When I lived in Ghana for a few years I felt for the first time that I was in exactly the right place on Africa Day. This week at an event celebrating our Continent, I gained a fresh understanding of that feeling. There is a disconnect in South Africa, says writer Nuruddin Farah the keynote speaker. It’s a disconnect that fuels xenophobia. The Somali born Farah who lives in Cape Town is one of the greatest writers alive today.

He says: “I go to sleep every night thinking of myself as an African the neurosis of which… if there was no Africa I would not want to write and would not want to continue to exist.”

The hall explodes with applause from the mostly young black crowd. It’s a guess but I’d say there are many expatriates in the crowd tonight. Only a few voices join in Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika. But when the African Union Anthem plays – it’s the first time I hear it since I’ve returned here from Ghana – there are quite a few people who know the words.

Farah goes to the heart of our seeming hatred toward foreigners by quoting a Somali proverb.

“A stone thrown at the guilty hits the innocent.”

He repeats it emphatically and looks at the crowd silently for a while. It seems as if he is willing the words to land in our hearts.

“I come from one of the most xenophobic countries on the Continent. We’re not only xenophobic towards foreigners we’re also xenophobic towards the family next door.

“It has never crossed my mind that the xenophobic attacks are actually meant to harm other Africans. The Africans become the innocent recipients of that rage that anger…”

And then right on cue a rumble of rage rolls through the room. The daily Eskom blackouts have stopped Farah mid stride. But he hardly misses a beat as he projects past the dead microphone and carries on speaking in the room now lit by a few emergency lights. He says he was once a teacher and is accustomed to making himself heard without techno aids.

“My point is and I have written a great deal about some of these things… If you throw a stone at the guilty it never reaches the guilty party. It always reaches the innocents. It’s because the guilty protect themselves with walls that you cannot go beyond. You cannot reach them. You cannot meet them. But the innocent are around. Easy to find, easy to victimise, easy to identify.”

He talks about the xenophobic attacks he has experienced many years ago in Nigeria.

“The greater number of victims were Ghanaians and I started thinking at that time of our lack of responsibility as human beings. Our lack of responsibility as Africans. Our lack of responsibility as Educators. Many of the South Africans who are committing these xenophobic attacks – killing the innocent ones when they’re actually intending to harm the guilty and they can’t… What we need to do as Africans is not necessarily to open the borders but to open our minds to education.”

Nuruddin Farah honouring Africa Day at Cape Town's Centre for the Book

Nuruddin Farah honouring Africa Day at Cape Town’s Centre for the Book

UCT African Studies size of my apartment

Addressing the need for pan African solutions to our problems he urges us to place Africa at the centre of our existence.

“It’s curious that at the University of Cape Town there is a small little centre called the African Studies Centre. The Centre, where it’s located, is smaller than my apartment. And then what is the curriculum. What are you studying about Africa? There’s hardly anything.

He says some people see redressing this problem as part of the transformation agenda when it’s really an issue of economics. When business people conduct trade and travel across the Continent, they need reliable information and research. He calls for exchanges among African universities… what he calls the “inter fertilisation of the Continent”.

“There is a need for the revision of the curricula so that it contains more than passing remarks or observations of Africa. That we become Afro centric rather than Euro centric or Anglo centric. It is very, very important to educate our people about one another. If you ask people questions about Britain or Europe or America they know everything but they hardly know the Continent of Africa. We need the school curriculum to change so that we have people learning about Africa.

“I looked at the syllabuses of some of the secondary schools in this country and of the universities. If I went up to somebody sitting here and I asked where Somalia was many would not know and some would even put it in the Middle East. We have not made Africa a centre of our thinking. We have not acknowledged that side of our lives.”

He does not see our current crop of leaders as a solution to the problems.

“My problem with leadership is that it’s usually a group of people – self-selective, self absorbed, self-protecting … What we should concentrate on is the South African person. The African person. Every community is made up of individuals and it is these individuals that represent the country.”

Farah touches on a raw nerve. The xenophobia compared with the pan African hospitality extended to South African exiles during the apartheid era.

“But there is a disconnect. The people who were brought up here have not shared the experiences of the South Africans who have lived abroad and who have benefited from the great things Africans have given them.

“But we are not here saying ‘we have helped you before now you have to allow us to live in your country’. No no! I was doing this (supporting the South African struggle for freedom) for my own good, for my own conscience for my own self-liberation. It’s the self-liberation in which I participated that helped me to see myself as a person. Then after the success of South Africa we thought we hope you stand on your own feet. But if they do come here reclaiming what they have invested in they are very stupid, very silly because they have to see it as a liberation of the continent. But it is absolutely necessary that we take this into accountant… we have to know each other better so that we can understand each other better.”

Farah has a delicate way of putting into words our common experiences, feelings and instincts as Africans.

“My neurosis as a creative writer is linked to the Continent. If I don’t smell it, can’t feel the dust of it, can’t eat the food of it… If I don’t see Africans making fools of themselves, having fun, drumming and dancing I feel terribly lonely. What we need to do is to see ourselves as co- responsible, not only for ourselves but for the Continent to which we belong, which we love and which we are prepared to serve.”

The Nuruddin Farah address was part of the We Are Africa Programme. This is a series of dialogues arranged by the Department of Arts and Culture. This week’s event in anticipation of Africa Day on 25 May, was held at the Centre for the Book in Cape Town. The panel included the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa; poet and Associate Professor for African Studies at UCT, Harry Garuba and Rocky Ralebipi-Simela, the National Librarian. The Facilitator was Shaun Viljoen, a professor of English at the University of Stellenbosch.