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Towards a Lasting Compromise: Bridging the State-Civil Society Chasm in Zimbabwe

17 Jun 2024 at 20:25hrs | Views
Historically, State-civil society relations in Zimbabwe have been characterized by adversarial dynamics. The recent disputes over the PVO Amendment Bill are a manifestation of a toxic relationship between the State and civil society and some unresolved structural issues in Zimbabwe.

A Brief History of State-Civil Society Relations in Zimbabwe

For obvious reasons, the colonial State was intolerant of civil society. Civil society was perceived as a threat because if necessary or allowed, it could mobilize people for political action, criticize and hold the government accountable; and spread bad publicity.

In the 1960s when the wind of decolonization visited Rhodesia, there was an increased demand for democratic space. NGOs became targets of government persecution through legislative control. One of these legislations was the Welfare Organizations Act of 1967. This law stifled the operations of NGOs suspected to be associated with the liberation movements and disseminating information about human rights violations in Rhodesia. The Unlawful Organization Act of 1971 was another legislation. This law prohibited African political parties, colonial resistance movements, and others perceived as such.

Soon after independence, the government was somewhat tolerant of civil society. The new government needed NGOs' help in various development projects. The government also enjoyed both domestic and international legitimacy. This laid the ground for cordial relations with civil society.

In the late 1990s, when Zimbabwe's social, economic, and political situation began to deteriorate, many NGOs shifted their missions to issues such as governance, democracy, justice, and human rights. When NGOs changed their missions to these contentious and overt political issues, they became targets of State harassment through increased legislation and administrative interference.

In the post-colonial era, the legislative instrument governing NGOs is the notorious PVO Act. The PVO Act makes registration mandatory, criminalizes the operation of unregistered NGOs, gives NGOs bureaucratic and burdensome hurdles, and gives the State intrusive authority in the affairs of NGOs. At the point of registration, the government seeks to cherry-pick NGOs. Bureaucratic hurdles are to frustrate NGOs. Intrusive State powers are to censor, control, intimidate, and surveil NGOs. Individually or as a collective, these measures can suffocate civil society into oblivion. This is why the PVO Bill is such a sticky issue.  

The Sources of State-Civil Society Hostility

A deliberation that seeks to understand and ultimately reconcile state-civil society relations must first locate the sources of tension between the two antagonists.

One source of tension is that, for the government, civil society can be a poisoned chalice.  On one hand, civil society can complement government programs; on the other hand, it might be a source of problems. Besides political parties, civil society is another behemoth that can challenge the State. Disruptive mass activities such as protests, demonstrations, stay-aways, shutdowns, and strikes often emanate from civil society. Unsurprisingly, the government feels threatened by civil society for this reason. When the government is paranoid about mass mobilization, it resorts to defensive strategies including cracking whip at civil society.

There is also an inherent tension between the State's need to impose order and control and the NGO's need for organizational autonomy. In its desire to exert order, the state will employ several regulatory mechanisms. NGOs tend to be conservative and resistant to organizational change. NGOs don't like to be told what to do. They don't want to be told to change or alter their founding missions. Therefore, they will resist the State's intrusions. However, the State has the right to exert order and control - it's one of its job descriptions. But, what is required is to strike a balance between two potentially conflicting goals - maintaining order and simultaneously allowing open civic space, where autonomous organizations can exist.

For the State, it is about how much autonomous civil society it can tolerate. For civil society, it is about the degree of control from the State it can accept. For the State and civil society, this is a battle for survival. To cultivate cordial relations, the two must compromise and coexist without destroying the other -  it takes two to Tango.

Another source of antagonism is that there are often competing interests between the State and NGOs. Tension arises when NGOs follow objectives that differ from those of the incumbent government. A socialist government, for electoral and other political reasons, might want to monopolize the distribution of goods and services to society and therefore it hates competition from NGOs. This State wants all the credit for being responsible toward society. In autocratic states, NGOs emphasizing people's participation and empowerment are at odds with the incumbent regime. In these States, and for obvious reasons, civil society tends to be sympathetic to the political opposition, which is why the State is suspicious of it. In environments where the political opposition has been banned or suffocated, NGOs feel obligated to step in and fill the political gap. They become the voice for the voiceless. It is not paradoxical that a regime that is intolerant to the political opposition is also hostile towards civil society.

Another source of tension between the state and NGOs is a crisis - especially a crisis that requires international humanitarian aid or a crisis that motivates NGOs to emerge in the first place. NGOs don't just spring up like mushrooms in the wild - some conditions lead to the rise of NGOs, for example, an unresolved economic or political crisis. While for NGOs humanitarian aid is a legitimate, charitable, and moral act of benevolence, for the State, sometimes humanitarian aid is perceived as a serious security threat. Humanitarian aid, which in most cases flows from international sources, might be perceived as confirmation that there is a national crisis and that the government is incompetent in alleviating a crisis or feeding into the political opposition that there is a crisis. That is why Robert Mugabe banned food aid in some Provinces in 2008.

Steps Towards a Consensus

To chart a path towards a harmonious relationship, each side must make concessions and accept some realities. For civil society, the first point is realizing that it does not exist and operate in a vacuum. As long as the State exists, it will remain the supreme and ultimate authority -  that's what a State is. Civil society exists and operates at the pleasure of the State. In a utopian world, civil society would prefer absolute autonomy - free from state regulations. However, this is an unrealistic expectation. The government will have some form of regulation. The issue is what kind of regulations are reasonable and tolerable.

For the State, the beginning point is realizing that civil society is an ally in many of its objectives such as social service delivery and community development. Another related point is realizing that the emergence of NGOs is not a random phenomenon. There are reasons why NGOs emerge in the first palace. When the State tries to shun civil society, it is running away from its own shadow. When the private sector is frail and the State is feeble (has weak capacity) NGOs rise to fill in this gap. As long as this gap exists, there will always be the need for NGOs, and the State must welcome and coexist with them.

The government can also help ease the tension by desisting from politicizing civic space and playing double standards. This means dissolving Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations (GONGOs) such as FAZ. Against its better judgment, civil society could be forced to take political sides because this might be the only game available. Sadly, civil society lacks the protections and privileges that the government possesses.

The government's paranoia against NGOs is also unwarranted and unjustified. Many NGOs genuinely want to help. That's what NGOs do. They are charitable organizations. They like to help. They operate at their own time, cost, and resources, sometimes in harsh economic and environmental conditions. Why would they bother? They can operate elsewhere or use their resources to do other things. Claims that NGOs have ulterior subversive and sinister motives are unsubstantiated generalizations. The only people who suffer are those in need. This year, with acute food insecurity, millions of people face starvation. NGOs ought to be given leeway to mitigate the problem. NGOs are not an enemy to be clobbered at every turn, they are an ally in building a better society.

Source - Innocent Mpoki
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