NORTHERN EXPOSURE OP-ED
Zanu-PF passes anti-NGO bill, killing last line of defence for human rights in Zimbabwe
The passing last week of a new law to control civil society organisations in Zimbabwe is an ominous sign of the consolidation of Zanu-PF power in the build-up to this year’s elections.
In the wake of the fall of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, current president Emmerson Mnangagwa promised life anew.
But, as has been seen in the last five years, the Zanu-PF administration has continued to promise without delivery and chosen to retain its power at the expense of the rights of Zimbabwean citizens.
As the 2023 general elections draw closer, we are seeing concerted efforts by the administration to consolidate power. The electoral commission of Zimbabwe is packed with former military members who have failed countless times to demonstrate their separation from and objectivity towards the state.
In June 2021, Zanu-PF’s Provincial Development Coordinator in Harare, Tafadzwa Muguti, issued an order to NGOs to submit their strategic and organisational plans to him for approval. The police were instructed to arrest any NGO members that refused and threatened them with permanent banning if they did not comply. Zimbabwean civil society challenged the order at the high court in September of that year.
Two months later, the Zimbabwean government published the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill (PVO) in the Government Gazette. The bill was met with a major backlash from civil society as it outlined the ways in which the government intended to control and silence the freedom of association, assembly and expression of NGOs and citizens.
Civil society disputed the PVO Bill through multiple written and oral submissions.
In 2022, civil society provided to the Parliament Legal Committee and the Parliament Portfolio Committee on Public Service a document titled the “CSOs’ Consolidated Analysis of the PVO Bill”. Civil society also joined a consultative meeting with the minister of justice in which he agreed to introduce various amendments provided by participating CSOs. They were later omitted.
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Throughout 2022 the PVO Bill went through a series of community-based public hearings in which it was continually met with opposition. Concerns about the government’s ability to interfere with NGOs through bureaucratic and invasive processes were shared. The bill was seen as a major attack on the right to freedom of association, assembly and expression.
Even within these public hearings, it had been reported that there were multiple disruptions by assumed government military officials against those who opposed the bill. There were at least two reported incidents in Masvingo where human rights defenders and citizens were verbally and physically attacked for expressing their opinions against the bill.
The bill has major implications for the operations and abilities of NGOs to fulfil their missions effectively. It silences them and stifles any attempt to protect the rights of Zimbabwean citizens, which will also prevent them from being able to participate fully in the country’s politics and social commentary.
The bill intends to continuously monitor and assess organisations on suspicion of money laundering and terrorism, a tactic usually used to stifle foreign funding or any opposition lobbying done by organisations by deeming them “terrorist groups”.
In addition to this, the minister has a wide range of discretion on what he deems “terrorism” and the ability to replace NGOs’ leadership or interfere generally with their internal workings.
As with other anti-NGO bills, there may also be a requirement for NGOs to reregister if any “material changes”, no matter how small, are made within the organisation. This allows the government greater opportunities to deny registration to human rights organisations that they deem to be in opposition towards them as terrorist conglomerates, and thus criminalising or penalising them.
Another worrying point of the bill is that the government has overriding power to deregister any organisation that opposes or supports political parties in elections.
The long-awaited bill arrived at the Zimbabwean Senate on 31 January 2023 and passed through three readings with only one minister opposing it. It will be passed onto the president for his signature, sealing the fate of Zimbabwe’s NGOs.
The soon-to-be Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Act (2023) will further oppress human rights organisations and defenders from attempting to uphold and protect the rights of Zimbabwean citizens, as well as entrench further the repressive state.
The PVO Act will allow the government to eradicate what could be the last on-the-ground line of defence for the protection of foundational human rights like free expression, association and assembly and other intersecting rights.
It will strengthen the dictatorial nature of the government and further prevent Zimbabwean citizens from exercising their rights to fully participate in their own society. DM
Thokozani Mbwana is a researcher-writer and poet working in human rights. Their interests lie in LGBTIQ+ rights, free expression, transitional justice and ethical research practices. They serve as Project Manager at the Campaign for Free Expression (CFE), a non-profit advocacy organisation that defends and expands the right of all to express themselves.