THE government has frozen the registration of private voluntary organisations (PVOs) and trusts, stoking fears that the President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration has begun a clampdown on non-governmental organisations, closing the democratic space even before the passing of the PVO Amendment Bill.
Mnangagwa’s regime is pushing for a PVO Amendment Bill and accuses non-governmental organisations of pushing for political agendas and regime change hence the push to have them shut out.
Multiple sources told The NewsHawks in separate interviews this week that attempts to register as PVOs and trusts have been thwarted by officials citing orders “from above” as the reason.
“My colleagues and I have plans to support an HIV and Aids orphans but to do so we need to set up a trust. This is purely humanitarian, non-political but we were told that they are not registering anyone,” a source said.
“We cannot continue with the plans if we do not regularise our operations. This is disheartening, the children need help.”
Another applicant said: “They said the freeze is indefinite and it left me more confused. My lawyers were also told the same thing, so I wait.”
The unofficial freeze comes at a time the government is pushing for the passing of the PVO Bill, with pro-democracy activists saying they are worried that the state is clamping down on democratic space ahead of the crunch 2023 general election.
Mnangagwa is afraid the PVOs will play a key part ahead of the polls hence the need to silence them, but the push has invited a backlash from the local and international communities that have described it as bad for democracy.
Zimbabwe is also set to lose close to US$1 billion from the PVOs who have countless projects in the country.
In the run up to the 26 March by-election which the opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) won comfortably, President Mnangagwa threatened to suspend the operations of all non-profit organisations, even those keeping the country from plunging into a hunger crisis.
“We can do without NGOs. I will remove them from this country, I will chase them away,” Mnangagwa said before the by-elections.
“When they are in the country, they must just do what they declared they want to do in this country,” he said.
Two months on, new PVO registrants are already feeling the heat of government threats and the imminent Bill.
“There is an unofficial freeze on trusts and PVOs. They have not given reasons. They only say the order came from above. You can only register family trusts right now. This move is connected to the Bill,” lawyer Jacob Mafume told The NewsHawks.
Banning non-profit organisations is a tactic Robert Mugabe used in 2008 when he felt most vulnerable at the ballot box. He accused foreign aid agencies of bribing people with food to vote for the opposition.
After he won the election through violent brutality, he lifted the ban on the aid groups.
“It is a move calculated at making sure civil society is crippled ahead of the 2023 elections. It is not surprising that ever since Mnangagwa came into office through a military coup we have seen a consolidation of power, an entrenchment of authoritarian rule, which would lead to a one-party state,” Blessing Vava, Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe director said.
“It is well-calculated, especially the timing, that this Bill is coming a year before the harmonised elections.”
He said Zimbabwe’s constitution had been grossly undermined through the passing of amendments, especially statutory instruments which have been promulgated since Mnangagwa took over in 2017.
“The constitution is a progressive document, which until now has not been implemented. Mnangagwa’s government has been reneging on doing this, firstly the aligning of the laws and the implementation of the constitution,” Vava said.
If passed, the law would give the government powers to interfere in the governance and activities of civil society organisations, including changes to internal management and funding.
The law also would allow the government to brand aid groups “high risk” or “vulnerable” to terrorism, while banning some organisations from politics.
Some fear a ban on aid agencies would lead to drastic cuts in humanitarian assistance, estimated at US$800 million a year.
A recent report by Zimbabwean development experts warns that government action must be measured.
Foreign aid, coming through non-governmental organisations, is Zimbabwe’s third-largest revenue stream, after exports and diaspora remittances, the report quoted a recent central bank statement.
Last week, Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi (pictured) was challenged to provide evidence of political interference by non-governmental organisations and that some charities are conduits for sponsoring terrorism and other criminal activities as claimed by the regime in justifying its push to shut down PVOs.
Ziyambi told members of Parliament that the Bill does not speak to those law-abiding PVOs but to the few who may be tempted to use the guise of charity to carry out “undesirable, harmful and even criminal activities.”
Legal monitor Veritas said in his justification of the Bill, Ziyambi claimed communication had been received from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that some charities are being used to channel terrorist funding and other criminal activities.
The Justice minister, Veritas said, also claimed that some charitable organisations were being misused to launder the proceeds of criminal activities by “for instance buying up properties in Zimbabwe and other countries.”
The PVO Amendment Bill was gazetted in November 2021 and seeks to amend the PVO Act to impose new restrictions, but civil society organisations have warned the proposed amendments will constrain their work and violate human rights, while negatively affecting communities who depend on their activities.
Asked on government’s partial freeze to register PVOs, Ziyambi said: “I am not aware of this, talk to the minister of Labour.”
Several attempts to reach Labour minister Paul Mavima were fruitless.