Zimbabwe NGO Bill raises concern

A proposed new law that is set to curtail the activities of NGOs in Zimbabwe has grabbed the attention of many among Southern Africa’s human-rights defenders.

Expected to become law before the end of the year, the NGO Bill of 2004 makes it mandatory for all charities, NGOs and community-based associations to register under a government-controlled authority. Many fear this will allow the Zimbabwe government to deny accreditation to organisations likely to question its human-rights record.

The proposed legislation chillingly resembles a draconian law that has all but destroyed critical journalism, resulting in the media watchdog Reporters sans Frontières placing Zimbabwe next only to Iraq and Cuba for its hostile media environment in 2003.

The government has used the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa)—under which journalists and media houses have to register—to deny accreditation to individuals and organisations with whom it is uncomfortable. For instance, foreign journalists have been denied registration, as have two independent newspapers.

In much the same way, should the NGO Bill become law, as expected, hundreds of NGOs will have to register under a government-dominated 15-member council. Defying the law will attract a jail sentence of up to six months.

But the most far-reaching clause in the proposed law is the requirement that local NGOs engaged in ‘‘governance’’ work—the state’s term for human-rights defenders and civic educators—receive no external funding. Foreign NGOs involved in such work will not be registered at all.

‘‘It’s the kind of Bill we wouldn’t expect at this time and age, especially in the context of the overall SADC [Southern African Development Community] and African Union protocols,’’ says Abie Ditlakhe, secretary general of the Botswana-based SADC NGO Council, an independent association of the region’s national NGO bodies.

In the past four years, as Zimbabwe’s political climate deteriorated following a violent land-reform programme and disputed parliamentary and presidential elections in 2000 and 2002, human-rights and other civic pressure groups have proliferated. Most survive on outside funding.

To date they have been able to avoid official prying by operating as trusts. But the majority now faces closure. The result, says lawyer Brian Crozier, is that ‘‘tyranny will continue unchecked by civil society and unobserved by all except its victims”.

Concern has extended beyond Zimbabwe’s borders to neighbouring states where lobbying against the new law is taking place. But the government says the legislation is essential for national security, to protect the Southern African country from ‘‘foreign values’’ championed by ‘‘local puppets’‘.

Hassen Lorgat of the Johannesburg-based South African Non-Governmental Organisations Council (Sangoco) likens the Bill to South Africa’s apartheid-era legislation.

He says NGOs in the SADC region agree that there is no problem with regulation in itself. But they disapprove the proposed law ‘‘in a context of violence and the systematic violations of human rights, as is the case of Zimbabwe”.

Lorgat adds Sangoco is disseminating information about the proposed law. It’s also organising a summit in Johannesburg late in September ‘‘to tackle issues of human rights violations as a whole in Zimbabwe and in the sub-region’‘.

Zimbabwean civil society lobbied heads of state and government gathered for a summit of the 13-member SADC in Mauritius earlier this month.

In a statement, the largest NGO umbrella organisation in Zimbabwe, the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, said the proposed law criminalises a sector that is providing safety nets to many communities hard-hit by social, economic and political turmoil. It warned the Bill has implications on illegal cross-border trading, economic refugees and increased prostitution as well as the spread of HIV/Aids.

Ditlakhe says he has received many calls from many coalitions in different countries, enquiring about the Bill and what to do about it. The council will send a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe that will seek to build on the representations already made by civil society within the country.

Analysts, many of whom have described the law as oppressive and unconstitutional, say the proposed law is aimed at paving the way for the ruling Zanu-PF party to steal next March’s parliamentary elections.

“It’s all about elections,” says Brian Kagoro, chairperson of Harare-based Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a collection of civil society organisations. He says with the independent press all but emasculated, the new law is meant to ensure the elections take place with no local or international NGOs to contradict a victory for President Robert Mugabe’s party.

‘‘This will wholly prevent any outside NGO from monitoring elections in Zimbabwe unless explicitly invited by the Zimbabwe government,’’ Lorgat says.

Violence, intimidation and coercion, mainly through the use of food, have characterised most elections since 2000.

However, discouraged by what it has termed an uneven playing field, the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change announced this week it will not participate in elections until political space has been opened up. It said although the Zimbabwe government is a signatory to the new SADC protocol on elections, the party’s executive does not believe the government acted in good faith and consequently harbours serious doubts as to the government’s commitment to enforcing the electoral standards contained in the protocol.

But the implications of the proposed NGO Act extend beyond elections. For instance, ‘‘foreign NGOs that are providing food aid will not be able to continue doing so unless they are charities which have no interest whatsoever in governance’‘, Crozier points out.

Despite official claims of a bumper harvest, independent assessments say about 2,2-million rural Zimbabweans need food aid this year.

Crozier says the definition of an NGO makes no distinction between non-profit and profit organisations. It is ‘‘extremely wide and covers associations and institutions with every conceivable type of object’‘. These, he says, range from medical and veterinary practices (unless they are one-person concerns) to pension funds and sports clubs.

Exempted by the new law will be trade unions and churches “in respect of activities confined to religious work”. Crozier says the Jesuits, for example, will have to register their society if they are to continue running schools and providing education in secular subjects.

The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society and other associations will also be exempt, as will political parties, but only “in respect of work confined to political activities”.

If the new law is passed by the ruling-party-dominated Parliament in October, it will replace the present Private Voluntary Organisation Act. Ironically, NGOs have for long complained that the existing law is draconian, in that it gives too much power to the minister of labour, manpower planning and social welfare to interfere in their activities.

The new legislation entrenches ministerial authority. The minister may dissolve any NGO as he sees fit as well as rule on appeals brought by aggrieved registered NGOs.

Kagoro says the law will increase the number of voices sceptical of Zimbabwe’s recovery.

‘‘It will not do any good to the government’s image even within Africa,’’ he says.—IPS

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