Education department apologises for using 'sex' to promote reading

The use of scantily clad women to promote reading received a major backlash on social media.
The use of scantily clad women to promote reading received a major backlash on social media.
Image: Yulia Grogoryeva/123RF

The basic education department has been criticised for the way in which it promoted its Read to Lead campaign, which encourages South Africans to "make reading sexy".

At the weekend, the department's spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, took to Twitter to share images of women reading. He said they were "aimed at promoting reading among young adults, people of school-going age and society in general".

However, the images of half-naked women sparked an outcry, as bewildered Twitter users questioned the department’s failure to recognise the inappropriateness of the pictures. 

Issued apology

Following the backlash, Mhlanga apologised, saying the intention was to highlight literacy issues faced by South Africans.

"I have noted that one image, in particular, may have offended sensitive viewers. This, however, was not the intention and we strongly reject any view to that effect. To those I disappointed, and indeed those of you who are offended by the use of the images, I apologise," Mhlanga said.

However, he revealed that this was not the first time the images had been used to promote the campaign.

"I have previously promoted this reading campaign on Twitter using the same images, in 2016, 2017 and 2018. However, there was no discontent or discomfort raised at the time. In fact, it started a discourse on reading," he said. 

According to Mhlanga, the decision to use the images was based on the fact that "contemporary audiences that consume media tend to be open about sex and sexuality. I therefore have a full understanding of representation and metaphoric content.

"In this context, I pushed the boundary slightly in order to play around with meaning, and push a narrative about reading as an activity that can be done for fun and leisure."

Mhlanga believes the images will encourage the youth to read more.

"In your comfort zone, wherever you may be, you are at liberty to take a book and read, and this is what we encourage. You can do this alone or with your partner, as long as the nation is reading.

"We hope this issue will heighten interest in and sustain a conversation about the importance of reading and its significance in human development. Yours in reading."

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