The Sunday Times feature, “The changing face of the South African family” (12/07/09, p. 3) on South Africa’s diverse families is to be commended. The feature illustrated, through a number of articles and profiles, the different family structures that have come to exist in South Africa, formed by issues such as poverty, inter-racial and same sex marriages. It also featured many pictures of children from diverse families, all depicted in a positive light as part of a family unit.

Sunday Times dedicated the whole of page three to this feature. Page three is one of the most prominent pages in a newspaper and having the whole page dedicated to family values and children should be applauded.

One of the articles, “Single moms now the norm”, by Chandre Prince provided statistics on single parenthood, child headed house-holds, and poverty in South Africa. According to the article, 7 million children are being raised by single mothers, approximately 800 thousand more than those who live with both parents. This article provided a good background for the other articles in the feature, and a basis for readers to understand how these family structures came into being.

“Money’s tight, but the tight school is essential” by Lauren Cohen, profiled Taylor and her mother Sally Wellbeloved, a single mother who struggled with the stigma attached to single parenting. Sally admits in the article that being a single mother has its fair share of challenges and that Taylor’s childhood would probably impact on her views on family, which, she comments, “…in today’s world…is a changeable term”.

Another article, “Italian-Indian couple conquer barriers” by Subashni Naidoo reported on an inter-racial marriage of a Durban couple. It was, accompanied by a happy family picture, with the couple’s two children. The couple explained how their marriage would help their children become open-minded individuals who judge people for their characters, as opposed to their skin colour – a necessary quality in a diverse country like South Africa.

The feature also included an article by Zine George, “A teen herself, she is a mother to five children”, about a teenager who had to look after five other children. Her mother passed away in 2003, a year after her father passed away. Her older sister’s death followed, leaving her to take care of her three children and younger brother. It is explained that she had to rely on the R240 child-support grant she received for her three-year-old daughter and what neighbours could give them.

Sunday Times was sensitive in its depiction of this family unit in the accompanying photograph to the article, by Gary Horlor. The photograph showed the children from behind, walking together and holding hands. This protected their identities, preserved their dignity and signified a united front.

Protecting the children’s identities helps to protect the privacy and best interests of the children, particularly given their vulnerability. The article itself, and caption, fell short in fully protecting the children’s rights to privacy by naming the teenager, thereby indirectly identifying the children. This was unnecessary and could have been avoided.

Another family structure the feature touched on, in “Growing up with two mothers and no dad”, by Lauren Cohen, was that of an eight-year-old child, Beth, to a gay couple in Cape Town. This reflects the different family structures that emerged since same-sex marriages were legalised in South Africa on 30 November 2006. The article featured Carolyn and Tory who planned to get married and get Beth a ring of her own as part of the celebrations. In this article, names were changed in order to avoid conflict with Beth’s dad who was uninvolved in her life, thereby protecting the best interests of the child.

Sunday Times also invited readers to provide feedback on their views of family structures, thereby generating public debate and awareness of the topic.

One way this feature could have been improved was to have given voice to some of the children spoken about in the articles. Given the chance, and under permissible conditions where it is in their best interest, children can tell their own stories. Given the subject of this feature, it may be that, out of sensitivity to the children’s best interests, a decision was made to protect the children from intrusive interviewing, thereby excluding their voices.

Overall, well done to Sunday Times for this full-page feature. This will help create an awareness of changes in family structures that have occurred, in South Africa and globally, and the move away from the traditional “mother-father-with kids” model.