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NGOs, legislation and self-regulation in Zimbabwe
T H Muzondo
June 09, 2009

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In 2004 I wrote my LLM thesis on the NGO bill in Zimbabwe. When asked to comment on President Mugabe-s refusal to sign the bill into law after it had been passed by parliament I said that the refusal was a masterstroke on his part but it was a hollow victory for civil society if at all it could be considered a victory. A masterstroke because Mugabe came away appearing like the voice of reason who was prepared to listen to the international community and the NGO sector by choosing to snub parliament which had sent the bill to him for his assent. A masterstroke because nothing more could be achieved by signing the bill than had already been achieved by its tabling and subsequent passing in parliament. We all remember how in 2004 a lot of NGOs simply closed shop and/or relocated as a direct consequence of the NGO Bill. The victory rang hollow because by the time the President refused to assent, civil society had already been decimated by the closures and moreover, it was made clear that the bill had only been put on the backburner and was not dead. If anything, the powers that be we using the bill as leverage by letting it hang over civil society as an axe in mid air on condition that civil society towed the line. The powers that be have now decided the axe should come down with ferocity.

Considering the composition of parliament, the new bill which makes supposedly minor but very significant changes can only be introduced with the consent of the two MDC formations. The attempt the change the legislation considering the MDCs role in it is shameful, unfortunate, treacherous, worrying and mindboggling. Shameful because it comes at a time when civil society activists are still facing serious charges in the High Court whilst other activists are routinely arrested or otherwise harassed by the police. Unfortunate because civil society did so much to bring about change in Zimbabwe alongside the MDC in difficult circumstances in the hope that come the new political dispensation, legislation would be passed that conforms to the constitution and creates an enabling environment for civil society.

Many still remember being beaten up and locked up in the same filthy cells with the new ministers such that this legislation can only be viewed as treachery. Did we suffer together so that when you get power you would take away the constitutionally enshrined right of freedom of association they ask. Further it-s only just recently that this government was taking all the help it could get from NGOs to fight the cholera pandemic and to feed the multitudes affected by the last poor farming season without looking at the particulars of how the NGO offering the assistance was registered.

Worrying because it is a well known fact that the State has always sought to severely curtail if not cripple NGO operations in Zimbabwe yet the MDC seems quite content to act alongside Zanu PF to enact legislation that limits rather than extends the rights of the NGO sector. Does this mean that in principle the MDC believes that it is necessary to severely curtail the ability of NGOs to operate and that in 2004 it merely opposed the NGO Bill because it was expedient to do so, or rather is it that having tasted power albeit shared with Zanu PF, the MDC is now prepared to do all it can to limit criticism and has chosen the vocal NGO sector as its first target.

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