The proposed Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment bill is a ploy by the government to silence civic society groups (CSOs) that stand up for people’s rights, activists have said. PVOs are public-benefit bodies or associations of persons or institutions that carry out humanitarian and charity work or provide legal aid. The PVO Amendment Bill was gazetted in November 2021 and seeks to amend the PVO Act but CSOs have raised concerns that the suggested amendments will restrict their work and violate human rights while negatively affecting communities who depend on their work.
Among other things, the PVO amendment bill imposes ‘unfair’ restrictions on CSO and NGOs by proposing harsh penalties, including jail time of up to one year for NGO Registration framework related perceived offences, a new requirement that the bill seeks to introduce.
In unpacking the amendments in an interview with CITE, a legal expert, Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda said the PVO bill violated the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of association, assembly, expression and other political rights. “The amendment bill seeks to take away the freedom of expression and association. Such interference affects the oversight role that CSOs and NGOs play on the government,” he said.
Dr Sibanda explained that for instance Clause 8 of the proposed bill gave unfettered powers to the government and the minister responsible for CSOs and Trusts who could shut down NGOs. The clause further gives the responsible minister power to make an application to the High Court to appoint one or more persons of his or her choice as trustees to run the affairs of an organisation for a period not exceeding 60 days, which Dr Sibanda described as “extreme interference in the administration of these organisations.”
There is a possibility that individuals who do not have that CSO’s interests may be placed at the helm. Therefore, the bill takes away this independence as some NGOs may be afraid to criticise the government fearing for their operations or existence, “he said.
In essence, Dr Sibanda summed: “Well yes, the purpose is to make sure that the only organised groupings are the ones who can also receive funding from the donor community. The purpose for this bill is to break people apart, to make sure that the only voice in Zimbabwe that has carried and showed or exposed the dictatorial tendencies of the government.”
A political analyst, Patrick Ndlovu concurred that through the PVO Amendment Bill, the government would take any measures it sees fit. “This action leaves CSOs and NGOs who criticise the state to the heavy hand of the state, especially ahead of the 2023 elections,” he said. Ndlovu noted that imposing heavy registration requirements was a way of silencing them and, in the process, taking away the benefits and opportunities communities were receiving.
“Since organisations will be required to register under the PVO bill and looking at the point that the registrar concerned reports to the Office of the President, there is a threat of deregistration. This may affect CSOs and NGOs from freely engaging communities while those organisations which do not register will also become unlawful,” he said.
This February, A group of Civil society organisations wrote to the Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Mudenda expressing their collective concern regarding the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill.
Part of the letter from 24 organisations who signed it read: We note that the government ostensibly proposed the amendment to comply with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations to align the country’s laws with Recommendation 8. While the task force’s objective is to ensure that NGOs/PVOs are not misused by terrorist organisations – an analysis of the Bill shows that, rather than aligning with FATF recommendations, the government could be using this legislation as a pretext to clamp down on civil society in Zimbabwe and to infringe upon the rights to association, privacy and expression enshrined in the Constitution.”