NORTHERN EXPOSURE OP-ED
Zimbabwean government passes law designed to throttle independent civil society
The government of Zimbabwe is attempting to ensure that as many people as possible are forced to register as private voluntary organisations so that it can prevent not only the funding of opposition parties, but also restrict open support for the opposition.
On 5 November 2021, the clerk of parliament in Zimbabwe published the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill 2021 (the PVO Amendment Bill) in the Government Gazette. The bill has since been passed by the National Assembly and will be debated in the Senate on 31 January 2023.
The amendments that are proposed might leave you thinking that the Zimbabwean government deals with a multitude of terrorist financing threats on a regular basis.
In summary, the amendments ostensibly seek to address two things:
- To prevent nonprofit organisations (NGOs) from being misused by terrorist organisations as fronts or “conduits for terrorist financing”;
- To ensure that private voluntary organisations do not undertake political lobbying.
These two issues clearly express the intentions of the government. The first is to monitor, cease and even seize funds received by NGOs in the country.
The second targets the activities of NGOs and seeks to silence dissenting voices and to further shrink, if not close, civic spaces ahead of Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections.
This is made clear by the major clauses of the bill which include changing the definition of PVOs as well as expanding the definition of “funds or other assets” to include “all financial assets and funds or other assets of every kind”.
To make sure that as many people as possible are forbidden by law from financially supporting the opposition or from opposing government (read Zanu-PF), the amended definition of a PVO includes anyone that fundraises for any activity.
For example, if you wake up and decide that, for your birthday, you will ask people to donate money towards the drilling of a borehole in your community, the bill demands that you must first register as a PVO. You can do that voluntarily or you can be forced to do so by the Minister of Social Welfare.
It means if, after registering as a PVO, you decide to donate 10 T-shirts to a candidate in the local government elections, you will be breaking the law as PVOs will now be prohibited from political lobbying.
Another clause seeks to criminalise the “supporting or opposing [of] a political party or candidate by PVOs”.
Clause 7 seeks to give the minister power to suspend an executive committee of any PVO suspected of maladministration, and powers for the minister to appoint trustees to run the PVO while it is being investigated.
Civil penalty orders
The bill seeks to have an Office of the Registrar under the Ministry of Social Welfare. This Registrar will have the power to consider and determine applications for the registration as well as proposed deregistrations of organisations. At least three of the clauses seek to give the Registrar more powers: including collecting fees for the registration of PVOs as well as “to impose civil penalty orders… on non-complying private voluntary organisations”.
By changing the definition of PVOs, the government of Zimbabwe wants to make sure that nobody in the civic space is left untouched by the proposed laws.
The bill aims to give rights to the minister to order any organisation they target to register as a PVO. Anyone or any organisation that “doesn’t use their own funds for their activities, but instead collects contributions from the public or receives financial assistance from anyone inside or outside Zimbabwe”, shall be forced to register as a PVO.
It is clear, as one reads the bill, that what the government regards as “terrorism” — or who they regard as a “terrorist” — is anyone they believe to be supporting the opposition or opposing government (read Zanu-PF).
One of the amendments reads:
“When any PVO that supports or opposes any political party or candidate in a presidential, parliamentary or local government election, or is a party to any breach under section 7 under part iii of the Political Parties (Finance) Act [Chapter 2:12] as a contributor of funds to any political candidate or otherwise, shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of level 12 or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year, or both such fine or such imprisonment.”
The bill claims to be addressing the threat of “terrorist financing”. However, the above paragraph makes it clear that the government considers the financial support of opposition parties to be terrorist financing.
Not only that, but they also criminalise opposition to any political party, which is basically the criminalisation of dissent. PVOs will be prohibited from calling out the government for, for example, human rights violations if that can be seen as opposing a political party.
Criminalising opposition politics
What the government is attempting to do is ensure that as many people as possible are forced to register as PVOs so that they can prevent not only the funding of opposition parties, but also restrict open support for the opposition.
The bill seeks to criminalise opposition politics, which includes the activities of civil society organisations and NGOs that are viewed as political lobby groups.
Most NGOs target human security in all its forms — from human rights to economic security and political insecurity, among other issues. The major cause of this insecurity is the government.
It is the inadequacy of the government that has led to health, education, water and sanitation crises in the country. It is their inadequacy that has led to starvation.
It is also their repressive laws and incompetence that have led to failed voter education and a failed voter registration drive.
When PVOs — being NGOs, civil society organisations (CSOs) and individuals — then raise funds from the public or from local and foreign donors to support service delivery (effectively subsidising government) and save lives, the government sees this as political lobbying.
They see it as such because they fear that, in their operations, PVOs will deliberately or inadvertently expose the government’s incompetence and failures.
Understandably, opposition political parties’ campaigns are founded on the idea that Zanu-PF must be replaced because of their failure to provide a stable currency and create an environment conducive to employment creation, as well as fail to provide merit and public goods. However, when PVOs address these issues, the government sees collusion — real or imagined — between PVOs and the opposition.
Voter registration crackdown
An example is the crackdown on organisations involved in encouraging people to register to vote.
One of the opposition’s campaigns has been to get as many people as possible to register to vote. In neighbouring Zambia, there are claims that the incumbent party won the election in 2022 because of a massive voter registration drive by the opposition.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Greater unity through Pan-Africanism can help save Zimbabwe’s democracy”
When Zanu-PF sees anyone encouraging people to vote, it views it as political lobbying for the opposition, despite the fact that encouraging more people to vote will benefit candidates from all parties.
More people voting will also give a clearer picture of what the people want.
Democracy demands that people must be encouraged and capacitated to vote. Anyone who feels threatened by the masses being empowered to vote knows that their power is illegitimate — it is not derived from the people, and they would like to keep it that way.
We must be under no illusion that the PVO Amendment Bill targets NGOs, CSOs and activists.
This view of NGOs and CSOs as enemies of the state is expressed in the state-controlled Herald newspaper that said: “The NGOs have been at the forefront of funding subversive activities and the government has the rights to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Zimbabwe.”
The propaganda that anyone who expresses dissent is funded by the West through NGOs is believed by many Zimbabweans. It is meant to make people view dissenters with suspicion, even when they share the same views. This has led to many people folding their arms and sitting back as the government launches vicious attacks on free speech and civil rights.
It seems many Zimbabweans do not realise that in targeting NGOs, CSOs and activists, the PVO bill ultimately targets all Zimbabweans and seeks not only to silence us all, but to worsen our social and economic conditions.
PVOs are not just engaged in social justice work; they provide essential social services that government fails to provide, such as healthcare and food aid. Without NGOs, many in urban and rural areas would die of starvation.
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Without NGOs, thousands of children in the country would be out of school.
There are currently many community projects, especially in rural areas, where individuals are pooling funds to build schools and feed schoolchildren, among other activities.
This bill seeks to force such people to register as PVOs and thus take away their rights to engage in political lobbying.
In the Monetary Policy Report of February 2022, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe said NGOs were the third-largest contributor of foreign currency receipts in the country. The bedridden economy of Zimbabwe would have come to a standstill years ago were it not for the funds brought in by PVOs and the diaspora.
It is these funds that the government seeks to control, stop or seize, regardless of the fact that the bulk of these funds support health and education in Zimbabwe.
The National Assembly passed the PVO Amendment Bill on 16 December 2022 and it was sent to the senate for approval.
The silence by Zimbabweans on this issue is tragic and shows the fragmentation and disconnect between leaders and the greater society.
Why is it business as usual in Zimbabwe in the face of such a potentially damaging blow to civil liberties? DM/MC
Thandekile Moyo is a writer and human rights defender from Zimbabwe. She is a peace and security fellow at the African Leadership Centre where she is receiving training on Leadership, Peacebuilding, Security and Development. She uses print, digital and social media (Twitter: @mamoxn) to document and expose human rights abuses, bad governance and corruption in Zimbabwe. Moyo holds an honours degree in geography and environmental studies and is studying towards a Master’s degree in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg.