Popular judge: Gareth Cliff is back in the new season of Idols on M-Net on Sunday at 5.30pm.

Gareth Cliff holds the record for having the most Twitter followers in South Africa, but is careful in defining his own influence among those who rate his opinions.

Do you consider yourself a leader?

It’s kind of been thrust upon me, whether I like it or not, because I’m in the public eye so much and am accountable for my opinions. I’ve always felt that there’s a responsibility that comes with broadcasting, which is the first thing I started doing and which remains my career: you can’t say stupid stuff. I’ve also left the shocking stuff behind, because I’ve grown up a bit.

I don’t want to be a role model. There’s a huge difference between being a leader, an opinion leader, or a thinker – and being a role model. Role models are dangerous. I don’t have a role model. I don’t think any human mammal should be followed – you’re bound to be ultimately disappointed.

You shouldn’t put anyone on a pedestal, especially not me. It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to be your role model, because I might let you down. And that would be a bad thing for me to do, so I’d rather not have that responsibility to begin with.

Are you different on air from when you’re at home or out and about?

I’m the same on air, off air, on Twitter, on Facebook, at nightclubs, MCing at events, or writing on my app... wherever it may be. At my age now (I’m 34), I know what I like about myself and what parts I need to work on. I’m a happy guy, and very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing where I can hopefully make other people happy. Whether it’s in the traffic, or following me on Twitter.

What is your leadership background and how did you get to where you are today?

I was a prefect at school. I was more rebellious towards the end of school: for an accounting exam I once just wrote my name and nothing else. I was obstreperous, which is not how a leader is meant to behave. I was at school in Pretoria, and varsity there too. While I was there I was on Radio TUKS, where I eventually got fired. I wasn’t conforming. On our show we did fake TRC hearings, and I used to call up my mother’s maid for weather updates. I realised then that this was something I enjoyed doing, that I was relatively good at. It became my career by default.

I then got a job at 702 and I loved that. Talk radio is fun. But I eventually got to a point where I felt like I was talking to people twice my age. 5fm then made me an offer and I moved across. I’ve always had a positive idea of what this country means and where it is going. Similarly, this audience believes in their own future and opportunity and possibility – and that you have to work to get somewhere. And that is what inspires me in the morning. I’ve been doing the morning show for five years now. And it’s not about me. It’s about the audience. There are 500 000 people who listen to me in the mornings, and the least I can do is not make it about myself.

In the past you were hauled before the BCCSA for interviewing Jesus as the star of The Passion of the Christ, and more recently for a charge of sexism for a (misquoted) comment about 22-year-old girls lying with their legs open. How do you censor yourself on the spur of the moment?

You say what you really believe. And if you’re going to be funny, be clever funny, not stupid funny. I hope that my relationship with my audience is such that they won’t hold it against me when occasionally I’m not as judicious as I might be. I’m also not going out of my way to offend people anymore. I’ve got to where I’ve grown up a bit, and I understand that there are things that people are going to be sensitive about.

But if you believe in certain things, you’ve got to be ready for a fight.

It’s outrageous that we should be held hostage by the vagaries of some person’s deep sensitivities and obvious anxiety over things that are not important to the majority of the population. It’s disgusting. If you believe that you’re not a racist, but that race is a very real concept that needs to be discussed – while there are others that don’t even want to acknowledge it – you must be willing to fight for it, and willing to argue your point with those who are ignorant. That’s what leadership really is. Being free is being able to have opinions. And being able to stand up for those opinions. And if you lose, being free is being able to concede that you might not have been fully informed.

How do you view the power of social media?

We are now editors of our own opinions as each of us is our own broadcaster, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Because it’s all public it’s forcing each of us to be a little bit more responsible. When people find good content nowadays, they share it immediately. New ideas and amazing thinking is happening all over the place. Social media is simply providing the conduit for us to absorb that information. Who you follow then becomes important.

Twitter is about what you are thinking and how you think. If you say something stupid on Twitter there are 100 people who’ll put you in your place immediately. Facebook is about your relationships and your pictures; it’s far more of a “touchy feely” thing. People rubbish Twitter because it’s 140 characters, but it’s the links that lead to fascinating articles. It’s the new broadcast medium.

And Idols?

It gives me so much joy to see young, talented people succeeding and being given a leg-up. Which is what the show can do for you if you work hard. It can change lives. But at the same time it’s just a TV show. And that’s what makes living in this country so incredible: everybody is capable of making changes in other people’s lives for the better.

Are you Proudly South African?

There is value in being proud of where you come from, and in making a contribution to where you come from. This is the country that raised me, that made it possible for me to do the things I do. This is my environment and I am a product of it. I cannot deny that. There are things I do and say that are inherently South African and will not be expunged from me. I’m very proud of those things. They give me character and make me different.

We all need to work hard to make sure we are in a position of prominence and pride so as to make our own futures.

The best thing Thomas Jefferson added to the US Declaration of Independence was the idea of the “pursuit of happiness” – which is a universal human endeavour and is attainable by each and every free human being. And we are free. And there is no more noble a goal than to pursue your own happiness.

l Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.