ZIMBABWEAN civil society should take lessons from regional neighbours who have resisted attempts by their governments to clamp down on non-governmental organisations and stifled free expression, a local human rights watchdog, the Zimbabwe Democratic Institute (ZDI), has said.
This comes at a time the government is fast-tracking the implementation of the Private Voluntary Organisations Bill (PVO) that seeks to control the operations of non-governmental organisations.
Through his column in a state-controlled paper, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said he is ready to sign the Bill “once Parliament has done its part”.
The PVO Bill, which has already undergone its second reading, could see the country losing millions of dollars in funding at a time the cost of living has been skyrocketing, and the nation is in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
NGOs bring more forex than foreign investments — with total foreign currency receipts rising from US$647.78 million to US$975.16 million between 2020 and 2021, signalling a 50.5% increase.
Foreign investment contributed US$40.06 million and US$91.14 million in the same period.
ZDI said civil society can borrow a leaf from the resistance that has met legislation similar to the PVO Amendment Bill in Zambia, Ethiopia and Kenya.
“In 2013, the Kenyan government introduced a draft law to the National Assembly that aimed at amending the 2013 Public Benefits Organisations (PBO) Act. The Act limited the amount of foreign funding allowed to NGOs operating in Kenya to a maximum of 15% of their total funding,” reads a report by ZDI titled: “Civic Space Contestation Ahead of 2023.”
The Kenyan coordination board responsible for the registration, coordination and facilitation of NGOs gave a directive aimed at suspending 510 organisations on the grounds that they had not submitted their annual reports.
Responding to this Bill, more than 50 NGOs within the Kenyan civil society commenced a large-scale campaign and brought parliament to reject the proposal.
In 2009, Ethiopia similarly adopted its first law governing the registration and regulation of NGOs that prohibited charities and societies receiving more than 10% foreign funding, from engaging human right and advocacy activities.
CSOs in the country responded by preparing joint commentaries on the drafts, and organised forums to discuss with government officials.
Zambia in 2013 also called upon NGOs to register under the NGO Act, which makes it a requirement for NGOs to re-register after every five years.
“When the law was introduced without consultation in 2009, there was strong resistance from national and international NGOs. In addition, despite threats of de-registration by the government, many organisations chose not to register under the 2009 NGO Act. In view of the PVO Amendment Bill, Zimbabwean civil society can borrow a leaf . . . and resist the Bill,” ZDI says.
The organisation said there has been de-cohesion within civil society, hence the need for unity of purpose.
“We have had reports whereby CSOs have been conniving with state agents to disrupt meetings convened by their counterparts. They send information actually. Let us say we invite you to their meetings — you share the meetings with the state agents whilst you are a member of the session,” said Bekezela Gumbo, ZDI principal research officer, in an interview with The NewsHawks.
Gumbo said Parliament has been weak in fulfilling its oversight role in countering the PVO Bill.
“This is a Zanu PF policy, and Zanu PF members of Parliament are there in the House of Assembly to ensure that this policy is implemented. This has been made clear by the President in his weekly columns where he talks very specifically about this Bill, and making sure that it succeeds. And we have seen people like the Zanu PF spokesperson and the like, who are very clear that this is a Zanu PF Bill that should be passed, and non-governmental organisations are controlled and restricted from operating,” Gumbo said.
The opposition has also been caught napping.
In August, only two Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) legislators were physically present when the PVOs Amendment Bill’s second reading began in the National Assembly.
The remaining 17 legislators supposedly joined the proceedings via Parliament’s relatively unreliable virtual platform, thereby giving Zanu PF the leeway to fast-track the Bill.
“So, we will not see anything that much from a Parliament that is controlled by a party with two-thirds majority to oppose what it seeks to implement.”