Mothers in South Africa Face Triple Challenge of Inequality, Unemployment and Poverty 

By Christina Teichmann, FW de Klerk Foundation Board Member


The FW de Klerk Foundation would like to extend its best wishes to all mothers in South Africa on this year’s Mother’s Day, a day that is celebrated internationally in recognition of the important role mothers play – not only in their families, but in society as a whole.

While Mother’s Day has been commercialised around the world – with shopping malls enticing customers to gift their mothers with chocolates, flowers and perfumes – the day presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the lived realities of mothers in South Africa and pay tribute to their immense contribution, which often comes with hardship and sacrifice.

The fact is that 43% of mothers in South Africa live in single-parent households and have to carry the burden of raising children alone. They do so without the emotional and often the monetary support of the biological father. While the legacy of migrant labour may still be a factor in this state of affairs, it does not explain sufficiently why single-mother parenting is more the norm than the exception in South Africa. Another factor may be the fact that many black households are not structured on a nuclear family basis. 33% of households have extended family structures – compared with 45% that are nuclear families.

According to a 2022 General Household Survey by StatsSA, only one third of children (33.8%) lived with both parents. 43.4% of children lived only with their mothers whilst a much smaller percentage (4.0%) of children lived only with their fathers. About one-fifth (18.8%) of all children did not live with either parent and were cared for by their extended families. What these statistics mean in practice is that two-thirds of South African children grow up without the role model and economic support of a father.

In addition, there is the triple challenge of inequality, unemployment and poverty that women in general – and mothers in particular – have to deal with. Although the South African Constitution identifies the achievement of equality as a foundational value, the reality is that gender still plays a significant role in determining an individual’s life chances, job opportunities, level of income, proneness to gender-based violence and poverty.

High levels of unemployment, especially amongst South African women, add to the difficult economic situation of many mothers. According to StatsSA, the current unemployment rate for women is 35.5% compared to 30.4% for men (Q4:2022). At the same time, the labour absorption rate for women stands at only 34.2%, while it is 44.6% for men. Women with small children to look after find it more difficult to find work and – when employed – are often found in lower-paid positions than their male counterparts. The stereotype of men being the breadwinners of families persists despite research and statistics proving otherwise. Given these statistics, it is not surprising that households headed by single mothers are more likely to be living in poverty than in dual income households.

The contribution of mothers cannot be overemphasised – although it is often taken for granted, not remunerated and not recognised. Let us celebrate this Mother’s Day by saluting our mothers and aiming to promote the Constitution’s objective of non-discrimination, non-sexism and gender equality in all spheres of life.