By Alex Bell
SW Radio Africa
5 May 2014
The ZANU PF government has once again barred a popular South African band from performing in Zimbabwe, because of a four year old song and music video that satirises Robert Mugabe.
Freshlyground was supposed to close the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) on Sunday night. But the seven member Afro-pop group was denied access to the country shortly after arriving at Harare International Airport.
This is the second time the band has been barred from performing in Zimbabwe since releasing the song ‘Chicken to Change’ in 2010. The song and accompanying video, which was produced with the satirical South African news group ZANEWS, mocked Mugabe and his hold on power in Zimbabwe and challenged him to move on.
The authorities have said the decision to bar the band was the result of a lack of valid work permits, with Regional Immigration Officer Francis Mabika being quoted by the state run Herald newspaper as saying that the band’s work permits “had not yet been processed.”
But Freshlyground band member Simon Atwell told SW Radio Africa that this excuse is “complete nonsense,” and all the necessary procedures had been followed for the band to be allowed into the country.
“Before we got on the plane we spoke to the promoters who said that every indication was that everything was fine. But when we got to Harare we didn’t even get past immigration. They stopped us and said: ‘You’re getting back on the airplane and we’re not giving you a reason, we don’t have to give you a reason’,” Atwell explained.
He added: “There was never even room to have a chat. The decision had been made. So it’s hugely disappointing that the regime is still so sensitive to provocation or any semblance of freedom of speech.”
Observers meanwhile have expressed anger that the government is undermining the success of HIFA in this way, despite the organisation receiving world recognition for providing an apolitical showcase of talent, even during Zimbabwe’s toughest political times. A recent report by the UK based Chatham House think-tank even used HIFA as a Zimbabwean success story, and a reason why re-engagement with ZANU PF was justified. The report was released before they banned Freshlyground.
The band’s Atwell agreed that the government’s actions were “disappointing,” because HIFA has always managed to “create an environment of promise for a future Zimbabwe.” He also explained that the band had no intention of making any political based statements, even going so far as to offer assurance to the authorities that ‘Chicken to change’ would not be played.
“We’d written an open letter to the government and other interested parties saying that we had every intention to perform with goodwill, with no intention to say anything to cause offence. We were intending to come in the best spirit to celebrate the end of HIFA, because it’s one of our favourite gigs. So we’re very disappointed,” Atwell said.