Sonke calls for action against Basic Education Spokesperson for irresponsible tweets sexualising women’s bodies as part of a campaign to promote reading

Sonke Gender Justice is concerned that civil servant, Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the national Department of Basic Education (DBE), sees it fit to take to twitter and use images of semi-naked women, posing as if they were reading – with captions such as reading is “therapeutic”, “relaxes the mind, body and soul” and “feels good” – and calls it an effort to “promote reading among young adults, people of school-going age and society in general”.

The tweets have sparked a debate, with many calling out the departmental spokesperson for being inappropriate – and rightfully so.

In defence of his controversial tweets, Mhlanga tweeted that he was “pushing boundaries” and “I have previously used the same images in 2016, 2017 and 2018 to promote the reading campaign. However, there was no discontent or discomfort raised at the time. In fact, it started a discourse on reading.”

But, the campaign in question is the Department of Basic Education’s Read to Lead campaign,1 which was launched in 2015 to improve the reading abilities of all South African children, with the main aim being to ensure that all learners are able to demonstrate age-appropriate levels of reading by 2019.

That said, Mhlanga should have been well aware that there was no room for the kind of images that he used recently and – by his own arrogant admission – in previous years to promote the campaign, as the images are inappropriate for some of the learners the campaign is targeting.

Indeed, promoting reading should be done at all times and we need innovative ways to do it. But Mhlanga’s approach missed the mark here. It was misguided and it’s questionable. Public sexualisation of women’s bodies for a campaign aimed at encouraging children to read is contrary to the intent of educating them. In fact, it detracts from the objective. It devalues women’s bodies and it teaches boys that it’s right to sexualise women and girls,” said Bafana Khumalo, Co-Founder and Acting Co-Director of Sonke Gender Justice.

“In a society where women’s rights are far from being realised and women’s bodies continue to be disrespected, this is irresponsible conduct from an official of a government that purports to be in support of gender rights and equality. Civil servants must act in a manner that demonstrates the values that government wants to protect, uphold and promote – and Mhlanga’s actions fall far short of that,” Khumalo added.

As Sonke Gender Justice, we are encouraged that the Minister of Basic Education, Ms Angie Motshekga, has distanced herself and the Read to Lead Campaign2 from the departmental spokesperson’s actions. However, we are calling on the Minister to go a step further and take firm action to discipline Mhlanga.

South Africa has come a long way fighting for women’s rights and it is regrettable that a respected government official is taking us backwards. This controversy could not have happened at a better or worse time. For it to be playing itself out during National Women’s Month shows downright disregard and disrespect for women and emphasises the need to intensify efforts to increase gender rights awareness. Mhlanga must be dealt with harshly to indicate the Department of Basic Education’s unequivocal affirmation and support for women’s bodily integrity.

For media queries, please contact:

Bafana Khumalo, Co-Founder and Acting Co-Director, Sonke Gender Justice | Cell: 082 578 4479 | Email: bafana@genderjustice.org.za

Nonhlanhla Skosana, Community Education and Mobilisation Unit Manager, Sonke Gender Justice | Cell: 078 971 5477 | Email: Nonhlanhla@genderjustice.org.za

Endnotes

  1. Department of Basic Education website: https://www.education.gov.za/Programmes/Read2Lead.aspx
  2. SABC report, 13 August 2019: http://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/motshekga-reacts-to-spokespersons-controversial-tweets/

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