Visiting any mall or reading advertising inserts in South African newspapers or emails from various commercial outlets, one learns that June 16 is Father’s Day, and this is the chance to show your father how much you value him by buying him a gift. Sometimes the qualities of fatherhood, as understood by shopping outlets are spelt out for those who may need guidance on his qualities.
Now the reason why Father’s Day falls on June 16 this year is that South Africans follow the US tradition which marks it on the third Sunday of June. Consequently, it will not happen next year as it did not fall on June 16 last year. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father%27s_Day).
Father’s Day did not originate in departmental stores but has a history unconnected with consumerism and has been marked in different ways in different countries, going back to the 16th century.
Even if we do not “buy into” consumerist versions of Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, since so many people do mark these days or celebrate them, how should we relate to “Father’s Day”? It has a long history, generally associated with patriarchal notions of manhood, in many countries.
We need to consider using these occasions to engage and debate the meanings of motherhood and fatherhood, much needed in this country and many others. Indeed, there are feminists in the North who have engaged with the meanings of fatherhood in relation to its celebration on this day. They have challenged the articulation of Father’s Day as necessarily being linked with patriarchal notions of what fatherhood means. (See, for example, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/this-fathers-day-im-giving-my-dad-the-gift-of-feminism-a7087946.html and https://www.sheknows.com/parenting/slideshow/9550/gifts-for-feminist-dads/ )
Checkers, in an insert in newspapers, provides opportunities for such engagement insofar as it depicts fatherhood as embracing traditional “manly” qualities that are associated with strength and toughness:
SUNDAY 16 JUNE.”
The man who is a legend, is not a puny person like many of us, but large in stature and therefore needs a big steak, of course
“BIG CUT FOR
THE BIG GUY
As with the marking of Heritage Day as “Braai Day” by many, I imagine mainly whites, the legend is associated with that man:
“THE BEST GUY DESERVES THE BEST BRAAI”
It is a man, not a woman, who is assumed to know how to start a fire and to braai just the right way. Manhood is associated with being the person who manages the braai and a Weber Braai is advertised:
“FOR THE GUY BEHIND THE BRAAI”
Checkers is ready to meet the needs of a real father, and it claims that they have been
“VOTED FAVOURITE SUPERMARKET STEAK BRAND”.
But Dad has other qualities, that need to be recognised. When he relaxes from his manly tasks, he may wear a gown and similar gear that are advertised:
Mugs are advertised, marked “SUPER DAD” “BEST DAD” AND “THE MAN. DAD THE LEGEND” and finally Checkers toasts “Dad”:
“RAISE A GLASS AND TOAST TO THE MAN OF THE MOMENT”
Not every outlet or departmental store has developed this elaborate marketing of the qualities of fatherhood and masculinity. Many simply relied on flooding their stores with labels reminding us that it was to be Father’s Day and filled their mailing lists with information about products and special offers for “Dad”.
The notion of fatherhood celebrated in its origins and today remains patriarchal and that is why some feminists have condemned Father’s Day and others have engaged with it in general and with their own fathers, urging them to adopt non-patriarchal conduct or celebrating those who already do.
We surely need such engagement in South Africa, insofar as we are a very violent society and it is mainly masculine violence that we experience. We also know that the models of manhood displayed by fathers have implications for their daughters but also for their sons who learn from an early age that there is a transition to manhood, that lies ahead of them. They usually hear or observe what is suited to be a boy, later to become a man, and much of this creates the seeds for the aggression and violence that is part of our daily life.
While we may be irritated by the consumerist elements or the entire notion of contemporary Father’s Day, it is surely important to use every opportunity to engage in and enrich the debate about masculinities. This is necessary, in order to create new role models that are affirming of men and boys who are not always rough and tough, and also models that indicate what behaviour towards women and those who do not conform to heterosexual norms, is respectful.
Youth Day, marking the 1976 uprising
One of the striking features of the elaborate celebration of Father’s Day, with its falling on June 16 is that we see the erasure of that day as a historic moment in the history of the country, the history of the struggle for freedom, when the youth rose against Bantu Education in Soweto and apartheid more generally. This led to resistance and repression that spread throughout the country.
That Woolworths, Takealot, Checkers and all the other outlets do not even mention the local South African meaning of June 16 is somewhat shocking. It also feeds into a sense that there are many people who have not bought into South African freedom, for without its history freedom becomes a disembodied moment that miraculously changed apartheid repression into a democratic order, (with a range of possibilities not yet realised and with all the imperfections that we now witness).
In truth, without the June 16 uprising, our freedom may have been delayed or we may not have achieved democratic elections in 1994. At the very least, some acknowledgement is owed to those who were killed, maimed, blinded or permanently wounded and disabled in a range of ways and many of whom spent substantial periods in prison. Many others had their schooling suspended and continue to forfeit opportunities for employment due to lack of formal qualifications, deriving from 1976.
1976 marked a new moment in resistance, following the crushing of the ANC and PAC in the early 1960s, inside the country. The Black Consciousness Movement emerged, in the late 1960s, and was the primary force amongst those who were involved in this uprising, although many sought counsel from ANC and PAC elders who operated in very restricted conditions in various townships and also rural areas. Many of these young people left the country to avoid being killed or arrested and often, to take up armed struggle, mainly joining either ANC or PAC.
This sacrifice was made not just for themselves, but for all of us. Is it not something we should honour? Is it not deep disrespect to shunt it aside without so much as a mention, in favour of sales pitches for Father’s Day?
We live in a wounded society, where oppressors and their descendants as well as the oppressed and their descendants, suffer from a range of traumas. We are a people who have not healed. But healing will not happen if some are indifferent to major moments of heroism and suffering, experienced by others. Even if we do not all have a sense of fervour around the events celebrated by some, we need to demonstrate some measure of respect. That is absent in the way Father’s Day has been marked this year.
Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner