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Civil society divided over PVO Bill representations

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ZIMBABWE’S civil society organisations have been rocked by new divisions during and after their meeting with President Emmerson Mnangagwa in which they discussed the contentious Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Bill which now awaits presidential assent.

BERNARD MPOFU

Information gathered by The NewsHawks shows that CSOs wrote a letter to Mnangagwa after they took a position opposing the signing of the PVO Bill into law. The resolution was made at the last Heads of Coalitions meeting held earlier in the year.

Sources say fissures emerged over who would lead the CSO delegation which met Mnangagwa at State House last Friday. The Jenny Williams-led Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza) and the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (Nango) had different positions on how they would engage Mnangagwa.

The dropping of CSOs perceived to be hostile to the government such as Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition also heightened fears among critically vocal organisations that the state was deploying divide-andrule tactics ahead of the general elections where CSOs have traditionally taken an active role.

Eventually a delegation was constituted, comprising 16 individuals drawn from the Heads of Coalitions and the CSO Coordinating Committee on the PVO Amendment Bill.

The CSO delegation which met Mnangagwa, sources said, represented areas such as regions, gender, demography and thematic areas.

The government delegation was made up of Mnangagwa; the Attorney-General, deputy Attorney-General (Legislative Drafting); deputy minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare; secretary for Justice Virginia Mabhiza; secretary for Finance George Guvamatanga; secretary for Information Nick Mangwana; secretary for Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare; and chief directors in the ministry of Justice. No media organisation was invited into the discussions.

“The forthcoming elections will be an acid test for CSOs. Many will be currying favour to avoid antagonising relations with state and of course de-registration,” a source familiar with the developments said.

 “During the meeting, government took a position that the PVO Bill was critical in ensuring that Zimbabwe does not return to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list.”

The southern African nation was placed on the FATF grey list in 2019, following a mutual evaluation (assessment) process that identified a number of deficiencies in the country’s implementation of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Financing of Terrorism (AML/CTF) Standards.

 It was then removed from the list in 2022 following an on-site evaluation. Isaac Maphosa, one of the coordinators of the meeting, declined to comment when contacted for comment.

Asked to comment on some of the key takeaways from the meeting, Crisis in Zimbabwe chairperson Peter Mutasa (pictured) said: “We are awaiting full feedback from the comrades who attended the meeting. Thereafter we will be able to issue a comment.”

Maphosa said: “I prefer not to make a comment, thank you so much.”

Under the amended Bill, PVOs will now need the government’s permission to make changes to their internal management and funding.

Additionally, the new law will include harsh penalties like imprisonment for administrative offences related to funding or engaging in political activities. Critics say the proposed law has huge financial implications for Zimbabwe which stands to lose over US$1 billion in financial aid.

CSOs and Western governments such as the United States have over the past year engaged the Harare authorities in an attempt to discourage Mnangagwa from signing the Bill — which they say is an affront on democracy — into law.

Responding to the Senate’s passing of the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, said: “The PVO Amendment Bill in its current form threatens civic society organisations working on human rights in Zimbabwe.

 The proposed Bill, if it becomes law, will have dire consequences, including restricting civic space and access to humanitarian support services in Zimbabwe as it will immediately render all non-governmental organisations (NGOs), not registered as PVOs, illegal.

“This Bill, if passed by the President, could be used to deny registration of human rights organisations due to the work that they do, including defending rights such as freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The Bill would also exacerbate the growing crackdown on civil society organisations, increase human rights violations and make it more difficult for the people to hold the government to account. There is a risk that employees and board members of NGOs could be arrested and subjected to punitive measures, including imprisonment, simply for doing their work.

“President Mnangagwa must use his leadership position to reject this Bill as it is repressive. The President must ensure that this Bill is never signed into law.”

 Chagutah urged Zimbabwe to enact laws which are consistent with fundamental rights and international law.

 “Any future law must fully reflect international human rights standards and reaffirm the country’s human rights obligations towards the promotion and protection of the human rights of everyone, including those who work to defend the rights of other people. NGOs must be allowed to operate freely and to do their work without any reprisals,” Chagutah said.

On 5 November 2021, the Zimbabwean government gazetted a Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill ostensibly to “counter terrorism and prohibit political lobbying from, non-government organisations”.

An amended Bill was then presented in June 2022 which significantly toughened the initial legislation, disregarding civil society’s concerns, and imposed stricter and more repressive clauses, and is the basis of the legislation now passed by the Senate.

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