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Independence Day in name only, NGOs fear
Moyiga Nduru, Inter Press Service (IPS)
April 18, 2007

JOHANNESBURG - Reports that Zimbabwean Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu has annulled the registration of all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in the country have been greeted with dismay by civil society representatives.

"27 years after Zimbabwe welcomed democracy and justice, the current government has marked this Independence Day by clamping down on peaceful NGOs -- the same organisations that work to protect human rights, reduce poverty and encourage the betterment of Zimbabwean society," said Clare Doube, manager of the Civil Society Watch programme at the Worldwide Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS), in reference to the emergence of the reports ahead of Zimbabwe Independence Day, Wednesday.

CIVICUS is a network of civil society organisations; it is based in South Africa's commercial centre, Johannesburg.

"Rather than engaging these active and passionate citizens in ending the current economic and social crisis, the government is attempting to silence them," Doube added, in an Apr. 17 statement put out by CIVICUS.

Zimbabwe is currently battling runaway inflation, high unemployment and shortages of essential goods -- blamed by some on government's economic mismanagement. The country is also experiencing political repression that has resulted in widespread human rights abuses and a number of flawed elections.

State-controlled television was quoted as saying that the annulment was aimed at identifying "agents of imperialism from genuine organisations working to uplift the well-being of the poor".

The Harare government has accused certain Western states of trying to topple it, saying these countries are responsible for the many problems gripping Zimbabwe. It portrays opposition and civil society groups as being puppets of outside powers.

"At the moment (civil society groups) are perceived as opposition parties. This is wrong," Nicholas Mkaronda, co-ordinator for a pressure group called the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, told journalists at a briefing held by CIVICUS Tuesday. The event highlighted the findings of an Apr. 13-16 visit to Zimbabwe by CIVICUS Secretary General Kumi Naidoo and Doube.

News of Ndlovu's threats came as civil society organisations were demanding that they be included in talks for finding a solution to Zimbabwe’s political and economic ills which are being mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki.

A Mar. 28-29 summit of the Southern African Development Community held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, mandated Mbeki to "to continue to facilitate dialogue" between Zimbabwean authorities and the opposition.

"The solution to Zimbabwe's problems should not be confined to ZANU-PF and the MDC. Civil society should be part of it," Don Mattera, a South African writer and member of the Global Pan African Movement, told IPS -- referring to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's leading opposition group. He was another of the representatives of civil society organisations present at the CIVICUS briefing.

"There are many other players there besides the MDC and ZANU-PF."

CIVICUS is planning to meet Mbeki to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe. "We'll tell Mbeki not only to mediate between government and the MDC, but also with civil society and other Zimbabweans," Doube said at the briefing.

"The situation in Zimbabwe is dire. It's truly a crisis of many different dimensions," she added, noting that some 600 people are estimated to have disappeared since a Mar. 11 prayer meeting where opposition and civil society representatives were beaten by police. The victims of abuse included Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of an MDC faction. Authorities claimed the gathering was illegal.

"If we don't act fast we are going to have an Argentina-style operation where people 'get disappeared'," Naidoo said, alluding to the manner in which government opponents vanished in this South American country during military rule in the 1970s and 1980s.

During his stay in Zimbabwe, Naidoo addressed a prayer gathering in the southern city of Bulawayo.

"While Saturday's prayer meeting in Bulawayo was fortunately allowed to proceed without police interference, this was definitely an exception to recent practice. The increasing restrictions on civil society action in Zimbabwe severely hamper citizen participation in making a turn for the better," he was quoted as saying in the Apr. 17 statement.

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