Parental Leave and How Maternity Leave Has Gone Gender Neutral in South Africa

11 minutes read
Tory De Bassio

Parental Leave – The Basics  

Parental leave is a crucial component of a modern and progressive workplace, as it supports the wellbeing of employees and families and contributes to the overall development of a society that values work-life balance and gender equality. Parental leave refers to the time off granted to employees to care for a new baby or newly adopted child, allowing parents to balance their professional and personal responsibilities. Recently, in South Africa, there has been a legal change in how they approach parental leave, from a more mother-focused leave to a shared leave between parents. 

In this article, we will zoom in on parental leave by focusing on why it is important and covering recent developments from South Africa.  

Here are several reasons why parental leave is essential: 

  • Employee Retention and Productivity: Organisations that offer parental leave demonstrate a commitment to supporting their employees through various life stages. This commitment enhances employee loyalty and morale, ultimately increasing retention rates. When employees feel valued and supported, they are more likely to remain engaged and productive in their roles, positively impacting the organisation's overall success. Parental leave also has purely practical implications; with this leave policy in place, more women can participate in the workforce. 
  • Family Support and Bonding: One of the primary benefits of parental leave is that it facilitates the crucial early bonding between parents and their newborns. A child's first few weeks and months are vital for emotional and psychological development. Parental leave allows both parents to actively participate in caregiving, fostering a strong emotional connection that could have lasting effects on the child's wellbeing and provides for a more supportive environment for a child. Several studies show evidence that care leave specifically for fathers "is positively associated with subsequent paternal involvement". 
  • Gender Equality: Parental leave is instrumental in promoting gender equality in the workplace. Traditionally, caregiving responsibilities have disproportionately fallen on women, contributing to gender disparities in professional opportunities. By providing equal parental leave for both mothers and fathers, employers can help break down these gender norms and encourage shared caregiving responsibilities, fostering a more equitable and diverse work environment. In fact, according to a dissertation by Danielle Visser written in 2018 on parental leave in South Africathere is a direct link between having a parental leave policy and decreased workplace gender discrimination  and decreased gender stereotypes, where traditionally men are seen as breadwinners and women as caregivers. 
  • Work-Life Balance: Parental leave is critical in promoting a healthy work-life balance. Balancing career responsibilities with family obligations can be challenging, and the absence of parental leave can sometimes lead to stress and burnout. Providing employees with the opportunity to take time off to care for their families helps create a workplace culture that recognises the importance of both professional and personal aspects of life and gives a better balance of shared childcare responsibilities. 
  • Social and Economic Benefits: Parental leave has broader social and economic benefits. When parents are supported in their caregiving roles, it contributes to the wellbeing of families and communities. One long-term study in the United States found that fathers who took longer parental leave participated more in caretaking activities nine months after the child was born than fathers who took less or no leave. Parental leave could also lead to positive long-term economic effects by promoting a healthier and more stable workforce.  
  • Employee Wellbeing: Employees' mental and emotional wellbeing is closely tied to their ability to manage family responsibilities. Parental leave allows individuals to navigate the challenges of parenthood without sacrificing their career aspirations. This support can reduce stress, enhance job satisfaction, and promote a positive work environment. 
  • Legal and Ethical Considerations: In many countries, parental leave is becoming a legal requirement or a widely adopted practice, reflecting changing societal norms and values. Employers who prioritise parental leave adhere to legal obligations and demonstrate ethical leadership by acknowledging the importance of family and personal wellbeing. 

Parental leave is an essential component of a modern workplace. It supports the health and bonding of families, promotes gender equality, fosters work-life balance, and has broader social and economic benefits. As workplaces evolve, recognising the significance of parental leave is crucial for creating environments that prioritise the holistic wellbeing of employees and their families.  

Read More: How Saint-Gobain, Capgemini and bioMérieux are Engaging Employees from a Human-Centric Perspective

So, what just happened in South Africa? 

As of 25th October 2023, the Gauteng High Court of South Africa has granted both parents parental leave, in the case of Van Wyk & Others vs The Minister of Employment and Labour, meaning that a couple can now split the four months of leave otherwise only given to a new birth mother in whatever way they'd like. Pending the sign-off by Parliament to make it official, this ruling means parents can decide if and how they'd like to take the four months of leave between them. 

The verdict was a result of a couple's action against the labour department, believing it was unfair only to allow a birth mother maternity leave when both or the other parent could be the primary income earner in a household. Previously, fathers were only given ten days of leave. There was also a 10-week provision for adoptive mothers as opposed to the 16-week provision for birth mothers.  

Along with the principal applicants, the van Wyks, the action was taken with advice from the Commission for Gender Equality and Sonke Gender Justice. In the case of the van Wyks, the mother was a business owner while the father was working in a corporate position. When they welcomed their first child, the current policy did not allow them to divvy up the leave in a way that would support their family sufficiently, which is when they started the process in court. In South Africa, before the ruling, an employee, as a birth mother, had the right to four months of unpaid maternity leave, beginning one month before the due date of a child. Now, four months unpaid is proposed as a unit.  

This ruling is significant in that the court officially determined that the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (which applies to all South African employees and employers except for National Defence Force members) did indeed have a level of discrimination between mothers and fathers, as well as birth mothers and other mothers. The ruling will now allow for the same choice and rights to adoptive parents with children under the age of two, and parents whose children may have been born by a surrogate. The ruling works to acknowledge better primary care work and equal access to leave, as it allows equal rights for all parents irrespective of their gender and exact circumstances. 

Read More: How Organisations Improve Employee Engagement with Emotionally Engaged Leaders

Some of Top Employer Institute's HR experts in South Africa also weigh in on the ruling: 

"Traditionally, women have assumed the role of the caregiver, while husbands sought to provide financial support for their families. Society has come a long way since, and women are now leaders and working professionals in their own right. This legislation breaks the gender stereotype and eliminates the archaic distinction between birthing parents and non-birthing parents.   

It takes a village to raise a child, or at least more than just a mother, and this change in legislation acknowledges the vital role of paternal bonding." 

-         Sandra Botha, Lead Global Human Resource Auditor  

"This is an amazing leap forward, as South Africa pioneers shared parental leave here, acknowledging the evolving dynamics of family life in Africa. This landmark judgment allows families to choose, share, and redefine their parental journey. While a significant milestone, let's keep pushing for reforms that align policy with the true reality of life in our country." 

-         Karen Muller, Client Success Advisor  

"The rise of employee wellbeing, followed by the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, has provided a fertile foundation for opening up these discussions; supporting gender equality in infant primary care, the most critical period of infancy, will go a long way in empowering women as well. In the world of work, sustainability of policies and practices are deeply considered before recommending them as best practices; this ruling has added yet one more step towards developing a better world of work." 

-         Nathier Jappie, Regional Manager, Africa 


Sonke Gender Justice, the organisation involved in the case, is also satisfied with the ruling, stating it will help move South Africa towards being more inclusive and equitable. Before the verdict, the paternity leave policy in South Africa was criticised for not giving specific paternity leave to fathers meaningfully. The hope is that this ruling will lead to more time separately for both parents in the future so that each parent can fully appreciate the time without one having to sacrifice for the other 

Read More: Winning the Battles for Talent

But is it enough? And will it work? 

What the research shows on giving both fathers and mothers the same time off 

It is one thing to offer leave to both parents, but another challenge to ensure both parents take it. In response to the news in South Africa, there has also been some question as to whether or not fathers will indeed split the time off as offered.  

A study published in 2017 analysing fathers on leave in 29 countries suggests that adopting elements of the somewhat infamous and highly successful parental leave policies in the Nordic countries will not necessarily guarantee success in other countries; fathers will not necessarily change their behaviour to take more leave if offered. A behavioural change could be more likely in countries where it is very beneficial to do so, and the policy includes a father's quota, meaning that parental leave is explicitly reserved for the father. If he does not take it, it is lost for the family. Norway offers a father's quota of 15 weeks for both mothers and fathers; Sweden provides 12 weeks. (In addition to this, in both Nordic countries, it is common for the employer to pay two weeks of paid time off, not part of either parental leave or father's quota.) 

In the United States, where there is no national policy on paternity leave, another study indicates that the large majority of American fathers take time off for their child's birth. Still, the duration of leave varies a lot.  

Regarding the ruling in South Africa, there is a different structure to the leave from both the policies in the Nordics and that in the United States, so it is yet to be seen how or to what extent the father or an alternative partner will take this new leave structure, and how effective that leave will become overall. Karen Muller, Client Success Advisor at Top Employers Institute, says of the policy, "Now, as the policy evolves, let's ensure it not only offers equal opportunities but also encourages active participation from both parents, truly redefining the essence of modern parenthood." 

Further good news: evidence shows that even short parental leave for fathers can result in fathers being more involved in childcare and household work in the longer term.  

How is Paternity Leave Implemented in Other African Countries? 

Regarding parental leave across Africa, most countries only guarantee a few days off, and South Africa is the first country on the continent to offer shared parental leave. Still, other recent policy changes could suggest the trend may be turning towards more extended leave periods. In 2019, Ethiopia increased paid maternity leave from 90 to 120 days and introduced three days of paid leave for fathers. Earlier this year, Cape Verde also increased maternity leave from 60 to 90 days and introduced ten days of paternity leave. 

In general, leave for fathers in Africa can span from zero days to up to 3 weeks, as approved in Enugu, Nigeria. Late in 2022, the Nigerian government approved two-week paternity leave for all male employees whose wives gave birth or whose family adopted a child under four months old. The leave is restricted to once every two years for up to four children in total. Female federal employees in Nigeria have 16 weeks of leave as of 2018.  

Download Now: Case Study: Talent, Borders and Benchmarks - The Dana Way

How is Paternity Leave Implemented Globally? 

The longer the leave for fathers, the better, as another study shows better gender equality in and around the household after a more extended or solo paternal leave. So, when thinking globally, where could fathers take the best leave 

The countries with the longest total paid father-specific leave are South Korea (with 54 weeks), Japan (with 52 weeks) and France (with 31 weeks). According to the OECD, Spain and Norway also top the charts in offering 16 weeks and 15 weeks, respectively, of total paid leave for fathers that is paid at 100% salary. 

Read More: Putting People First: Top Employers Institute Shares Insights About Building a Human-Centric Organisation

Final Thoughts 

Parental leave is vital for both parents (whether fathers or mothers) as it fosters family wellbeing, promotes gender equality, and helps support a healthy work-life balance. Organisations and government policies that acknowledge the shared responsibilities of parenting will benefit in the long run by supporting a more equal and well-balanced society and local economy. 

Karen Muller, Client Success Advisor, sums it up nicely: "South Africa breaks gender stereotypes with a groundbreaking ruling on shared parental leave. Recognising that caregiving is a shared responsibility, this judgment transforms traditional roles, fostering workplace and household equality. It's a step towards a more inclusive society, challenging global norms and inspiring positive change in family dynamics."  

Here at Top Employers Institute, we are happy parental leave is moving in the right direction worldwide. 

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Parental Leave and How Maternity Leave Has Gone Gender Neutral in South Africa

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