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The shape of the South African family

- Beth Amato

Migrant labour has intrinsically shaped family life in SA. Family structures and the concept of 'home' would be vastly different if it weren’t for this history.

Children swimming. ©Lauren Mulligan |

On the M2 West highway between the Ruven and Heidelberg Road off-ramps, the original hostels for black mineworkers stand as monuments to migrant labour, which has shaped South Africa in ways we’re still trying to understand. At first glance, the hostels seem drab and derelict but evidence of domesticity – flapping laundry from windows and a lively soccer game on the fields adjacent to the buildings – suggests that life continues here in a new form and will continue to change as it always has in Johannesburg. The mine dumps, like the City’s custard-coloured waste mountains, lie beyond the hostels to the south. They too are being re-mined and repurposed. 

Hostels as homes in eGoli 

The Mandela Initiative (a multi-sector platform to investigate and develop strategies to overcome poverty and inequality) provides an historical overview of South Africa’s migrancy. Labour migration can be traced to the diamond rush of the 1800s and then the discovery of gold reefs on the Witwatersrand. Migrant labour was systemised by the state and the mining companies, and later became central to the apartheid government’s strategy to control black influx to “white” cities while ensuring a steady supply of labour. 

The single-sex compound or hostel system that provided accommodation for mainly black men was a key feature of migrant labour, resulting in the fragmenting of families, who stayed behind in what became “homelands”. Research by Wits Professor Dori Posel shows that the migrant labour force peaked in 1986 with an estimated 560 000 migrants on the mines. Many men found partners in the City and had children. “Dual household members and temporary migration have continued post-apartheid,” said Posel. 

Fragmented families 

Katharine Hall, who co-edited the South African Child Gauge 2018: Children, Families and the State – Contestation and Collaboration, notes that the migrant labour system has intrinsically shaped family life, and that family structures and the concept of “home” would be vastly different if it weren’t for this history. 

“In particular, apartheid fragmented families and weakened communities,” says Hall. This was a result of legislation and forced removals, but was also achieved through structural impediments to family life. Many of these obstacles to family life persist today – shortages of adequate family accommodation in urban areas; the under-resourcing of schools, health services and childcare facilities; and the lack of infrastructure and economic opportunity in rural areas.  Therefore where “home” is, and where children live, may be a strategic decision made out of necessity. 

Parents might work in cities and children live with grandmothers in rural areas because childcare support in urban areas is hard to come by and expensive. Children may move to live with other family later, especially if they are closer to good schools and other services. 

“Both families and households take diverse forms and household arrangements may change over time as people move. South Africa has high internal migration rates and children are also mobile. Any picture we have of households is just a snapshot in time,” notes Hall.  Many families are “stretched”, for example, with members moving between households that span urban and rural areas. It is not unusual for children to be raised by grandparents or other family members – kinship networks have historically played an important role in the care of children. The apartheid migrant labour system relied on this, and contemporary society continues to do so. 

The state acknowledges the diversity of family and care arrangements through its laws and, to some extent, in its policies. “The concept of a child’s family affiliation and belonging is even broader in customary law than in state law,” says Linda Richter, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation (DST-NRF) Centre of Excellence in Human Development

But the state still tends to view the nuclear family (two biological parents and their children) as the standard. “Its privileged status is sometimes implicit in policies and the attitudes of those who implement policy,” says Richter. 

The statistics in the Child Gauge highlight that 62% of children live in extended family households, and that only 25% live in nuclear family households. 

Remaking South African 

“When parents are absent from their children’s households, it does not mean they have abandoned their children. Ninety-three percent of children with an absent mother and 78% with an absent father are in contact with their parent. Around half of absent parents send some financial support for the child,” says Hall. 

The authors of the Child Gauge 2018 argue that that government policies and programmes should recognise the current (and changing) shape of families and support families to achieve the living arrangements that best meet their needs and their children’s needs. Programmes need to be sufficiently flexible to respond to diverse and changing forms as families strategise to maintain homesteads, to gain secure tenure at places of work, to care for children and other dependants, to further the education of their members, and to provide income. 

The Child Gauge 2018 offers insight into how policies and programmes can be structured and implemented. Ultimately, The Child Gauge 2018 attempts to help us break down the meta-narrative of the nuclear family and “home” as something bounded and static. Households are constantly made and remade in South Africa. 

  • Beth Amato is a specialist writer at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development hosted at Wits University and a freelance journalist
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the seventh issue, themed: #Ekhaya (isiZulu for ‘home’) about our homegrown research that crosses borders and explore the physical spaces we inhabit, where we feel we belong, where we’re from and what we identify with, including the physical/psychological space we may return to – or reject.