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  • NGO Bill - Index of Opinion and Analysis

  • The NGO Bill: A defining moment for the Church and Civic Society
    Christians Together for Justice and Peace (CTJP)
    September 14, 2004

    We, Christians Together for Justice and Peace, stand in solidarity with all those churches and church and civic groups which have expressed their abhorrence of the Non Governmental Organisation Bill. We support those numerous groups of lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and freedom-loving people in Zimbabwe and around the world who have condemned the NGO Bill as unconstitutional and anti-democratic.

    Although the contents of the Bill may be "dressed up" to look respectable and its stated objective is to provide "an enabling environment" for the operations, monitoring and regulation of all non-governmental organisations, we discern in this Bill a deeply sinister purpose, and that is to disable all NGO’s which the ruling party perceives to represent a threat to their continuing, brutal, hold on power.

    Specifically we note the outlawing under clause 17 of any overseas funding for local NGO’s concerned with "issues of governance", which are defined to include the promotion or protection of human rights and political governance issues.  This no doubt includes the monitoring of torture and other gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the present regime. It also presumably includes anything to do with constitutional issues and the conduct of elections. In short, in the very areas in which the motives of the ruling party are most suspect, the Bill seeks to proscribe the invaluable part hitherto played by NGO’s in monitoring abuses and exposing wrong doing.

    The Bill is all about control, the iron hand of control which a deeply unpopular administration seeks to assert over one of the last remaining democratic spaces in this country.  We note that the proposed all-powerful NGO Council which is the chosen agent of that control is composed of members either appointed or at least approved by a government minister.  There can be no pretence of objectivity here, nor of any genuine desire to regulate NGO’s for the benefit of those millions of Zimbabweans who have come to depend on them heavily for their well-being; even for their survival.

    The NGO Council is given sweeping powers, not only over the registration process, but to investigate the activities of NGO’s and apply disciplinary measures as it deems fit - including the cancellation and amendment of registration certificates, removal and replacement of NGO members and disposal of assets.  Furthermore, the right of appeal against any decision of the Council lies with the government minister who appointed and directs the affairs of the Council. 

    Effectively, therefore, under this draconian measure the ruling party seeks to take control of all NGOs and NGO activities across the land - including the right to close down or refuse registration to any groups whose work takes them into fields which the party finds inconvenient or embarrassing.  To ensure the total subservience of the whole NGO sector the ruling party has appointed themselves policeman, prosecutor and judge in all matters.

    In passing, we note also the huge administrative and financial burden which this Bill imposes on those NGO’s which comply, both in relation to the registration process and also the reporting and accounting required by Council, time and money thereby diverted from the needs of those whom NGO’s are there to serve.

    The definition of a "non-government organisation" is so wide as to include virtually any group involved in humanitarian, relief or development work, and a great deal besides.  All are subjected to the requirement to register and any group proceeding without a registration certificate is committing a criminal offence.  At one stroke, therefore, save with the approval of the ruling party, all the humanitarian, relief and social upliftment work carried on hitherto by churches and NGO’s across the length and breadth of Zimbabwe, is criminalized. 

    This Bill, therefore, represents not only a savage assault on the civil liberties of all Zimbabweans but a grievous blow to the increasing number who have come to depend on the NGO’s and church-related organisations for a wide variety of services, from health and education to emergency feeding schemes, as the services provided by the state continue to decline.  Those who will suffer most will again be the most vulnerable members of our society who are already living at, or below, the bread line.

    Nor are we deceived by what might appear to be a concession to the churches.  Under  clause 2 of the Bill and among the activities exempted from the general definition  of an  NGO, is the following: "any religious body in respect of activities confined to religious work".  The difficulty here is what is implied by the term "religious work".  According  to the Church’s own self-understanding religious work is bound to include works of charity and compassion and much more besides in the way of empowering men and women to reach their God-given potential.

    Given the ruling party’s oft-stated view that the churches should confine themselves to purely "spiritual" matters, we doubt whether the minister appointed by Mugabe to administer the Bill will subscribe to such a broad definition of our core activities. Indeed it may be that the minister will have in mind no more than what Christians do in worship for an hour or two on Sunday mornings.

    In short we find ourselves confronted here by a provocative piece of legislation which threatens to remove completely the Church’s freedom to respond to human need in accordance with the Gospel imperative. In essence the Bill seeks to substitute the permission of the state for a mandate given by God himself.  It raises the question whether the Church needs the permission of the state to be the Church, and our answer to that question can only be a resounding "No." 

    Our divine mandate to which the Scriptures bear witness, is "to loose the fetters of injustice, and untie the knots of the yoke, and set free those who are oppressed, tearing off every yoke". (Isaiah 58:6). Upon this, our God-given mission, we cannot compromise. We will not accept any restrictions imposed by the state on this our divine mandate.  If what we do in obedience to our Christian calling makes us criminals in Zimbabwe, so be it; that is only a measure of how far from the ways of God our rulers have taken this nation.

    Clearly the underlying purpose of the NGO Bill is to take even greater control over people’s lives.  The essence of the Church’s mission on the other hand is to set men and women free.  (See Jesus’ own mission manifesto for example in Luke 4:18-19). By moving to enact this oppressive measure the ruling party has set itself on a collision course with the Church, as well as with civic society.  It would be possible, of course, for the Church to try to avoid confrontation by applying to register in respect of its humanitarian work. 

    But, in our view, that would amount to a betrayal of our Christian vocation and also to legitimizing of the ruling party’s attempt to usurp the place of God. We cannot therefore take the path of compromise.  It is of this regime’s doing entirely that the claims of God and of Caesar are now in conflict, and in this situation we can do no other than say to our rulers, with St Peter and the apostles: "We must obey God rather than men". (Acts 5:29)

    This is surely a defining moment for the Church.  We know we shall be judged by our response " whether active or passive" to this pernicious piece of legislation.  It is our prayer that the challenge will not find us wanting, and our hope that the Church and civic society will act as one in rejecting outright this vain attempt by the ruling party to usurp the place of God.

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