Africa’s new voice- Join the Conversation: Gareth Cliff9 min read

Gareth Cliff at TEDx London Business School

Full text of Gareth Cliff’s talk: Africa’s new voice- join the conversation at TEDx London Business School conference. Gareth Cliff talks about the impact of the mobile phone on democratization of media in Africa, one of the youngest, most active, and unsaturated consumer markets in the world.

Noteable quote from this talk:

“Anyone anywhere with something to say, can now say it to anyone who has access to the internet. This is the new voice of Africa.”


Gareth Cliff – South African Radio and Television Personality

‘Freedom of expression’ Why is it important? Why has access to freedom of expression so important?

As a broadcaster in South Africa and as an African, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It’s so important to us that it underpins all the other rights. If you can’t say what you think you can’t express yourself freely.

If you can’t do what you say, and if you can’t find out what you need to know, you must argue that you’re not really in a healthy society. Even more important than that, are you able to hold truth up to power? Are you able to challenge authority?

Well, Africa doesn’t have the greatest history when it comes to freedom of expression. It’s actually one of the things that we’re not very proud of. There’s been suppression of freedom of expression, both pre and post-colonialism in Africa. People have struggled; ordinary people to be able to voice their position, their point of view in society. Even when it was about things that affected them directly. And people were unable at the same time to derive the information that they needed in order to change their own circumstances for the better.

But things are changing. Do you know what those things are? 

They’re called vuvuzelas. They are most famous, probably to everybody in this audience, because they were the loudest noisiest things at the football world cup in 2010. They’re so loud and noisy and controversial that they will almost banned at least a few times.

The reason they’re loud and noisy is because they come from a traditional instrument, which we use in Africa, and has been used for decades, centuries. Loud animal horns, kudu horns that were blown to summon community meetings. So they would call all the villages together and they would get everyone into one place so that they could be a meeting and indaba.

Now, they’re mostly used for fun at football matches because they’ve been supplanted, they’ve been replaced by these. These are now the means of summoning, the community meetings. 

The iPad didn’t exist in Africa five years ago. There wasn’t one. Now they’re being used all over the continent to educate children. Here, you can see some kids learning at high school Africa in rural KwaZulu-Natal. There’s an iPad that gives them access to information they would never have had before. A library that you couldn’t fit into any room, no matter how big it was. And this is happening everywhere,

Africa however, when you think about it, you’re probably thinking of words like poverty, famine, war, corruption, disease. I have friends in America who say things to me like, “do you have lions walking down the streets, grabbing babies out of their cribs with their mouths and devouring them in front of their parent?

And I tell them, “no, you won’t get eaten, but we do have our share of challenges. And some of them are quite serious, but it’s all changing.” 

And in some ways it’s changing faster than you would expect. We’re ahead of the curve in some ways. I’ll tell you how in a moment.

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The true democratization of the media world is taking place in Africa. While those meetings that I was talking about just a moment ago, that used to be summoned by animal horn, were called into a common area. People would gather like in a village marketplace or whatever. Today, the same is happening, but it’s happening on the internet.

On Twitter, you have these vociferously groups of people who are telling you what they think of the government. They’re telling you what they think of each other. They’re arguing, they’re inciting, revolting language against each other some of the time, but it’s very viable. It’s alive. It’s tremendous. It’s extraordinarily exciting.

And that village marketplace, that common area that we used to meet in whether it was a village or a town or anything else is now the largest and most diverse-common area that has ever existed.

Since we’re at the Royal geographical society, it probably behooves me to speak like David Attenborough and say “it is the largest, most diverse, common area that has ever existed.” 

My point is anyone anywhere with something to say, can now say it to anyone who has access to the internet. This is the new voice of Africa.

These platforms, these new digital means of communicating allow ordinary people to share their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations, the things they really care about; their stories. And it’s already happening before our very eyes. I’ll give you an example of it in a second.

What’s going on here in Africa is so fundamental because it’s something that maybe people in the first world haven’t necessarily experienced the same way. There is a, an Ericsson mobility report that came out just last year: 650 million mobile subscriptions have been taken out in Sub-Saharan Africa to date, and that was only a few months ago. They project that that number will grow to an astonishing, just short of a billion, 960 odd million mobile subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. 

Now, you know, if you’re interested in business that this represents for you– a potential marketplace. Second to none, we should all be watching Africa. It wasn’t always this way. I’ll be frank with you where I’m from, censorship used to be the name of the game.

In fact, there were only two options for you if you really wanted to know what was going on:

The first option was that you could listen to the state broadcaster; watch the state broadcaster, and you would get monolithic, dull, stultifying information that didn’t really help you very much. Usually, it was just propaganda that was churned out. It’s one of the reasons that the apartheid government in South Africa lasted as long as it did. It kept everyone in the dark- black and white. That’s not an option.

The other option we had was international news network- CNN, BBC. All very credible, all very good at what they do, but they were telling our stories. So it felt bizarre.

Now any old Gogo or grandmother in a rural village, any young entrepreneur who’s trying to change the world in a city, all these people at the touch of a button can share their stories with all of us. You can go straight to the source.

Everyone in Africa is now a broadcaster. Using social media, using this mushrooming profusion of new original content sources for stories and for everything else has provided people with an entirely new way of viewing the world.

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Why it’s exciting and why it matters?

And I’ll give you an example now of one of the best ways that this is coming to fruition is because this is where ordinary people take control of both the sources and the audience participation in every medium. So let me give you an example quickly:

This man, do you know who he is? His name is Robert Gabriel Mugabe. He’s the president of Zimbabwe. He has been the president for 35 years. He is now 91 years old. Just showed you 91, don’t count them out.

91 years old… He is a controversial man. He gets a lot of attention. He loves to give the West the middle finger whenever he can, especially at the United Nations, which is pretty much any place he can travel anymore.

But Robert Gabriel Mugabe got back from Ethiopia just a short while ago. And he’s controversial at the moment for this reason I’m about to tell you. And walking out of Harare airport down the red carpet, he stumbled and fell in a very awkward position on the stairs. And it went wild on the internet. Let me show you what happened:

That’s him falling. All the bodyguards you see around him have been fired subsequently. But I suppose in Zimbabwe, that’s better than losing your life. Now, it’s gone viral. Everybody has been reposting changing, posting their own versions, Photoshopping their own pictures. Take a look at these. This was, one of the first ones from the Independent, BBC trending:

There he is surfing a wave, running at the Olympics, doing Strictly Come dancing, and you can see the internet reaction #MugabeFalls.

Newsday- on a horseback. Mugabe trends on Twitter across Africa. And you can see Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Tunisia.

Just under that: dictatorships cannot stay ahead of technology. They show the picture of him falling. “What his red carpet tumble means?” “Internet collectively laughing at Robert Mugabe.” That’s a bit mean

Why am I showing you these pictures?

I’m not showing you these pictures to make fun of an old man. Some may hold him in high esteem. Some may feel that it’s appropriate to ridicule him. I’m showing you these pictures because I can.

2-3 years ago, you would have been locked up in jail for having material like this on your phone. I’m not exaggerating. That’s how much it’s changed. This is the kind of freedom of expression that cannot be suppressed.

Now I’m sure that there are people here who think that all of this is good and well, and there’s a lot of humor and there’s fun to be had, but will it bring about real change?

Well, I’ll tell you in a second how it has brought about real change. I feel that what we’ve done here is, suddenly people have empowered themselves. They’re able to discuss and debate important political things, just like dinner conversation. And if you’re good enough at it, and you attract a large enough audience, your dinner conversation can become a very public meeting.

Essentially, we’ve all seen the results of things like the Arab spring, where real revolution has come about because of the internet. And in Africa, more than anywhere else this is important. Because to you in the first world, this is just an extension of what you’ve been doing on laptops and desktops for a long long time. We’ve leapfrogged past that. We’re on these. And for us, these represent empowerment.

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Though the Arab spring has been controversial though. There is a lot going on in Africa that is still of concern. These kinds of things give people hope. And ordinary people are able to do this.

Look at South Africa for example: We have a population of 54 million odd people, odd people because we’re not all normal. And there are 79.1 million mobile subscriptions in just South Africa. That’s one and a half mobile subscriptions per person. And they projected that they will grow even more in the future.

Less people -> more data -> more phones -> more communication -> more conversation -> more freedom.

In Nigeria, which is the most populous African country of all. These are the figures for growth- the number of internet users and the number of mobile subscriptions and the number of social media accounts. And you can see that they’re all in the twenties and that’s just in a year. So you can imagine in a country with that kind of population, what this means for business, for freedom of expression.

This is an interesting pie chart from the Tomi Ahonen report. It’s the last bit of statistical data I’ll give you. But it’s important to me because if you look at the slice of the pie that Africa has, it’s the orange part. Africa is 9%. In 2018, these are the projections. That’s more than in North America… More smartphones in Africa by 2019 than in North America. I think you can understand why that’s significant. 

So, people are already using the internet to download the content they care about, whether its movies or its music or it’s the TV series that they like. That HBO tried to stop us from seeing before it was on the internet. Even they can’t keep freedom of expression, will be it’s illegal in this case from happening. The important thing is that all other content is bound to follow. It’s just a matter of time. 

So why does it matter to us?

Because that’s the fun stuff- downloading music, listening to the things we care about podcasts. It matters to us because freedom of speech, isn’t free. There are many important great men and women who’ve come before us. Who’ve paid the ultimate price for us to be able to converse like we are now; equally one-to-one as individuals in a free society across continents.

Africa is still very vulnerable to religious intolerance and militant, religion, to war, ethnic violence, tribal violence, racism, all of this is still very real and it’s still going on. But for the first time, we now have an ability to take control of our own destiny, everybody… not just the powerful.

By 2020 Africa will be one of the youngest, most active unsaturated consumer markets in the world. The internet has forever changed how we communicate and engage with each other and at the touch of a button, anyone can upload a video to YouTube, tweet eye-witness news as it happens from anywhere, share information, pictures on Instagram, invitations on Facebook, all of that stuff.

It comes with enormous positive implications. There are some negatives too. I’m sure there are people in this room who’ve had their fair share of tours… Yes? No? Anyone had a tour? I have lots… almost weekly. 

But the most important thing about all of this is that this freedom of expression is Africa’s new voice. We invite you to join the conversation to be bold, to be brave, to speak freely. Africa is only one click away.

Thank you very much. 

– Gareth Cliff 

Gareth Cliff’s talk: ‘Africa’s new voice- join the conversation’ at TEDx London Business School conference