Background Briefing

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Political tensions in Zimbabwe between civic organizations, especially trade unions, NGOs, the independent media, and churches, escalated before and after the 2000 general election.  The government accused NGOs of launching opposition political activity and threatened to clamp down on those which did not comply with the Private Voluntary Organizations Act,1 a colonial relic which gives the government significant power to control NGOs.  In its 2002 report on Zimbabwe, the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights recommended that the government repeal the PVO Act because it limited civil liberties.2  Since 2002, civic organizations deemed to be engaged in opposition politics have been targets of government’s repressive laws, notably the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.3  On September 13 2002, the government issued a notice in the state newspaper, The Herald, warning NGOs to comply with the PVO Act and threatening that “[F]ailure to adhere to the law would result in arrests being made.”4 The PVO Act makes it an offence to knowingly manage or control an unregistered organization or collect contributions from the public for an unregistered organization.  These offences, like others in the Act, may be punished with a fine or imprisonment or both.5   In October 2002, President Mugabe announced that the government would scrutinize NGOs and review the laws governing them.6 

The 2004 NGO Bill must be understood in the context of political polarization over the past four years.  After the controversial 2002 Presidential election, the United States and the European Union imposed targeted sanctions against the government of Zimbabwe and all major Western bilateral donors stopped government-to-government assistance, opting instead to channel their aid directly through NGOs.7  In the diplomatic arena, the NGO Bill might be understood as the government’s counter-attack on these Western punitive measures.  The Bill targets Western donor-funded NGOs and churches that are active in human rights and democracy activities.  While these organizations declare themselves to be non-partisan, the government has charged them with improper links to the MDC and to imperialist Western interests and money.  Moreover, the government maintains that such organizations use human rights rhetoric to conceal their real objective which is regime change.  To undermine national sovereignty and national security, the government claims that these organizations lie about their human rights record.8  British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s statement in the House of Commons on June 14 2004 that his government was working closely with the opposition MDC to effect regime change in Zimbabwe was seized on by the Minister of Information and Publicity as evidence that the MDC was a British “puppet”. 9   The Minister continued: “[T]he same is true of those media houses and NGOs that support it [the MDC].”10

Zimbabwe’s proposed NGO Bill is best viewed in the context of laws regulating NGOs passed by other SADC countries.  Four SADC countries—Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania—have passed such laws and Namibia soon plans to introduce an NGO law.  For a detailed analysis of these laws, please see the Appendix: NGO Laws: Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania.

[1]. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2000, Zimbabwe.  U.S. Department of State, February 2001, p.17.

[2]. Zimbabwe: NGO Bill Harbours Grave Consequences for the People.  International Bar Association.  August 24, 2004, footnotes 1 and 16.

[3]. Under the Shadow, Human Rights Watch, June 6 2003, p.6.

[4]  The Herald, September 13 2002.

[5]. PVO Act, section 6(2),(3), and (3a).  For other offences and penalties, see sections 10(4), 20(3), and 20.

[6]. Amnesty International, Rights Under Siege, May 2 2003.  AI Index: AFR 46/012/2003.

[7]. Department for International Development (UK), Country Profiles: Africa.  Zimbabwe.  2004.  Http://  Accessed November 29 2004; USAID, CBJ 2005, Africa: Zimbabwe.  Http://  Accessed November 29 2004.

[8].  For example, Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, Zimbabwe Standard, August 22 2004, responding to Press Statement by NANGO, “NGO Bill 2004 - A Bill That Kills When Zimbabwe Needs Life on August 15 2004. [kubatana?]; “Zimbabwe Charities Agree to Code, Ahead of Crackdown”, August 30 2004 (GIN); Nathaniel Manheru, “NGO or WGO: Reality Behind Opposition to Bill, The Herald (Online), October 9 2004; “Amani Trust Fanning Political Violence”, Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), January 27 2002.  Http://  Accessed November 7 2004; Adversarial NGO Report; “Zim slams ‘imperialist’ NGOs”, News24 (South Africa), August 29 2004; “Mugabe slams cleric”, News24 (South Africa), August 22 2004.

[9]. The exchange between Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard and Prime Minister Tony Blair, June 14 2002, column 522, UK Hansard, cited in The Zimbabwe Situation, “Monday in UK Parliament”, posted June 17 2004.  The Prime Minister responded to a question from Michael Howard, as follows: “On the latter two points, we work closely with the MDC on the measures that we should take in respect of Zimbabwe, although I am afraid that these measures and sanctions, although we have them in place, are of limited effect on the Mugabe regime. We must be realistic about that. It is still important that we give every chance to, and make every effort to try to help, those in South Africa-the southern part of Africa-to put pressure for change on the Mugabe regime, because there is no salvation for the people of Zimbabwe until that regime is changed.”  For ruling party responses, see “I’m working with MDC, admits Blair”, The Herald (Zimbabwe), June 25 2004. 

Http://  Accessed November 29 2004.

[10]. “I’m working with MDC, admits Blair”, The Herald (Zimbabwe), June 25 2004. 

Http://  Accessed November 29 2004.

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