Absent without love
Some of the world’s nastiest dictators, torturers and assassins share a profoundly debilitating family feature: fatherlessness.
Mugabe’s dad abandoned him as a 10-year-old. Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson and Lee Harvey Oswald all grew up without fathers. So did Adolph Hitler.
Most of the criminals in South Africa’s prison population lack positive male role models of any sort, a fact poignantly highlighted in a recent film festival documentary called The Choir. Featuring the true story of a kindly but authoritative older convict who became a father figure-cum-choirmaster to young offenders and managed in the process to persuade ruthless criminals to behave themselves while singing competitively in a nationwide Correctional Services contest, it is an inspiring example of one individual bringing purpose to meaningless lives.
A Johannesburg-based criminologist, who blames absentee fathers for much of the violence in South Africa, says: “I have yet to meet the rapist with a functioning dad. A significant number of fatherless children, especially boys, look to gangs or follow other peer cultures that contradict traditional family values. For most kids in our society men still represent the definition of authority, yet even our symbolic father figures – the country’s national leaders – are failing in South Africa. In place of Nelson Mandela’s unconditional love, we have cold, distant Thabo Mbeki. His problematic successor Jacob Zuma, with demonstrably poor impulse control and a determination to undermine the law, sends out the worst possible message to vulnerable youth.”
Psychologists studying the fatherless sons of violence note that a lack of internal control in kids without dads and their failure to complete other development stages due to weak family structure lead to such acts of extreme brutality as South Africans witnessed with heavy hearts during countrywide xenophobic violence earlier this year. In a vicious cycle of rebellion and delinquency, gang recruitment and deadly confrontation, boys too young to vote often become hardened criminals, writes child psychologist Iana Seales.
The reasons South African society has more than its fair share of brutalized people, young and old, are not hard to find: apartheid unleashed institutionalized oppression on a dehumanizing scale that stripped its average citizen of self-respect while systematically disrupting families and communities. Watching their fathers being emasculated, children inherited psychic wounds that have been amplified more recently by the devastation of HIV/Aids.
“We are a fatherless society where many men procreate but lack the capacity to be a father to their children, having come from families in which their own fathers were often either abusive or absent,” declares a paper published by members of the South African Association of Jungian Analysts. They cite as a possible helpful intervention a school on the Cape flats that engages grandmothers in the classroom to provide a solid parental presence for kids who lack family guidance. “They simply sit at the back of the class and knit during classroom activity. Their mere presence has an orderly and calming influence on both the children and the teachers.”
Modest remedies involving mature elders, such as watchful grandmothers in classrooms and fatherly choirmasters in prisons, are hard to envisage on a national scale yet intervention has to start somewhere – and soon – if South Africa’s shocking descent into brutality and lawlessness is to be reversed. The flight of fathers, whose job is to set limits, has left many of the nation’s children devoid of a conscience, so a sense of right and wrong will have to be instilled in them by others.
A more comprehensive nationwide remedy might be the introduction of a demilitarized form of national service with a strong civic component. If the emphasis of such a movement were on the acquisition of practical skills and small-business training, youths could be diverted from potential criminal enterprises and exposed instead to benign discipline as well as decent values. Where parents have failed, communities need to help in the redirection of potential delinquents – in their own interests. A collaborative effort, executed creatively, could significantly impact on society.
Since studies all over the world show that fatherlessness significantly increases the likelihood of a boy becoming violent, every effort should be made in South Africa to reinstate fatherhood as a national priority. Advocacy groups – including churches and schools – charged with countering the alienation of fathers from their families might do well to emphasise the benefits for dads as well as for their kids in paternal involvement. Men unconnected to children and partners have enormously higher rates of violence, accidents and criminality than fathers and husbands. Among the effects of taking care of one’s children are enhanced self-esteem, according to numerous psychological studies. The ability to sacrifice and take responsibility for others is good for everyone, fatherhood being one of the most common but exacting tests of selflessness.
There is undoubtedly a close correlation between fatherlessness and the street gang membership that underpins crime in South Africa. Numerous international studies show that the rate of drug abuse, for example – a common feature among violent offenders – is several times higher in adolescents living apart from their fathers. Gangs all over the world exist for two basic purposes: to fill an authority vacuum and to satisfy the aching need to belong. As a substitute for the family, the street gang transmits dangerously competing value systems to vulnerable children. Just as a culture that values human life will convey its positive beliefs from parent to child, so a gang culture respecting neither human life nor another’s property will accelerate the social breakdowns that plague us so deeply in South Africa today.
At the most destructive end of the socialization spectrum, notoriously antisocial characters like Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe share a terrifying detachment from their own feelings. Constructed in childhood as a numbing shield against the pain of fatherlessness, such callousness not only blanks the distinction between good and evil lifelong but ultimately leaves the uncaring individual with absolutely nothing to lose.