Zuma’s new family plan sparks debate
Presidency does damage control in the wake of the president’s controversial comments.
President Jacob Zuma has a new plan to save the South African family.
The presidency on Friday announced the release of the Green Paper on Families, a document it said would provide the “opportunity for meaningful dialogue” around the “need to define the South African families together”.
The statement was released in response to a firestorm of criticism around comments Zuma made to talk show host Dali Tambo during an interview screened on Sunday night.
During the People of the South interview, Zuma – speaking about his daughter Duduzile’s marriage – said: “I was also happy because I wouldn’t want to stay with daughters who are not getting married. Because that in itself is a problem in society. I know that people today think being single is nice.
“It’s actually not right. That’s a distortion. You’ve got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother.”
Commentators and gender activists slammed Zuma for his comments. In its statement on Friday, the presidency said the “comments of the president are informed by the need to strengthen the family as an institution”.
“The debate around what the president said on People of the South should go deeper and wider, and hopefully ignite stakeholders to discuss the Family Green Paper in the public domain, and help the process of defining, building and strengthening the South African family as an institution,” the presidency said.
Gender activists have welcomed any discussion around families and their role in society, but rejected the Green Paper as “staid”, “unimaginative”, “pretty conservative” and “retrogressive”.
In the Green Paper, it is explained that the national department of social development undertook research into families before consulting with agencies in all nine provinces.
The department then held talks nationally with government departments, NGOs, faith-based organisations, community-based organisations and business.
These discussions, it says in the Green Paper, led to the finalisation of the “National Family Policy” and then to the paper itself.
The Green Paper’s goal?
To create a new dispensation that “deliberately supports and strengthens families in the country by eliminating all conditions eroding the family”.
Among these conditions are “poverty and inequality, unemployment, HIV/Aids, gender-based violence, domestic violence and child abuse”.
The Green Paper’s authors wrote that the absence of a “policy framework” about South African families was “identified as a critical policy shortcoming that needed to be urgently addressed”.
Discussion is crucial, gender activists told City Press, but the document in its current form is the wrong starting point, they argue.
Mbuyiselo Botha of the Sonke Gender Justice Network said his organisation had attended some of the consultations, but had “always raised our discomfort”.
The Green Paper, he said, focused too much on the “nuclear family” – a father, a mother and children.
“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all scenario. We must always acknowledge different family units. Diversity is critical,” Botha said.
Botha also questioned the timing of the presidency’s announcement. He said Zuma’s comments on People of the South “don’t take into consideration that women make choices”.
“Women don’t have to respond to social scripting.”
For the Green Paper to be “useful and progressive”, he said, South Africans would have to “honestly interrogate the role of men”.
“How do we get men to become fathers, not just ATMs? We need a holistic approach.”
Lisa Vetten, senior researcher and political analyst for the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, said the Green Paper was “pretty conservative”.
“It’s a staid and unimaginative piece of policy,” Vetten said.
She said a great deal more depth and analysis was needed to understand, for instance, how culture shapes family, or whether more people were rejecting marriage as an institution because it “doesn’t meet their needs”.
“It entrenches a very particular view of families,” she said, suggesting that religious groups seemed to have had a particular hand in consultations.
She said the Green Paper had actually been released last year “with very little fanfare”.
“This limits the opportunity for critical engagement – what is the status of this document? How do we make input?”
The existence of the Green Paper, though, was “very important” as it had the potential to “kick-start discussion” around family issues, Vetten said.
Melanie Judge, a board member of the Triangle Project, said the Green Paper was a “deeply conservative document that reads like a religious doctrine”.
“It reproduces the mythology of the family,” Judge said.
Speaking about the timing of the presidency’s announcement, Judge said Zuma’s comments on People of the South had provided “a coarse summary of the ideological essence of the Green Paper”.
“To what end is this ideological framework being pushed into public discussion now?” she asked.
“We need to join the dots around conservative forces’ anti-democratic claim on families.”
Colleen Lowe Morna, the CEO of Genderlinks, said: “We welcome the fact that the rather paternalistic statements made by President Zuma on the People of the South debate are being broadened into a debate on family, which includes parenting (mothers and fathers) and recognises the gendered division of labour in SA that places huge burdens on women, especially female-headed households.”
She said Gender Links would like to see “a much more in-depth discussion on different family forms” in the Green Paper.
These forms included same-sex marriages, polygamous marriages, single-parent families, and child- and grandparent-headed households.
“The romanticised nuclear family is clearly not the norm in South Africa.”
»The Green Paper on Families can be found at citypress.co.za/south-africa