South Africa is poised to pioneer shared parental leave in Africa as a landmark high court decision mandates equal time off for both parents following the birth or adoption of a child.
The landmark judgment allows parents to choose how to divide four months parental leave between them.
Shared parental leave is a policy that allows both parents to take time off work to care for a newborn or adopted child. Instead of the traditional approach where maternity leave is predominantly taken by mothers, shared parental leave provides flexibility for both parents to divide the leave period between them.
Previously, mothers were entitled to four months’ leave while fathers or partners were allowed a maximum of 10 days.
Over the past two decades, an increasing number of African nations have introduced paid leave for fathers; however, in many countries, the duration remains below three weeks, with some only permitting two or three days off.
According to campaigners, it is a tremendous step. Wessel van den Berg, MenCare officer at Equimundo, a gender equality organisation, noted: “It raises the bar on leave for parents in a wonderful way. I’m thrilled our law is becoming more in line with our constitution.”
He added that while the judgment was “a significant milestone”, it also highlighted the need for further reforms to align policy with the reality of life in the country. Politicians have two years to refine and develop the law.
Communications strategist for Embrace, a social movement for mothers, Nkululeko Mbuli, expressed that the policy was a step in the right direction but mentioned that it still falls short in providing adequate support for mothers.
She said that the judgment, issued last month, placed responsibility for leave with individuals rather than “building a caring system”. The unemployed and those working in insecure employment were left out, she said.
“Mothers want to be excited but they are concerned about the practical implications,” she said.
Thandile Ndoda, 30, lives in Cape Town and is expecting a baby with her husband, Kwanda, 34, later this year. Kwanda was happy about the “progressive” move, and would take more leave to support Thandile. But both agreed a mother should not have to give up her leave.
“I think fathers should be allowed to be at home more but I don’t agree with sacrificing the mother’s maternity leave,” said Thandile.
Kwanda added: “I think the new generation of men is taking on a more liberal stance. They want to be a core part of their children’s lives.”
They, along with Van den Berg and Mbuli, advocate for an additional segment of non-transferable “use it or lose it” leave for both parents, a system seen in countries like Spain and Sweden, ensuring it doesn’t reduce the shared leave period.
“The journey is far from over,” said Van den Berg, “but this judgment represents a promising step toward a more equitable and balanced caregiving landscape in South Africa.”