Thursday, January 20, 2005

Zimbabwe: The NGO Bill and the Church

Date: Thursday 20 January 2005
Subj: Zimbabwe: The NGO Bill and the Church
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.

As Zimbabwe heads towards elections, the Zanu-PF ruling party continues to silence dissent through repressive legislation.

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) requires that all media organisations register with the government-appointed Media and Information Commission and is a tool that enables the Mugabe regime to reduce freedom of speech and control the Press. Several independent newspapers have already been suspended using the AIPPA. The Public Order and Security Act (POSA), another piece of repressive legislation, is used to prevent meetings and activities of any organisation which is critical of Zanu PF.

Another restrictive Bill, Zimbabwe's new Non-Governmental Organisations Bill 2004, proceeded through parliament in early December, passing with 48 votes for and 28 against, and now awaits President Mugabe's signature to be enacted as law. The Daily News (Harare) warns: "Just like AIPPA and POSA, if passed into law in its present form, the NGO Bill will be used to shut down the operations of any NGO which the ruling party believes to be a challenge to its hold on power." (27 Oct 2004)


Jen Redshaw, reporting for South China Morning Post in Harare, Zimbabwe, writes, "Churchgoers fear the law signals the start of a new drive by Mr Mugabe's increasingly authoritarian government to extend its control over the church. David Coltart, an MP for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), calls it 'one of the worst attacks on the independence of the church'.

"Speaking on Friday after a meeting of church leaders to discuss the act, the Anglican Bishop of Manicaland told the South China Morning Post he was worried. 'We are saying no [to the bill],' Father Sebastian Bakare said in a telephone interview. 'It is putting the church in a situation where it will be incapacitated. We can't be confined to the pulpit only.'

"One church official recently told a small meeting in Harare: 'I think it's the beginning of the persecution of the church. We're heading for tough times'." (SCMP 20 Dec 2004)


The International Bar Association (IBA) has written an analysis of the Zimbabwean NGO Bill 2004. The IBA states in its introduction, "At the outset, it is critical to note that while the preamble to the Bill states that it is 'for the registration of non-governmental organisations, to provide for an enabling environment for the operations, monitoring and regulation of all non-governmental organisations …', an analysis of the Bill suggests that it is a far-reaching and draconian law clearly designed to exert full and complete control over non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other human rights and development organisations in Zimbabwe."


The NGO Bill takes the most repressive features of its predecessor, the Private Voluntary Organisations Act (PVO) of 1966, and expands it so that virtually all foreign and local NGOs will be within reach of the Bill for the purpose of investigation and discipline by a Council that will be stacked with government ministers.

One of the most significant differences between the PVO and NGO Bills is the NGO Bill's definition of an NGO. Excerpt from Part One the Bill:
"non-governmental organisation" means any foreign or local body or association of persons, corporate or unincorporate, or any institution, the objects of which include or are one or more of the following—
(a) the provision of all or any of the material, mental, physical or social needs of persons or families;
(b) the rendering of charity to persons or families in distress;
(c) the prevention of social distress or destitution of persons or families;
(d) the provision of assistance in, or promotion of, activities aimed at uplifting the standard of living of persons or families;
(e) the provision of funds for legal aid;
(f) the prevention of cruelty to, or the promotion of the welfare of, animals;
(g) the promotion and protection of human rights and good governance;
(h) the promotion and protection of environmental rights and interests and sustainable development;
(i) such other objects as may be prescribed;
(j) the collection of contributions for any of the foregoing;


Clearly, numerous Christian ministries, including church and mission based ministries, will be classified as NGOs on account of their provision of humanitarian aid and charity, defence of human rights, prevention of family distress, or even just their collection of contributions for such ministries.

Even if the church/mission/ministry doesn't offer any of the above listed services they may still be classed as an NGO on account of, "(i) such other objects as may be prescribed".

Will a pastor threaten the status of his church by exegeting a text such as Isaiah 58 (for example), which could (theoretically) be classed as "promotion of human rights"? If such an exegesis is followed by taking a collection for a ministry that provides food for the hungry and clothes for the naked (v7), will the church be required to seek NGO registration in order to remain open? Handling contributions collected contrary to the Act is a criminal offence!

This seems far fetched, but the NGO Bill would enable such a scenario. If a particular Christian pastor is publicly critical of the government, then surely that pastor is vulnerable to such repressive measures.


A Non-governmental Organisations Council will be established. It will consist of five NGO representatives and nine (instant majority) government ministers. All are to be appointed by the Minister. ("'Minister' means the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare or any other Minister to whom the President may, from time to time, assign the administration of this Act".)

The NGO Council is responsible for considering applications for NGO registration (which is compulsory); for investigating NGO activities and administering disciplinary action is necessary; for formulating rules for registration, de-registration, and codes of conduct for NGOs. The NGO Council has extraordinarily wide powers for investigation which will render all NGOs, even those dealing with sensitive information, open to investigation by government officials.

The NGO Council may also investigate "maladministration", which is broadly defined as, "any contravention of any provision of a code of conduct that may be proscribed" (proscribed that is, by the NGO Council that is stacked with government ministers). NGO directors or committees may be suspended for "maladministration", or if the NGO Council deems that suspension is "in the public interest".

The NGO Council may be funded by moneys appropriated by the government through an Act of parliament, by foreign governments, through moneys accrued in the course of operation, and through fees and charges. (So the NGO Council could be partly funded by Libya (for example), while Zimbabwe's Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (for example) will not be permitted to receive any foreign funds! Section 17 of the NGO Bill states: "No local non-governmental organisation shall receive any foreign funding or donation to carry out activities involving or including issues of governance.") A Registrar for NGOs will be appointed and a Registry of NGOs will be kept.


Section 9 of the NGO Bill states that anyone commencing or continuing to operate an NGO without registration, or seeking financial assistance for an unregistered NGO, will be guilty of a criminal offence and may face a fine, a prison term (maximum 6 months) or both.

Section 9 point 4 of the NGO Bill states: "No foreign non-governmental organisation shall be registered if its sole or principal objects involve or include issues of governance." ("'foreign non-governmental organisation' means any association of persons, whether incorporated or unincorporated, that does not consist exclusively of permanent residents or citizens of Zimbabwe who are domiciled in Zimbabwe". And, "'issues of governance' includes the promotion and protection of human rights and political governance issues".)

Regarding registration of remaining NGOs, NGO directors will have to lodge an application for registration with the Registrar. The NGO then has 30 days to place a notice in a local newspaper advising its details and its intent to receive registration. Anyone then has 60 days to lodge an objection to the Registrar as to why the NGO should not be registered. The Registrar then submits all the information to the NGO Council, which will either grant or deny registration. The NGO Council also has the power to cancel certificates of registration if they consider that circumstances have changed.


The International Bar Association (IBA) comments that the Zimbabwean NGO Bill gives the Mugabe regime, through the NGO Council "virtually open-ended powers to control the fate and activities of NGOs".

Of great concern to the IBA is the prohibition on foreign funds. "This raises serious concerns that organisations working on some of the most critical support projects in Zimbabwe – e.g. food distribution, AIDS relief, and political violence reporting – which are at present almost entirely foreign funded, may be closed. The inevitable consequence will be that less information on domestic human rights and governance conditions or activities will be reported on and the government will, as a result, be less accountable to its people.

"The irresistible inferences to be drawn from this analysis are that the Bill has been drafted as a targeted attack on NGOs pursuing objectives adverse to existing governmental policy and on foreign NGO activity in Zimbabwe. The objective is thus to silence dissent in a key component of civil society by excessive regulation and wide-ranging powers to discipline and close down NGO activity."

The IBA concludes that the NGO Bill "is nothing more than a further attempt by the Zimbabwean Government to exert a stranglehold on those perceived to be in opposition to government and government policies.

"The Bill extends the scope of the Government’s assault on sources of opposition and information even further, namely to human rights groups and other organs of civil society. In the ultimate analysis, not only is the Bill in flagrant violation of international and regional human rights standards and norms, it also represents a decisive rejection of the terms of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, which provide for the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly. That attitude can only be described as contemptuous of the rule of law and of regional and international standards of governance and of the protection of human rights. (International Bar Association 24 August 2004)"