By Hassen Lorgat
PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe will soon put before Parliament a Bill that will divert NGOs’ attention and energies from educating voters for the March 2005 election towards navel-gazing and concer
ns about their own survival.
Copies of the Bill have not been made available through official channels, and those who will feel its impact most severely (NGOs) have not been approached to comment or co-draft the new laws.
It was only when the Bill was sent to the government printers that a copy found its way to civil society groups. NGOs in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region agree that there is no problem with regulation in itself, but in a context of violence and human rights abuses, as is the case in Zimbabwe, an NGO Bill can only be seen as a continuation of repression by other means. The Mugabe government blames human rights NGOs for its poor report card from the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.
Now, observers say, the government is trying to target a few key NGOs and, in the process, force compliance from the rest.
Mugabe laid bare the intentions of the Bill when he said: “NGOs must work for the betterment of our country and not against it. We cannot allow them to be conduits or instruments of foreign interference in our national affairs. My government will, during this session, introduce a Bill repealing the Private Voluntary Organisations Act and replace it with a law that will create an NGO council, whose thrust will be to ensure rationalisation of macro-management of all NGOs.”
The Bill aims to neutralise and sidetrack NGOs from doing what they should before the elections – educating citizens to make an informed choice. It uses legal obstacles (registration requirement, penalties, fines) to enforce regulation.
Clause 17 deals with funding: “No local (NGO) shall receive any foreign funding or donation to carry out activities involving governance issues,” thus cutting off the oxygen of most NGOs. The proposed NGO council will be dominated by the government, which will directly appoint nine representatives from various ministries including the Office of the President and Cabinet.
It then proposes “five representatives from NGOs or associations the minister considers representative of them”. Their mandate will be “to consider a code of conduct for NGOs … to conduct investigations into the administrations and activities of NGOs … to take such disciplinary or other actions that may be appropriate …”
It prevents “foreign NGOs” from registration if their “objects include or involve issues of governance”. Goodbye to the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and anyone else the Zimbabwe government does not trust to produce a tailored verdict on the election.
The NGO Bill is but one of a host of anti-human rights legislation and practices in Zimbabwe. Others include the Public Order and Security Act, the Access to Information and Protection to Privacy Act, the Broadcasting Services Act and the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act. A recent analysis of the use of Posa showed there had not been a single conviction out of 1 225 cases where arrests had taken place under the Act.
Just weeks ago, four Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union leaders were arrested at a workshop to report back on the following: high levels of taxation, the HIV/Aids levy, the National Social Security Authority and the International Labour Organisation’s annual conference, held in June. They were charged under Posa and jailed for holding the meeting without police clearance.
It was later discovered that trade unions are exempted from seeking police clearance. The charges were changed to “uttering words that were likely to cause despondence and influence the overthrow of a legitimately elected government”.
Media laws already undermine free access to information and two newspapers have been banned. The role of NGOs, community-based and faith-based organisations in elections are recognised and respected in the Sadc region and the African Union. But to win the March 2005 election, Zanu PF strategists have gambled that NGOs must be neutralised through regulation – or perhaps that should read – strangulation”. – Mail & Guardian (SA).
*Hassen Lorgat is media and communications manager of the South African NGO Council.