Let’s get it straight right at the gate; there is nothing wrong with doing laws precisely for private and voluntary organisations (PVOs).
This happens in many places and, after all, PVOs are already legislated under a whole plethora of other statutes, here in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
What makes the difference is the spirit, motive and fabric of the laws that a country is going to come up with. And that’s precisely the reason why there is so much anger, anxiety, fear, indignation and revulsion around Zimbabwe’s PVO Amendment Bill that, on a scale of one to 10, will be law sooner than you will be able to say “Laws4ED”.
Last week was a sad—if not scary—patch. The ruling Zanu PF-denominated senate passed the PVO Amendment Bill, after an equally Zanu PF-denominated lower house did the same thing some time back in 2022.
Sad and scary, yes. But hardly surprising. If you are going to fancy your chances of becoming a senator in the ruling party, there are things you must necessarily be or do. Number one, be dumb. That’s a priority qualification. You can’t be clever and a senator in Zanu PF. No, that’s a contradiction in terms.
People who are not dumb can be unpredictable and their loyalty is questionable. They think a layer too deep for the party—meaning the sum of all the factions—to remain comfortable.
Number, two, be senile. If you are young and energetic, your place is elsewhere. Not the senate. You need to be coughing all the time, can’t walk with a straight spine, you have prostate cancer and suffer sufficient bouts of memory loss. That makes you hugely useful.
There is no hyperbole in this. When senate passed the bill, I stepped up to one of the senators who is a neighbour and asked him: “So, what’s this bill all about and why did you pass it?” His answer: “We want to ensure that NGOs don’t fight our president (Emmerson Mnangagwa). The bill makes sure that the NGOs are not involved in the regime change agenda.
Of course, he was spot on about what the bill entails. That’s how Zanu PF understands it. Unfortunately, that’s not what the bill is supposed to be or say, and the said senator just didn’t have a clue about the fundamental contents of the intended law. Yet, he was part of the hapless crew that passed the bill last week. That’s just the way it is.
Look at the irony. Sometime last year, this very senator asked me to help his young nephew look for a job. “He worked for one of the NGOs that was closed and has been struggling to find a job for a long time,” said the senator around July.
That was something that happened more than a decade ago, according to him, when the organisation that the nephew was working for was closed down. The hint in his account was that government had a hand in the closure of the NGO.
His account was as hazy as his memory, as is required under Zanu PF senatorship criteria. But what spooked me was how oblivious the senator—even back then—was to the fact that he was contradicting himself. He wanted me, who works for an NGO, to help his nephew, who used to work for an NGO, to get a new job that the nephew lost because of the government that the senator is part of as a senior party functionary and so on.
And this very senator is even boasting about the PVO Amendment Bill and how it will shame all the “agents of regime change”, as NGOs are habitually understood within the ruling party. Never mind the fact that the senator in question would have no problem with a member of his family being one such agent!
The point is, just as much as this senator is not aware how much he is stabbing his own foot with a garden fork, his more privileged counterparts, the agenda-setting elite in Zanu PF and the government, also seem to be acutely ignorant of the ramifications of a PVO Act on them. They are so much wrapped in the illusion of a cockroach in the kitchen that they don’t mind setting the whole place ablaze.
Put differently, what the elite in Zanu PF who have sponsored the bill for their delusioned political self-preservation is actually going to hurt them as much as the intended victims, the PVOs, and, more sadly, the government and Zimbabwe as a state. There is a cliché for it: shooting yourself in the foot.
President Mnangagwa must forget about his foreign re-engagement policy the moment he assents to the bill. Because, you see, what this PVO thing does is to cement his reputation and that of his post-Mugabe administration as dictatorial, repressive and anti-people.
Since taking over from the late Mugabe, the current dispensation has been shouting hoarse about re-engaging key and strategic governments in the EU, in addition to the USA and the Commonwealth. While it almost won the UK over in the first days of the coup in late 2017, these re-engagement targets have remained adamant on democratic reforms. They want to see good change towards democracy. A PVO Act, Zim version, runs contrary to that. And since it does that in more than one way, there won’t be any re-engagement taking place.
That then limits Zimbabwe to only an engagement—as contrasted with re-engagement—trajectory. And the problem with the engagement option is that it is mostly a desperate, unsustainable and cyclical campaign. If re-engagement was not helpful for the dispensation, it wouldn’t have been talking about it with such energy.
Engagement means having to make-do with the club of dictators in Belarus, Russia and China that, in reality, love our chrome, gold, lithium, markets, et cetera, more than Zimbabwe or its future. Engagement with this well-documented club of autocrats means Zimbabwe will be cloaked in its habitual pariah apparel for a long time to come.
That’s as bad for Zimbabweans as it is for the current rulers. For history will remain harsh with them. They will be avoided at the United Nations General Assembly and other international conferences like plague, just as we saw with Robert Mugabe.
Even their African counterparts will beat hasty retreats at the sight of Mnangagwa, Chiwenga and others. Particularly so as the post-colonial winds of change are blowing in many African countries and the dictators are being replaced with younger, more independent and quite expressive leaders who are tired of African still being deemed the Dark Continent.
What this means is that, through an extremely avoidable extravagance like the PVO law, the Zimbabwean leadership will be seen as kicking and pulling to remain with the night as others celebrate dawn. This may have been fashionable during the time of Idi Amin, but certainly not in the 21st century.
Secondly, the PVO Bill has already dented the conduct and outcome of the 2023 elections. There is no way in which a sane election observer mission will pass the elections as free, fair and credible when the government has invested so much in a mechanism that muzzles free expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of conscience.
Without these freedoms and the limited access to information that comes with the planned PVO Act, the electorate will not make free or informed choices on who they want as their leaders. That pre-determines the election results in favour of the current leadership.
Is that our problem only as citizens? No. It will also hurt Mnangagwa and his musketeers. Because their credibility will also be dented. Their legitimacy is already under scrutiny. But these chaps have lived long enough to know what happens when, even if you technically win an election, you come out as a sore loser.
They were there in 2008 during and after the June 27 Win or War campaign. Did Mugabe not “win” the run-off after he was defeated by Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round in March of that year? But what happened after that? Because they were losers on their false victory in June, they were forced to form a coalition government.
Genuine winners don’t do such compromises. In fact, were it not that the MDC accepted to be part of that erroneously named government of national unity, there would be no Zanu PF by now nor a coup to remember.
What this current regime doesn’t also seem to appreciate is the fact that, through this PVO fraud, it’s putting itself under immense pressure from the citizenry, a thing that can turn into some kind of civil protest.
Millions of Zimbabweans in urban areas are already obviously frustrated with Zanu PF. Ruralites are, too, but the numbers are going to increase. You get a hint from what USAID said just after senate passed the bill. It said it would be difficult to fund humanitarian efforts once the bill turned into law through presidential assent. And many other funders are saying the same thing, no matter where they come from. Worse still if thousands of people employed by the NGO sector are going to be jobless.
That means loss of millions and millions of dollars in humanitarian and charity aid. That means more millions Zimbabweans suffering from food and other forms of hunger. This is a truism, considering that the Zimbabwean government is ever hardly capable of feeding its own people. It lacks the ability and will to provide meaningful social safety nets. Can’t build good hospitals, can’t support schools, can’t even buy Panadol for rural satellite clinics. And the only jobs that it creates are in the public media.
Now, a hungry man is an angry man. Hungry women and children are even angrier. They scream very loudly. And there is no prize for guessing who will be the target of that anger.
Not that people will care that much, but a PVO Act is one of the tools that the Mnangagwa administration is unwisely using to dig its own grave.
Tawanda Majoni writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org