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The intensified struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe
What options for NGOs/Civil Society?

Jonah K. Gokova
October 13, 2002

Zimbabwe is currently facing an enormous governance, economic and social crisis that is seriously threatening to destroy much of what Zimbabweans have achieved since our national independence 22years ago. There is a serious concern shared among development actors that sustainable development can not be achieved under these conditions. The environment within which NGOs/Civil Society groups are operating is becoming increasingly restrictive.

The experience of NGOs in some Developing countries is that their Governments view them with great suspicion. In some African countries NGOs are accused of supporting the opposition or that they have a different development agenda which is contradicting the seating Government's priorities etc. This is however debatable.

Whatever the reasons for this suspicion are, the relationship between some governments and their NGOs can be described as unhealthy. Zimbabwe is not an exception. One must start by acknowledging that Zimbabwe is going through an unprecedented national crisis.

This new reality must provide an opportunity for Zimbabweans to appraise the relationship between the Government and the NGO/Civil Society sector.

The 13th September, 2002 notice issued by the Zimbabwean government in which it requires all NGO/Civic Society groups operating in the country to register under the PVO ACT [1997] highlights the complex relationship that exists between government and the NGOs/Civil Society sector. To start with, the PVO Act has always been a very contentious piece of legislation since passed into law in 1997. NGOs/Civil Society activists have described this Act as undemocratic and completely inadequate as a basis for creating an enabling framework for Government-NGOs/Civil Society dialogue and cooperation.

The real motive behind the PVO Act is for government to achieve total control of NGOs/Civil Society groups. We have seen this happening with other critical sectors like the students, workers, the judiciary, the media, political parties, all of which have been affected by specially designed legislation intended to stifle their work.

There is no reason why NGOs/Civil Society groups should assume that they could be an exception unless they are deciding to play a more passive role in the face of an unprecedented national crisis.

NGOs/Civil Society groups seem to be the last frontier in Government's effort to completely silence the voices of dissent. When they are invited to register as in the 13th September notice, NGOs Civil Society groups must realise that they are moving into a well calculated strategy and they need to do their own calculations as well.

It is no wonder that many NGOs/Civil Society groups have opted to register as Trusts. A casual glance at the NGOs/Civil Society scenario seems to indicate that organisations within this sector are not the same. On one hand we have organisations that are very traditional in the way they view their service delivery role and are satisfied with a purely welfarist approach. Most of these are already registered under the current [but contentious] PVO Act.

On the other hand, we have a new generation of NGOs/civic groups who see their role as going beyond 'feeling the gap' in government's service delivery to questions of sustainability of some of the traditional development strategies. Many of these organisations have moved into asking certain uncomfortable questions of government. Such questions as participation, control, public policy, human rights, governance, and public sector accountability result in government becoming suspicious of the intentions of NGOs/Civil Society groups.

Of course some of these questions have put Government priorities in bad light. NGOs/Civil Society groups should have no apologies to make about that. These questions are also about issues of governance, which are clear legitimate concerns for citizens to raise. NGOs/Civil Society groups must challenge the assumption that only government can decide and prioritise areas of interventions in national development programmes. Development programmes can not be divorced from issues of good governance. NGOs/Civil Society groups must therefore assume a greater and more critical role in the light of the Zimbabwean National crisis.

It is important to point out that the current socio-political economic and legal framework is highly polarised characterised by government's political values of patronage and paternalism. NGOs/Civil Society organisations need to be aware of this reality as they also can play a critical role in resolving our national crisis. The Current PVO Act has sufficient instruments to enable government to 'invade' [in order to restrict and control] NGOs/Civil Society groups and all indications are that the decision has been made to move in that direction. The recent government notice requiring NGOs to register or shut down should be seen as the first signal and NGOs/Civil Society groups can ignore this development at their peril.

But what options does this sector have given these latest developments? There is a strong legal opinion that says that NGOs/Civil Society groups have a strong case against the government notice if they take the challenge to the courts of law. Fair enough but experience also shows that when this current government is determined to act, they either manipulate or change the laws that are getting in the way of their determined actions.

So, legal action based on certain provisions of the constitution may be necessary for the record but this is still highly inadequate.

Added to the legal route, political arguments could be raised using the public platform to get government to consider reversing its decisions. This is an area that seems to have been exhausted already by other affected sectors. NGOs/Civil Society groups are well equipped to play a critical role in terms of lobbying and advocacy work to expand and consolidate the already increasingly shrinking democratic space in our country. NGOs/Civic groups also have a legitimate constituency whose livelihood is already threatened by lack of a democratic and tolerant culture in our country.

This debate should be given a high profile and NGOs/Civil Society must take responsibility to ensure that they invest in time, energy and resources in this new site of struggle for the sake of democracy in our country.

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