostly headed by females.

The unnatural arrangement put a severe strain on most families and stripped both parents of their role as protectors, and weakened the ability to tighten the bonds with their children. This toxic mix saw entire generations of young black people growing up without the constant love, attention, support and guidance which all children crave and need to reach their full potential.

They also missed out on the stimulation of early childhood development which is considered critical in setting the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and a healthy lifestyle. Without a parent being a constant in their lives, children are educationally, economically and emotionally disadvantaged.  

The wide array of consequences continues to be felt up to this day.  If ,  we are to address these problems we have to understand how they arose. This is the position that the government adopted in 1994. It recognised that many social ills facing the country were largely as a result of either weak family systems or non-existent families altogether. Hence it responded swiftly to issues that have had huge impact on families over the past nineteen years. They range from unemployment, high mortality rate, HIV and AIDS, poverty, inequality and substance abuse.  

We have provided social grants and instituted the Early Child Development programme that benefits children, families and communities. In addition, we have created millions of jobs, built houses for the poor and delivered basic services. We have changed the lives of many people and made South Africa a better country than it was before the dawn of democracy. Addressing the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Summit this year, President Zuma highlighted progress that has been made over the years.

“The South African economy has expanded by 83 per cent over the past 19 years. National income per capita has increased from R27 500 in 1993 to R38 500 in 2012 – an increase of 40 percent. Disposable income per capita of households has increased by 43 percent, which is just over 1.9 percent a year. Total employment has increased by more than 3.5 million since 1994. As a result of these and other developments resulting from progressive government policies, there has been an impressive growth of the black middle class. The recent income and expenditure survey from Statistics South Africa indicates a significant increase in household consumption, which of all the factors, is plausibly explained by a significant growth in income”, he said.   

Government has prioritised rebuilding families through policies that focus on the needs of families. In June this year Cabinet approved the Draft White Paper on Families and the Implementation Plan thereof. The paper puts forward proposals on how families should be supported in order to flourish and function optimally.

The proposal is premised on the understanding that well-functioning families would lead to improved social cohesion and are a catalyst to community and national development. The White Paper proposes three key strategic priorities, promotion of healthy family life, family strengthening and family preservation.

Explaining the rationale behind the proposed policy, Minister of Social Development, Ms Bathabile Dlamini in her budget vote statement this year said:”Research tells us that families are the building blocks of a strong, stable, and cohesive society. The White Paper on Families aims to bring a seamless approach in the provision of services to families, with a particular focus on early intervention and family support services. We recognise that without strong and resilient families, our goal to build safer and non-violent communities will come to nothing.”

However, the responsibility of building well-functioning families is not the sole responsibility of government. It is a societal responsibility. We appreciate the role that the media is playing in our country in uniting families and changing their lives.

The Khumbul'ekhaya programme on SABC 1 is one such good example. This programme unites and brings healing to families. It involves tracing long lost members and resolves feuds that have caused rifts and pain in families.

As we head towards celebrating 20 Years of Freedom next year, we must all take responsibility in laying strong foundations for our families. All South Africans have to make a difference by doing something that could create healthy families and better communities.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)