Zimbabwe’s NGOs fight for survival: Civil Society

Image: Flickr, Cuban Pete
Image: Flickr, Cuban Pete

Recent demonstrations by the pro-democracy interest group, the National Constitutional Assembly in Zimbabwe, highlight the plight of interest groups and NGOs should government enact the draft Non-Governmental Organisations Bill.

The demonstrations are also a sign that civil society groups are not submissively accepting legislation that might lead to their closure but are opposing it with vigour. The National Constitutional Assembly delivered a letter to SA’s high commission, calling on the country to intervene diplomatically in Zimbabwe’s political crisis. At the recent Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit, interest groups lobbied for support against the bill. They called on SADC member states and civil society in the region to support their drive towards an environment that is more conducive to civil society in Zimbabwe.

According to the Zimbabwean National Association of Non-governmental Organisations (Nango), representing more than 1000 groups, it has received support from other umbrella NGO groups in Botswana, Malawi, SA and Zambia.

The association believes that this bill, which is designed to monitor the activities of NGOs in Zimbabwe closely, will ‘kill’ civil society. The bill will introduce punitive measures directed at private charities, religious groups, NGOs and aid organisations.

Zimbabwe’s government argues that the proposed law is meant to protect the public interest by ensuring NGOs are governed and administered properly and use donor and public funds for the objectives for which they were established.

Civil society organisations have a different take: Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights sees the bill as a ‘gimmick that is meant to administratively create criminals out of NGOs so as to provide excuses for intrusion, clamp down and closures of NGOs’.

Nango is protesting against the bill, saying that it fears for the independence of its members if aspects of their work are criminalised.

Should the bill be enacted, a 15-member NGO council will regulate nongovernmental organisations. Ten of these members will be representatives of government ministries, while five will be representatives from civil society groups.

The minister of public service, labour and social welfare will identify these five NGO members, thus undermining the independence of interest groups to monitor and criticise government policies and actions. The bill also envisages the imposition of restrictions on foreign funding for human rights and governance work. NGOs believe that this will cut the bulk of their funding in a climate where there are no alternatives and limited access to local funding.

At a hearing of the parliamentary portfolio committee on public service, labour and social welfare earlier this month, NGOs made a submission that the bill should not be passed in its current form and needed considerable amendment. The committee will respond to the submissions after a report has been tabled before and debated by parliament.

Nango’s Jacob Mavu says the NGOs will continue discussions with other regional umbrella organisations and stakeholders in Zimbabwe to facilitate constructive engagement. The association hopes for talks with the public service, labour and social welfare ministry in an attempt to have the bill amended.

Should the bill be passed by parliament, it will most certainly curtail further the operations of civil society environment, deepening a climate where corruption is rife, and voice and accountability, transparency and the rule of law are further weakened.

Yet it will most probably become law, given Zanu (PF)’s parliamentary majority. The bill will decrease the political space for civil society and entrench a corporatist state, where many NGOs and interest groups will align themselves with government and toe the party line to ensure their survival.

This will not mean the end of civil society in Zimbabwe, but will most certainly stifle opposition and criticism of the ruling party. Civil society groups might also broaden their tactics, including closer co-operation with the opposition MDC, possible litigation and more ‘illegal’ demonstrations.