SOUTH African musical group Freshlyground was grounded at the Harare International Airport yesterday evening after being denied entry into Zimbabwe on account of not having visas and temporary employment permits allowing them to work in Zimbabwe. The controversial South African Afro-fusion group was billed to perform at the closing ceremony of the Harare International Festival of the Arts last night before it emerged that the organisers had advertised the show and sold tickets before acquiring the requisite papers required for the act to proceed.
Regional Immigration Officer Mr Francis Mabika confirmed that the seven-member outfit was denied entry on arrival at the Harare International Airport yesterday late afternoon.
"The group was sent back because they did not have a valid work permit. Their permit had not yet been processed so they could not be allowed to enter the country," Mr Mabika said.
He said the group's work permit application came from Hifa and it was responded to in less than 24 hours and they got their response.
Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi yesterday said if anyone comes to any country to work, they should have a permit and failure will result in denial of entry.
"Those are the laws of the country. Do you want us to bend the laws of the country just to suit a South African group? The officials who refused them entry were just implementing the laws of the country," Minister Mohadi said.
Deputy Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Tabetha Kanengoni-Malinga said what happened was unfortunate, but the ministry could have assisted if Hifa had approached them in advance not on the 11th hour.
"It's unfortunate that the information came to us as a ministry just yesterday afternoon that's when Maria called talking about the challenges facing Freshlyground," Deputy Minister Kanengoni-Malinga said.
She was referring to the Hifa executive director Maria Wilson.
Deputy Minister Kanengoni-Malinga said the immigration officials told her that they had already spoken to Maria days before and alerted her the fact that the group might not be able to enter the country.
However, Hifa spokesperson Tafadzwa Simba, claimed the organisation followed all procedures and obtained clearance from the Board of Censors, National Arts Council, and the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra).
Simba said Hifa paid all requisite Zimra fees in full and was not aware of the reason for the denial of entry.
"Hifa is saddened by the development, but respects the usual professional communication we receive from official bodies and look forward to receiving such," Simba said.
He said Freshlyground was chosen on the grounds of their artistic credentials.
"They are a top African group as can be seen by their various awards and in their being chosen to represent Africa in the Soccer World Cup theme song for 2010," he said.
In 2010 the group released the song "Chicken to Change" with the video denigrating President Mugabe as a dictatorial caricature and urging him to "chinja" in an apparent reference to the opposition MDC-T slogan.
A source in the Hifa organising committee said concerns had been raised about the suitability of inviting Freshlyground given the controversy generated by their political advert-cum-song but it appeared some in the Hifa organising committee wanted a win-win situation for the event all at the expense of Government.
Manuel Bagoro, the festival's media savvy artistic director, is known to court controversy and it is suspected that he may have chosen Freshlyground and bungled the papers knowing full well that any fallout would blamed on Government as happened a few years ago.
"If Freshlyground was denied entry, as happened, Hifa would get huge press from sections of the local, South African and international media who would immediately link the denial to the 'Chicken for change' song; and if Freshlyground was allowed in, and performed the song and caused a ruckus in the audience, it would still be good press," said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
This year's edition of Hifa has already courted controversy with a mischievous portrayal of the hanging of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi by the settler regime which is attributed to two drunk white men.
The play also parodies the sexuality of the revolutionary icons.
Freshlyground join a long list of international artistes that have been barred from entering several countries around the world for different reasons.