The purpose of this study was to determine how coloured families are affected by the problem of parental alcohol abuse. The theoretical framework for this study is family systems theory, with specific reference to the work of Bowen (1974), Broderick (1993), Haley (1996) and Minuchin (1974). According to this theory, which has its origin in general systems theory (Von Bertalanffy 1968), families are social systems that should be studied as a whole, rather than studying individual members in isolation (Broderick 1993). A change in the functioning of one family member is, as can expected, followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of the other family members (The Bowen Centre – Theory 2016). A family is therefore a system or “whole” in which a problem such as parental alcohol abuse necessarily affects all family members or “parts”.
Alcohol abuse is a major problem worldwide and affects not only individuals, but families and communities as well. In South Africa, too, alcohol abuse is a considerable problem, with an overall prevalence of as high as 38,7% (Van Heerden, Grimsrud, Seedat, Myer, Williams and Stein 2009:358). The Western Cape is the province with the highest lifetime prevalence of substance abuse in South Africa, and alcohol is the most frequently abused substance (Harker, Kader, Myers, Fakier, Parry, Flisher, Peltzer, Ramlagan and Davids 2008:7). Also, alcohol abuse seems to be highest among the coloured population group (Harker et al. 2008:9) and in rural areas (Harker et al. 2008:10).
Alcohol abuse has played a role in South Africa since the arrival of the European settlers, when drunkenness, smuggling of liquor, gambling and violence became part of the daily life of inhabitants (Parry 2005:426). The “dop” system, through which workers were paid for their labour in the form of wine, further contributed to alcohol abuse’s becoming entrenched in the lives of workers and their families for generations (Setlalentoa, Pisa, Thekisho, Ryke and Loots 2010:S11). The “dop” system originated in the early years of colonial settlement in the Cape colony, when indigenous people started working on settler farms and were paid with tobacco, bread or wine (London 1999:1408; Mager 2004:736).
Alcohol abuse can potentially have various negative effects on individuals, families and communities. It can have a negative impact on an individual, both as a causal factor for various diseases and as a precursor to injuries and violence (WHO 2011:V). The harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than sixty types of diseases, including neuropsychiatric disorders, gastrointestinal diseases such as liver cirrhosis and pancreatitis, various types of cancer (female breast cancer, larynx, liver, oesophagus and pharynx), cardiovascular diseases and diabetes mellitus (WHO 2011:20). Potential negative outcomes for children exposed to parental alcohol abuse include poor educational achievement, behavioural problems, mental health problems, as well as their abusing alcohol themselves (Gruenert and Tsantefski 2012:4). Alcohol abuse affects not only individuals and families, but also the community. Low productivity or absence from work as a result of intoxication or a hangover, for example, has a negative impact on the economy. There are also various costs associated with unemployment, damage from crime and traffic accidents, and the provision of health, criminal justice and social services to those affected by an alcohol-attributable problem (Myers, Louw and Pasche 2011:146; WHO 2007:21).
A phenomenological research design with a qualitative, exploratory research paradigm was applied, and data were collected by means of semi-structured interviews with family representatives. In order to participate in the study, families had to meet the following inclusion criteria: (1) at least one parent in the family had to have been abusing alcohol for six months or longer; (2) the parent still had to be abusing alcohol at the time of the interview; (3) the family had to reside in the Western Cape; (4) the family had to belong to the coloured population; and (5) it had to be a two-parent family. A total of 18 families participated in the study. In 15 cases, the mother acted as the representative of the family, and in one case the father. In two cases both the mother and a daughter who still lives with them at home participated on behalf of the family. Data were analysed by means of thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006), and seven main themes emerged: the negative effects of alcohol abuse on finances, the community, the family, health, the marriage, the children and the adults’ careers.
Theme 1 refers to participants’ descriptions of all the ways in which parental alcohol abuse influenced the family’s finances negatively. This theme relates to the spouse and parent-child subsystems on the micro-level as well as the macro-level, since it has an influence on the economy. The parent who abuses alcohol often spent money meant for the household on alcohol.
Theme 2 refers to participants’ descriptions of all the ways in which alcohol abuse has a negative impact on people outside the participant’s family. This theme pertains to the macro-level of ecological systems theory. Participants spoke about other families living nearby in which alcohol abuse is prevalent and the negative effects of this. In addition to cases of child neglect, the problem of drunken driving was also prevalent in this community.
Theme 3 refers to the ways in which alcohol abuse negatively affects the family as a unit. This theme includes the spouse, parent-child as well as sibling subsystems, and forms part of the micro-system. Sometimes the alcohol-abusing parent does not get along with other family members, keeps the family awake at night or fights with family members.
Theme 4 refers to the participants’ descriptions of how alcohol abuse by a parent had a negative effect on their own health or their spouse’s health. The parent who abuses alcohol sometimes developed health problems due to the alcohol abuse, and sometimes the alcohol abuse exacerbated an existing health problem. Healthcare or medical resources in a community form part of the exosystem describing the community- environment level (Visser 2007:25). The alcohol-abusing parent’s spouse sometimes suffered from stress.
Theme 5 refers to participants’ descriptions of how alcohol abuse negatively influenced the relationship between father and mother. This theme is related to the spouse subsystem as defined by family systems theory, and entails an effect on the micro-level. Both parents sometimes had extramarital relationships. The alcohol-abusing parent sometimes accused the other parent of having extramarital relationships, sometimes asked the non-alcohol abusing parent to drink with them, sometimes helped very little in the household, and sometimes spent very little time with the non-alcohol-abusing parent. Participants sometimes felt that their partners did not love them, that they caused their partner’s alcohol abuse, and that they remained in their marriages only for the sake of their children. Participants also sometimes experienced fear, suicidal thoughts, lovelessness or poor communication in the marriage.
Theme 6 entails descriptions of how parental alcohol abuse negatively influenced the participating families’ children. The children sometimes suffered from stress, or left school, or their school grades dropped; they were embarrassed to bring friends home, or started abusing alcohol or drugs themselves. In one case a child was molested by the parent that abused alcohol, and in another case a child fell pregnant at a very young age. In one case where a child also started drinking, the child was involved in a motor vehicle accident in which he became paralysed.
Theme 7 entails ways in which parental alcohol abuse had a negative influence on both the alcohol-abusing and the non-alcohol-abusing parents at work. Sometimes the parent who abuses alcohol lost his/her job due to alcohol, sometimes stole at work, sometimes did not show up at work on Mondays and sometimes went to work under the influence of alcohol. The parent who does not abuse alcohol sometimes had difficulty concentrating at work. This theme has implications on both the micro- and the macro-level.
From the results it is clear that parental alcohol abuse can have various negative effects on different domains of family life. These findings are important, since they fill a gap in the South African literature with regard to the subjective experiences of poor, coloured families in the Western Cape in which parental alcohol abuse is prevalent. These findings should be taken into consideration when developing interventions for families experiencing parental alcohol abuse. Suggestions for the content of such interventions are made.
The negative experiences of coloured families in the Western Cape with regard to alcohol abuse influence various subsystems within the family, as well as the wider community system as a whole. This problem can be explained from a systemic perspective by taking South Africa’s historical background of apartheid and the “dop” system into account. The “dop” system became entrenched in the lives of coloured families in the Western Cape through the generational transmission of family problems, as described in Bowen’s (1974) family systems theory, and therefore it is important to focus on family patterns over time in order to prevent or minimise the transmission of this problem to the next generations.
Keywords: alcohol abuse; family; family systems theory