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South Africa

Family Life In Black Communities

Anthropologically, the black people (77.5% of the population) are viewed as belonging to four ethnic groups, the Nguni, the Sotho, the Tsonga Shangaan, and the Venda. The groups differ in size and origin and have their own cultures, speak their own languages, and have different dialects within the groups.

Black families are traditionally extended, with a dominant father at the head. Large changes in urban families have taken place primarily as a result of urbanization, housing problems, political factors (the migratory labor system), and economic underdevelopment coupled with poverty. However, nuclear families have formed within the high socioeconomic group. The high incidence of outof-wedlock births has resulted in the replacement of the nuclear family with other structures. In many cases the daughter and child live with the mother, which means that many multigenerational families exist (Steyn 1993).

Economic development in the areas of mining, harbors, and industrial growth resulted in the migrant labor system. This meant that the workers (men) moved to other areas alone to work there to earn an income. A portion of the money was then sent to the family in the rural area. In the course of time, family members were allowed to live together near the workplace under certain conditions. However, traditional family structures could not continue in this industrial environment. Differences between families in urban and rural areas can be ascribed to the effect of industrialization, urbanization, and the migrant labor system (Nzimande 1996).

Although ethnically different, all black families share some characteristics: the importance of children, a happy family life, strong family ties, and the nature and implication of being married (Viljoen 1994). Certain practices, such as polygamy and lobola (the giving of something valuable or the payment of money by the groom to the family of the bride), are viewed as strengths because they prevent divorce and marital disintegration. The decrease in the incidence of payment of lobola can be ascribed to the diminishing of parents' authority over their daughters and is an indication of how traditional practices are making way for Western values (Manona 1981). Traditionally, the family unit is viewed as consisting of the husband, wife, and unmarried children, who form part of a larger family structure, the extended family. This is the ideal structure, and when a married son leaves the extended family to begin his own household, the process is known as fission. Viewed over time, black family life can be seen as moving from the extended to the nuclear type. However, the one has not replaced the other.

General extended family patterns are vertical (multigenerational) or horizontal (when brothers with their families live with the oldest brother). A further dimension, also known as composite families, occurs when the husband has more than one wife, and they all live together (with their children). These various extended family forms exist in all African cultures (Nzimande 1996). Generally in extended families, there is a wider group of people who are related by blood or marriage and who identify with and care for one another. The extended family is usually more stable than a nuclear family and extends over longer periods. The development and shrinkage of the extended family is affected by fertility, marriages, divorces, and deaths; in many communities it serves as a social service system that cares for and provides support to various categories of dependents. Notwithstanding the longer lifetime of the extended family, its existence is influenced especially by the greater economic independence of individual members, who tend to move out in order to live more independently in their own nuclear family.

Although the nuclear family functions more independently, its members usually do not totally break ties with the family of origin or other important family members. During problems and in times of crises, members of the extended family are still expected to help and support one another. In many nuclear families a niece, nephew, aunt, or uncle is also present because he or she needs support.

The support system in black communities is based upon regulations, values, and socialization patterns through which a feeling of social responsibility and reciprocal support is created and practiced (Nzimande 1996). The main purpose is to maintain the group's character throughout the extended family. There are indications of a continual decrease of family involvement within the extended family system, which results in a decrease of support resources, especially for those who need them. Because the individual worker becomes economically independent, the extended family increasingly becomes a smaller supportive factor for his or her survival.

Some of the strongest influences changing traditional family life in black communities are poverty, poor housing, urbanization, rising divorce rates, and a decline in traditional institutions, customs, and values (Viljoen 1994). Obedience and respect for parents (or parentlike authority) are among the key values and socialization processes of traditional black families that are being affected in particular. This is why a reformulation of the role of the father in the family (in terms of authority and involvement) is one of the most crucial issues in black family life. Along with these factors is the changing external environment, which, in itself, sets new challenges and presents other values for the younger generation of black families.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsSouth Africa - Family Life In Black Communities, Family Life In Asian Communities, Family Life In Colored Families