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Mother until the End of the World

13.000 km separates Denmark and South Africa, but to what extent is the role of the mother in the cold North distinguishable from that in the warm South? How does climate, culture, and history impact motherhood? A researcher of anthropology has examined this in Cape Town.

2021.06.21 | Marianne Ester Back

South Africa's first mobile health programme "M-health" is an SMS program that focuses on mother-child health. Here Bongani (pseudonym) from Khayelitsha, which is the largest township on the Cape Flats, shows Shari how she plays music and videos on the phone when putting her baby to sleep. (Photo: Private)

Many mothers from the former townships take on a large responsibility for their community. They may cook breakfast for the children of the street, or they may, as here, have a soup kitchen. (Photo: Private)

In Denmark, we let our children lie outside in the pram and sleep, whereas that kind of managing motherhood could potentially result in a lawsuit in the US. In the nature of things, motherhood is different from culture to culture. Assistant professor and anthropologist Nanna Schneidermann from Aarhus University has been doing fieldwork in Cape Town. Here, she has had an up-close look at the South African motherhood, among other things by becoming first a doula, a practical, non-medical obstetrician, and then a nursing consultant. She worked as a volunteer at a local clinic in the southern suburb of Cape Town and has had many talks with South African mothers about motherhood. We asked her what significance the role of the mother has had through time in South African culture.

 The messages are not so much about health professional information, rather about fostering a relationship between mother and child. (Nanna Schneidermann)  

The State as the Good Mother

The mother, or ma, as it is called in Afrikaans, plays a central role in the South African society. Historically, the mother figure in South Africa has often had a mediating role between the family and the state as well as the local communities. It is therefore no coincidence that South Africa’s first national mobile health programme has motherhood as its focal point. Nanna Schneidermann was doing fieldwork in Cape Town to examine how the health programme was received among the mothers in the former townships. The M-health programme consists of a digital patient database and an SMS program that focuses on mother-child health by sending advice on the pregnancy and the child’s first year of life to women during their pregnancy and motherhood.

"The messages are not so much about health professional information, rather about fostering a relationship between mother and child. An example of a message could be: Now your child is the size of a bean. You can take very good care of your child by avoiding alcohol. And later on, it may be about the importance of looking the child in the eye."

Many women die during childbirth, and too many children lose their lives early in South Africa. In addition, new fields within the health sciences, such as epigenetics, suggest pregnancy and the child's first year of life as special windows for intervention. The theory is that if the child has good conditions, from being conceived until approximately the age of two, then it is in a stronger position in life in terms of learning, sociality, and the immune system. Similarly, if the child experiences injuries during the same period, the negative consequences are severe. According to Nanna Schneidermann, the messages are the state's way of formulating motherhood as a type of citizenship, but it also puts pressure on the mothers.

“The mother is in this connection in a way reduced to the foetus’ “environment”, but is at the same time made responsible for the whole of the child’s life and future. The interventions are aimed at individuals rather than trying to change structural conditions. The women I worked with in Cape Town became mothers in families often characterized by violence, abuse, and difficult housing conditions. These circumstances make it hard to live up to advice about being healthy during pregnancy. Structural conditions influence what opportunities you have in life, which is something to take into account, especially in South Africa where the society is characterized by inequality.”

A Mother Can Provide a Roof over one’s Head

The state also attributes the mother a central role in other connections. Under apartheid, when the city was divided into different race-dependent zones, only mothers with a family could get access to housing. Because of this, the mother became pivotal for access to resources, Nanna Schneidermann explains.

“The mother becomes a mediator between the family and the state because the women are seen as more stable or more reliable collaborators in terms of questions about family welfare. This means that mothers have gained a very powerful position in communities because they control a scarce resource in South Africa, namely that of having a roof over one’s head.”

The Mother as the Guardian of Moral

The important role of the mother as the one who can provide a roof over the family has, according to Nanna Schneidermann, also influenced how social life has unfolded and what role the mother undertakes both indoors and on the street.

“The former township areas are known globally for being some of the most crime-ridden places on earth with the most murders and drugs. However, they are also places of everyday activities. Mothers play a role as a kind of guardians of moral. They maintain order both within the house and outside. The women make sure that the court is neat. Even though there are gangs and drugs, and everybody is in some way involved, the social motherhood is also a way of navigating in a world filled with chaos and violence.”

To be honest, we are tired. I can feel my body being drained. But what can we do when we see the children on the street? We have to neglect ourselves and do what we can to help. (Mary, who lives in a squatter camp with over 50.000 inhabitants) 

The mother as the guardian of moral stems, according to Nanna Schneidermann, from a concept, which in Afrikaans is called ordenlikheid. It means decency or respectability and is used to refer to that of being a moral person who is of value to the surrounding society.

Ordenlikheid is in many ways about the role of the woman, which is very domesticated; she is to stay at home and keep track of the house. A good mother is a virtuous woman who stays at home, takes care of her children and sacrifices everything for her children. In a way, you can say that the new discourses in terms of the state’s increased focus on motherhood and the child’s first 1000 days fit well with historical conceptions of womanliness and motherhood.”

Biological Mother and Mother for the Children of the Street

South African mothers also take on a large responsibility for their community. They may have a soup kitchen or a prayer group. They may also cook breakfast for 10 of the children in the neighborhood who otherwise would not get breakfast.

“The mothers are not just mothers for their biological children; they also occupy a kind of community motherhood. The social responsibility again represents the moral decency,” Nanna Schneidermann explains.

Mary, who lives in a squatter camp with over 50.000 inhabitants, works for better housing. At the same time, she is someone neighbors in need of help wake up if there is a break-in or a fight. She, and a group of women, also cook food for the children in the neighborhood every day. She says:

“To be honest, we are tired. I can feel my body being drained. But what can we do when we see the children on the street? We have to neglect ourselves and do what we can to help.”

Nanna Schneidermann hopes that next time she will be able to study motherhood in the North, more specifically on the Faroe Islands, where she was raised.

Read more articles on mother at humanioranu.au.dk

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