How different are today’s men from their fathers? How are men today navigating life compared to their predecessors? What have men today evolved from and what are they evolving into? These are important questions to ask since we are at a point in history where the role, image, and process of being a man in society become a hugely contentious issue.

The reality is that our understanding of what it is to be a man is one that has been handed down from generation to generation. In order to understand how we arrived at this point, it is important to interrogate how some of these beliefs manifested in the first place.

Man as the head

A brief look at history reveals that early homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers. Families' movements were determined by men, by virtue of the simple fact they had the physical strength and endurance needed to hunt, but not necessarily a higher cognitive capacity. This era served as the origin of the concept of "man as provider".

The advent of agriculture changed the direction of human life on earth. Captive livestock and the surplus created by farming meant that communities did not need to move around constantly. However, the authority that men had garnered during the hunting and gathering era meant that it was men who still determined the direction of life in their communities. The components of what constituted community life were determined by men. This gave birth to the concept "man" not as a collection of physical traits but as a "superior" state of being. This is evidenced in the number of cultures in which much of the customs and beliefs centre around the man.

How is this changing?

A 2016 study by Statistics SA revealed that around 64% of households in the country were fatherless. What this translates into is that while the notion of a man being the head of the home may have been deemed noble, it is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, the insistence in our society that men, or fathers, be the head of the house and the realities of the fact many men have abandoned their families has created a toxic void, more so in the lives of young boys who grow up to be men, and fathers, themselves.

In the absence of the (biological) father figure, many men found themselves navigating a world without the modelling that the role that they have seemingly been born into requires.

Then there are those who are breaking this mould and redefining what it means to be a family man. Nsika Nxumalo is a self-employed father of two boys and also a stay-at-home dad. Though his father was present in his life, Nsika felt that fathers like his overly prioritised the societal aesthetic of the role of fatherhood rather than spending time and forging bonds that can sustain meaningful parent/child relationships.

“I had a vision of what I wanted my family to look like," he says. “Having two working professionals was not the sort of family that I wanted to start.” He goes on to explain that the main difference between his home and the one that he grew up is the level of fairness in terms of the equitable distribution of duties. This, however, does not imply that his home is one devoid of gender roles but rather, one that does not have rigid societal constructs of what those roles are. “It’s not just the mother who wakes up at night when the child cries,” he explains. For him, his approach to fatherhood hinges on the ethos of raising well-rounded and self-assured children. This is done through presence and making sure that the process of providing for a family is not a hindrance to the bonds within it. Most importantly for Nsika, fatherhood should never be a tool for the self-aggrandisement of an individual.

House of power

Many of our fathers speak with unfettered pride about how they are the "head of the house". By this, they meant that the physical house that the family lived in was theirs and everyone in it was essentially an indentured resident. This was said in order to point out hierarchy by way of economic superiority.

This belief also relies on a good dose of selective memory. In the 1900s many men left their rural homesteads to look for work in burgeoning cities such as Joburg. Most of them left their families behind, leaving the women to raise the children and look after the home. The laws that prevailed throughout most of that time were prohibitive of women, especially black women, owning land or property. Women were also relegated to the lowest-paying jobs. This led women to experience a financial disadvantage that necessitated marriage for the sake of economic survival. Thus, a woman didn’t necessarily stay with a man, and abide by his rules, as a result of a man’s inherent superiority but simply because it was generally the only feasible fiscal solution, save for staying at her family home and therefore burdening already strained parents. Many of our forebears took this economic advantage as a birthright; a testament to their manhood.

How is this changing?

While men had the financial wherewithal, their disconnection from their families meant that much of their money was apportioned into simplistic compartments of “providing for the family”, by sending money home, and self-care. The former was handed over to women. Many women gained the financial acumen to use money prudently since it was the woman who had to make sure that the little money the man brought home covered the family’s entire needs.

The traits that were deemed manly were actually the manifestations of a collective, generational post-traumatic stress disorder.

It was no surprise, then, when First National Bank released a report in 2016 showing that more single women than any other group were buying property in Gauteng. The years of financial disadvantage and the disempowerment that it brought influenced how many women handled their finances. The report also signified a shift, however minute, in the paradigm of male dominance being associated with property ownership and the financial security that it represents. The recent resurgence of the feminist movement that advocates for women’s rights also signals that these changes are here to stay.

Stern and distant

Some of the hallmarks of the previous generation of men were the facade of a stern disciplinarian, cold and distant. These, it was implied, were how a "real man" carried himself, how a man maintained order in the home and achieved being treated with regal honour and astute reverence.

Peel back a few layers and you find that these "manly" characteristics are, in fact, coping mechanisms. Those who came before us found themselves being raised by fathers broken by a system of oppression that stripped them of their dignity and left their bodies emasculated and their spirit emaciated. The "sternness" was, in fact, an attempt to piece together some semblance of strength, however misguided and extremist. The aim was to exercise authority to compensate for the indignity of being treated like a child by work superiors who were old enough to be the man's own child. The sternness was a mask.

The "distant" mood was, in reality, a complete disconnect. After several generations of men leaving their families for extended periods of time, a culture of men who were incapable of connecting with their children was born. Many men, in their distance from their families and children, found solace in alcoholism and rampant philandering to deal with their internal conflicts. The traits that were deemed manly were actually the manifestations of a collective, generational post-traumatic stress disorder. When Men's Foundation of South Africa released statistics that showed 450 men commit suicide every month in the country, it became clear that the trauma was still pervasive in our society and the facades are no longer holding up.

How is this changing?

Thaabe Ramabina, a 32-year-old Kimberley-born, Abu Dabi-based architect and father of two views the traditional definition of a father as inherently flawed. "The word father means 'provider', it means just being there," he says. "Whereas the word 'dad' is something that we all aspire to be because we went to white schools and we saw how the fathers of white kids were there for them. They (the fathers) were there at the rugby matches and all those things." He describes his process of being a father being marked by constantly learning on the fly and predicated on the idea of being fully present. "When I became a father to my wife’s son from a previous relationship I didn’t know what was expected of me but I did know that what he (my son) was looking for was a beacon, someone that he can talk to, someone that he can talk about difficult things with."  When the men of old left their families behind to go look for better work opportunities, modern men like Thaabe take their families with them. "The times were very different for our fathers because they could not and should not have taken their family to the big cities such as Joburg because they did not know what to expect."

There is a lot of work that men today need to put in, in order to change our society for the better. Our archaic beliefs about manhood pin us into a corner out of which we have to come swinging. For our own sake and for the sake of those we care about.