Controversial Gareth Cliff is the presenter of a national morning drive-time show on radio. Until recently he appeared on the most popular M-Net show Idols twice a week. He has almost 200 000 friends on Facebook (this is huge); he is bright with a broad general knowledge; very opinionated; and he is only 33 years old.
He recently wrote a scathing and aggressive letter to government in which he boldly declared what he believed to be several of South Africa’s challenges. Taking the above into account, no wonder he received such a huge response. Some accused him of attention seeking. Though the tone of his letter was specifically designed to attract more attention, the accusation of writing the letter for this purpose only is probably unfounded because he has been writing on blogs about various contentious issues for many years.
Is Cliff a leader? Yes. He influences millions; he affects opinions and views; he challenges; he speaks up; he is willing to say the unpopular thing; he has a following; he takes risks; and so on.
A friend suggested I interview him on the Leadership Platform. I am not a 5FM listener, but the letter Cliff wrote and the fact that I kept an eye on Idols swayed me towards doing it.
I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation we had. He is definitely intelligent, witty, a thinker, knowledgeable, opinionated and not to be underestimated because of his “young” appearance. Yes, he may be perceived by some as arrogant. But, considering all the above facts about him, and as a relatively young person, it would be very hard for him to not come across as arrogant or over confident, which is probably the case for most individuals who achieve influence at a young age.
When he was five or six his mother asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and his answer was “the emperor of the world”. So he confessed that he was a complete young megalomaniac.
What drives Cliff today, however, seems to be a desire to influence, ranging from shifting the mood of listeners stuck in traffic, to influencing the sociopolitical environment. He loves being alive and says: “I am happy if I can make some positive impact somewhere, or I can improve someone’s life in traffic by getting them to think, smile, laugh or even cry.”
In his view, although people can have dangerous ambitions or drives like wanting to control, spread fear and even upset others, he believes that any energy that makes people get out of bed wanting to do something other than eating chips and watching TV is good. Ambitions can mostly be useful and has been to humanity.
For the past ten years Cliff has been blessed with a mature manager Rina Broomberg that has probably contributed a great deal to keeping him on course, without interfering with his spontaneity and natural abilities. No doubt it has been quite a bumpy ride. She continually reminds him that “ego should not drive one’s behaviour”. Being reminded of this principle while he carves out his future in an environment where it is very easy to believe one’s “own press” is invaluable. He fully realizes this.
The volume of support for this letter pleased him because it meant that many South Africans had been holding a conversation about the issues raised in his letter, and they were grateful for yet another opportunity to converse publicly.
We all know what is wrong in our country, but Cliff feels we complain about it at dinner parties instead of writing a letter to government, or finding out who our MP is, or fixing it. This is why he commends the “Shout” campaign and LeadSA, the spirit of which is to stand up where you are and lead. In Cliffs own way he is doing this, while encouraging all of us to become part of the solution.
The response following his letter also made him realize more than ever before that South Africans need to talk more and be encouraged to have opinions. Having an opinion is a right or even a responsibility. As he says: “If you don’t have opinions about things, what are you actually living for. If you don’t think about things what purpose was there for you to have been organically brought to fruition by your parents and for you to have developed frontal lobes? You may as well be a chimpanzee if you don’t have opinions”.
Yet Cliff was surprised by the reaction of some sensible people that felt he would be shut down; that his life would now be in danger; that the security police would start bugging his phones; and so on.
We live in a very different country from 15-20 years ago but many don’t yet see this. He does not believe government is something we have to fear and live in awe of. In his words: “We live in the 21st century. This is a different time and place. The old days of having to fear your leader are hopefully gone.”
Supposing this to be true we should hold even more courageous yet objective and “solution driven” conversations about the “elephants” in the room; about the “holy cows”; about issues, especially sensitive ones, that prevent us from achieving our full potential as a nation – for example racial tension; the education system; core reasons for corruption; lack of agreed values; deterioration of the family; real impact of the current BEE approach; and so on.
In my view Cliff is well placed to be one of the conduits for such “future-defining conversations” on a national level.
One of the biggest elephants (problems) in the South African room according to him is a lack of self confidence, including the view that we are “manic depressive” or like drug addicts that experience incredible highs and then immediately sink to incredible lows. One moment we feel elated with the world cup but then national strikes occur and we suddenly feel and believe things are absolutely terrible and irreversible.
He feels we have to find a level where self worth and self criticism meet; where we are comfortable knowing what our strengths and weaknesses are; where we stop beating up on ourselves, needing to grasp at positive experiences to convince ourselves that we will be okay. We must move to a point where we are happy with ourselves. After all, countries are not perfect things.
Whether you like or dislike Cliff, he serves as a reminder that each one of us should stand up and speak up, within our circle of influence. If all of us (famous or not) do just this and then go one step further and lead, our beautiful country would be an even better place.
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