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The Future of African Families: A South African Women’s Perspective

by Marthe Muller

“The family is a building block for community, nation, continent, and even planetary civilisation. Governments are notoriously bad at reaching the level of the household or family. Without intentional, continual attention to the health and wellbeing of every member of every family, ensuring that quality of life, growth and equality are built into the fabric of every family, humanity will not survive the challenges that await us.”
Teaching Mission Archives, 20131


Ma Grace Masuku participating in the design of the SAWID Development Caravan poverty eradication approach, May 2006.


The sacred threads that bind us

Ma Grace Masuku from North West province in South Africa, a retired school principal, doyenne of indigenous wisdom and someone who has been described as “a giant in sustainable rural development,” often points out that indigenous wisdom is focused on the sacred nature of life, on the intertwined realities of plants, insects, animals, humans, and climate, and she shows how a close observation of one provides clues to the other.


Ma Grace Masuku and Lorato Scerpernhuyzen at the YSAWID Intergenerational Dialogue, 29 August 2014, Freedom Park, Pretoria, South Africa


At the various events where her wisdom has so often been sought, Ma Grace emphasizes the sacred and spiritual nature of reality and the invisible threads that hold all things together. She explains that at the heart of indigenous African knowledge systems is this awareness of the Presence of Spirit pervading all things, and she teaches that sex and procreation and the formation of families are sacred privileges exactly because in sexual relationship humans come to participate in the sacred interrelatedness and order of all things. Grown men have wept listening to Ma Grace, saying, “In my community, where I live, nobody knows these things…”2

At a time when it is patently clear that humanity has collectively created results that are neither desired nor sustainable, especially in the creation and viability of future families, the wisdom of Ma Grace’s perspectives and her emphasis on the revaluing of the sacred in the lives of individuals, families and communities introduces a much-needed perspective for future coherence.

What is the future for? If it were true that we are co-creators in a universe designed for the growth of souls and the evolution of consciousness, how would that affect the families we create through our conscious decisions? Ma Grace reminds us that we are only one small part of a balanced and coherent whole, and that wise planetary management for the future depends on our uncovering the technology of sustainability by which our conscious intentions will support future functional societies, as well as the health and wellbeing of all the other components of the world we are embedded in.

What should a new definition of family look like to honour all the commitments humanity has made to the growth of individuals and communities, including our commitments to inclusivity, fairness, and leaving no one behind, including the reality of working parents, children growing up without fathers, orphans and child-headed households, children living with grannies, the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transsexual and inter-sex communities, as well as people living with disabilities, and those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS?

We manage the planet by the hourly decisions we make. The history of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa has taught us that if our decisions are mediocre ones, we will produce mediocre results. If our hourly decisions honour the complex web we are part of, however, we will reap the sustainable and intentional results that will ensure the longevity and holistic well-being of the whole system…


The African future we want

The integrity of the family, based on planned pregnancies, conscious parenting, engaged fathering and mothering, regardless of the sexual preferences of the parents, and even the professionalization and remuneration of the unpaid work of women to correct gender imbalances is fundamental to ensuring the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual health of individuals, families and communities.

In order to develop a holistic planetary systems management process that will support sustainable future designs for the kind of collective future we all want, however, we need to explore what kind of individual and collective decision-making has brought us to the undesired social, economic and political present we find ourselves embedded in. If our collective decisions are so clearly hurrying us towards collective failure, what is needed to embed slow and lasting success?

Whatever family structures we agree on will need to keep track with global trends in family structure. The worldwide decline of marriage3 does not tell the complete story of family formation, as legal alternatives to marriage are widespread and more rights have been conferred to unmarried couples. In the US, marriage rates have dropped from 74 marriages for every 1000 unmarried women in 1970 to 31 marriages per 1000 unmarried women by 2012. According to the 2011 census, only 36.7% of South Africans age 20 or older were married, 43.7% had never been married, 11% were living together like married partners, 5.7% were widowed, 0.9% were separated, and 1.9% were divorced.4


The African present we do not want

The structure of South African society and South African families 21 years after the end of the oppressive and unjust apartheid system provides a very useful case study of the unintended consequences of neglecting the health and wellbeing of families as the single most important indicator of civilizational success and future sustainability.

Part of the lingering legacy of apartheid design and practice is the fragmentation of the South African family, reflected in the fact that South Africa continues to have the lowest marriage rate on the continent, the second highest rate of father absence in Africa after Namibia5, low rates of paternal maintenance for children and incredibly high rates of violence against women and children.

The additional challenges that now face us as humans and as Africans include increasing armed conflict, domestic violence, unemployment, hunger and nutritional deficiencies, disease, obesity, lack of education and skills, continuing racism, corruption, waste, climate change, and natural disasters.

In the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2015, South Africa is placed 136 out of 162 countries, with Iraq at 161st position and Syria occupying the position of the least peaceful nation at number 162. South Africa’s low score is based on our homicide and violent crime statistics, which attracted a measurement of 5/5 in each case6.

A recent Oxfam report notes that 20% to 30% of all South Africans are currently suffering hunger in our supposedly food-secure nation7. Although our formal unemployment rate stands at 25%, South Africa has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, at around 36.1%.8

A Statistics SA Report released in November 2013, entitled "South Africa's Young Children: Their Parents and Home Environment 20129" indicated that South Africa’s infants, who represented 10% of the population, or 5.3 million children in 2011, lived in homes characterised by the absence of fathers and a high degree of unemployed adults.

The study showed that only 33% of black children under the age of five years lived with their fathers, that half of all mothers in South Africa were classified as single, and that children raised by single mothers often live in poverty, with 61% of SA’s 5.3 million children under five years receiving social grants, which means that they live in households where the primary caretaker has an income of less than R 3300 a month.

A report by the South African Institute of Race Relations entitled, The First Steps to Healing the South African Family10, released in April 2011, similarly documented the extent of family breakdown in South Africa and the effect this was having on children and youth.

Urgent interventions are required to turn the tide of unconscious parenting, disengaged fathering, unintended single motherhood, domestic violence, incest, rape and child abuse11. Such a fragmented and “multiply wounded” society cannot survive, thrive or attain resilience in uncertain and changing times.


What then the role of African women in creating sustainable families?

According to a 2013 Population Reference Bureau report, Sub-Saharan Africa still has a fertility rate of 5.2 children per woman, which does not bode well for our economic and human development prospects, as statistics show that the most developed countries in the world have an average of 1.7 children per woman, and the least developed, 4.5 children per woman. Africa, which is already the poorest region in the world, is driving global population growth and it is estimated that by 2050, if all things remain equal, Africa’s population will have more than doubled from its current population of 1.1 billion to 2.4 billion, with almost one in four of the world’s people living in Africa.12

A United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) article pointed out that human sustainability depends on three determinants, namely the rate of economic growth, the rate of technological progress and the rate of population growth.13

The promotion of the green economy addresses two of these determinants – economic growth and technological progress – but since 29 of the 31 countries in the world where women average more than 5 children per woman are in Africa14, and since there exists a very clearly established link that illustrates that an increase in human development indicators requires a reduction in fertility rates, African women represent a powerful resource for global transformation.

According to an October 2013 study on Single motherhood and child mortality in sub- Saharan Africa, single motherhood in sub-Saharan Africa is widespread and has critical implications for the well-being of children. The study showed that compared with children whose parents were married, children born to never-married single mothers were significantly more likely to die before age 5 in six countries (odds ratios range from 1.36 in Nigeria to 2.61 in Zimbabwe). The study also showed that up to 50% of African women will become single mothers as a consequence of divorce or widowhood. The results of this study highlight the vulnerability of children with single mothers and suggest that policies aimed at supporting single mothers could help to reduce child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.

Research has also indicated that when a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later, and has 2.2 fewer children.15 There is also statistical proof that for every additional year of schooling a mother has received, infant mortality declines by 5-10%.16 It is therefore of extreme concern that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults continue to be women.17


Global, continental, regional and national development priorities

The post 2015 sustainable development agenda, including all the local, national, regional, continental, and global development goals, can be summarised in only 5 major categories:18

  • poverty eradication and economic empowerment
  • cradle to grave education, training and skills development
  • Health and human security, including reduction of war, crime, domestic violence and violence against women and children
  • Partnerships and coordination, leaving no one behind (women, especially rural and grassroots women, disability, sexual orientation, sex workers, migrants, youth and children, etc.)
  • Environmental sustainability and climate change

The focus of South African women on the restoration of the family

What do women want, and how should South African women coordinate their efforts for the satisfaction of human needs? Given the enormous levels of household poverty, racism, family breakdown and father absence that were the legacies of apartheid design and practice, South African Women in Dialogue, a non-partisan, not for profit civil society organisation, has emphasized the need for a national peace, healing, reconciliation and social cohesion programme since its establishment in 2003, as well as towards a psycho-social, family-based strategy to reduce poverty and inequality.

The levels of brutality and violence in South Africa, from the regular occurrence of femicide to the so-called “corrective rapes” of lesbian and gay men to gang-rapes of school girls even at primary school level, illustrate that the psyche of a whole nation has remained unhealed, bruised and brutalised.

These tragic trends will require a comprehensive national healing agenda, linked to a poverty eradication approach that massively skills youth to attend to the material and psycho-social needs of individuals and families, ensuring that promised services are delivered, and that human needs are identified and matched with the appropriate resources and services.


An Agenda for Transformation of the Family

In 2011 and 2012 South African women articulated their priorities for the National Development Plan in the SA Women as Champions of Change19 provincial and national dialogues co-hosted by SA Women in Dialogue (SAWID) and the International Women’s Forum of SA (IWFSA), with the support of the Royal Norwegian Embassy.

The priorities of SA women were defined as

  • A psycho-social, family-based poverty eradication approach, combined with a productive self-reliance and economic empowerment strategy
  • Accessible and affordable early childhood education
  • A strategy to reduce violence against women and children
  • Civil society coordination (This includes women’s leadership towards creating greater resilience and sustainability in addressing issues of climate change, renewable energy, food security and access to water and sanitation)
  • Skills training, job creation and income generation in all of the above

Co-creative design

The recent book, Social Sustainability Handbook for Community Builders, indicates that social sustainability can only be achieved at the level of families and communities, and suggests that the strategy that will have the most impact and success is one that seeks to establish co-creative design teams at local levels, (in South Africa at the level of every ward and municipality), where committed groups of 7-9 people can regularly meet to articulate a vision, intention, guiding philosophy, mission statement, objective and goals to collaboratively solve challenges identified and explored by community members themselves.20 “One of the fundamental concepts of this work is that any real, lasting social change that improves the quality of life of ordinary citizens always begins at the local level. Said another way, hierarchies of authority, control and power have almost never been able to develop and complete social programs to improve the conditions of ordinary citizens. All real social progress usually begins at the local level and is initiated by local citizens.”21

The book suggests validating the vision, intention, guiding philosophy, mission statement, objective and goals against the three core values of social sustainability, (quality of life, growth and equality) and that recommendations from these grassroots groups then be coordinated, and linked to relevant resources and additional expertise and collaborative solutions for their implementation.


Partnerships for sustainability

The three core values for attaining social sustainability in families and communities have been defined as “quality of life, growth and equality” supported by the three value-emotions of “empathy, compassion and love.”22 In order for women to take the lead in rebuilding their societies humanely, they will need to partner with the existing and diverse faith-based organisations in their countries that are already closest to families and communities, as well as with women from every single political party to ensure inclusivity and effectiveness.



The single most useful lesson we can learn is that the world is the way it is because we are the way we are. All the current systems in the world reflect the values, attitudes and behaviours of humans. If humans want better and more sustainable human development outcomes, we need to make better and more sustainable decisions.

The future of African and global families will depend on the hourly decisions made by people. To create socially sustainable families, we will need to measure all our intended actions against their ability to embed quality of life, growth and equality at the level of the individual and the family, and to use the value emotions of love, empathy and compassion to co-creatively design the future we want. Only when we realise that we ourselves are planetary managers, daily creating the conditions that will forge our collective futures, will we be able to co-creatively honour the sacred web we are part of.

Let us make the kind of decisions that will create the future we all want…


Marthe Muller

Women Historian and Knowledge Management Practitioner

Chief Operations Officer: South African Women In Dialogue (SAWID)

Read more about the author and her view on being a futurist.


2YSAWID Intergenerational Dialogue, 29 August 2014, Freedom Park, Pretoria, South Africa
5Shefer T, and Clowes, (2012) L, Talking South African fathers: a critical examination of men’s constructions and experiences of fatherhood and fatherlessness, South African Journal of Psychology, 42(4), 2012, pp. 553-563.
7Oxfam, (2014) Hidden Hunger in South Africa: the Faces of Hunger and Malnutrition in a Food Secure Nation.
8Stats SA data, reported June 5, 2014
9Statistics South Africa Report. (November 2013) South Africa's Young Children: Their Parents and Home Environment 2012
10SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), (April 2011) The First Steps to Healing the South African Family.
11Two recent cases of gang-rapes at South African schools of girls as young as seven by boys between the ages of seven and ten highlight the enormity of the problem. http://m.ewn.co.za/2015/08/19/Gang-rape-reported-at-a-primary-school
13Concept paper prepared by UNFPA, (23 June 2011) Population Matters for Sustainable Development, Interagency Consultation on Population and Sustainable Development. Convened by UNFPA, New York, NY
14(www.thisisafricaonline.com infographic published in the Sept/Oct 2013 This is Africa publication of the Financial Times.)
17ActionAid, (February 2013) Making Care Visible: Women’s unpaid care work in Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya
18Muller, M. H. (2014) The Role of Future Studies in Africa: South African Women’s Strategies to Attain Human and Societal Wellbeing within Planetary Boundaries, (unpublished article commissioned by Foresight for Development, Southern Africa Node of the Millennium Project.)
19Chitiga-Mabugu, M., et al, (2014). South African Women as Champions of Change: A Civil Society Programme of Action for the African Women’s Decade. HSRC Press: Pretoria.
20Raphael, Daniel, (2015) Social Sustainability Handbook for Community Builders. Infinity Press, Colorado, p. 5.
21Raphael, Daniel, (2015) Social Sustainability Handbook for Community Builders. Infinity Press, Colorado.
22Ibid, p. 5.

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