JOHANNESBURG - Sonke Gender Justice on Thursday called on the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, to go a step further and take firm action to discipline the national department of basic education (DBE) spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga.
Motshekga had distanced herself and the Read to Lead campaign from the departmental spokesperson’s actions.
In a statement, the organisation said that it was concerned about Mhlanga's use of semi-naked women on twitter who were posing as if they were reading.
The pictures had captions such as reading is "therapeutic", "relaxes the mind, body and soul" and "feels good".
Mhlanga said his tweets were an effort to "promote reading among young adults, people of school-going age and society in general".
Co-founder and acting co-director at Sonke Gender Justice, Bafana Khumalo, said the tweets had sparked a debate with many calling out the departmental spokesperson for being inappropriate.
In defence of his controversial tweets, Mhlanga tweeted that he was "pushing boundaries" saying "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."
Khumalo said that the DBE's Read to Lead campaign, which was launched in 2015. was intended 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."
He said promoting reading should be done at all times and innovative ways to do it were necessary but added that Mhlanga’s approach was misguided and questionable.
Public sexualisation of women’s bodies for a campaign to encourage children to read was contrary to the intent of educating them, Sonke said.
It said it detracted from the objective of the campaign and instead it devalued women's bodies and taught developing boys that it was right to sexualise women and girls.
"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," Khumalo said.
"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.
"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."
Khumalo said Mhlanga must be dealt with harshly to show the DBE’s unequivocal affirmation and support for women’s bodily integrity.