Zimbabwean FlagCivic Freedom Monitor: Zimbabwe

Introduction | At a Glance | Key Indicators | International Rankings
Legal Snapshot | Legal Analysis | Reports | News and Additional Resources
Last updated 1 October 2018

Update: Following the resignation of long-time President, Robert Mugabe, in November 2017 after military intervention, Zimbabwe held harmonized elections in July 2018. The opposition contested the outcome of the poll (once again in favor of the ruling ZANU PF party), but the Constitutional Court upheld the result. The new administration has pledged to prioritize economic and social reforms and greater international cooperation, but there has been little commitment in the recently released legislative agenda of new President Emmerson Mnangagwa to address restrictive laws affecting freedoms of assembly, association, expression and the right to participation. As such, the laws which have been used in the past to suppress fundamental freedoms remain in place. The state has become increasingly and openly militarized, with several high-ranking retired officials appointed to key ministries and senior offices within the public service. CSOs have also reported an increase in military involvement in human rights abuses, which have continued since the fatal shooting of six civilians on August 1, 2018 following protests against the electoral commission’s delay in releasing election results.  


The legal system in Zimbabwe is a hybrid system, consisting of influences from Dutch civil law, English common law, and customary laws and traditions. The operation of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Zimbabwe has been governed by legislation since the colonial era. During the colonial era, the Welfare Organizations Act (1967) was aimed at controlling organizations believed to be linked to the liberation movement and spreading information about the human rights situation in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. While the Welfare Organizations Act remained in force, most CSOs focused on humanitarian efforts and operated under the auspices of churches as church-related bodies, training and education institutions. Few CSOs dared to tread into the political rights arena, as this attracted the wrath of the colonial government, which condemned any such activity, especially to the extent it was perceived to support, aid and/or abet the liberation cause. In addition, the Unlawful Organizations Act was used to ban African political and other colonial resistance movements and indeed any others perceived in the same light.

Following independence, and as the socio-political situation in post-independent Zimbabwe deteriorated in the late 1990s, there was a huge shift of emphasis by both old and new CSOs to issues dealing with democracy and governance. Indeed most of Zimbabwe’s opposition was born and bred from civil society. With the increased demand for democratic space and reforms in Zimbabwe, CSOs became targets of state harassment through increased legislative and administrative interference as they were perceived as extensions of political opposition. The ruling party at that time (President Mugabe’s ZANU PF) routinely declared that CSOs and even churches, or anyone who is not a politician, had no place in the politics of the country. These sentiments continued beyond the conclusion of July 2013 elections, which led to an outright win by the ZANU PF and brought an end to the transitional Inclusive Government (IG) of February 2009 that came into force with the signing of the Inter-Party Agreement in September 2008. After the recent elections in July 2018, ZANU PF again emerged victorious.

At the inception of the IG there was great public expectation that democratic space would open up for both ordinary Zimbabweans and for CSOs. Both the political opposition and CSOs had equally borne the brunt of state-sponsored brutality and repression, and both civic activists and their progressive allies in the opposition therefore expected that the reform agenda would finally be pursued. Some former opposition representatives in the IG relied heavily on CSOs for human resources and technical expertise in attempting to move the reform agenda forward. While there were pledges of a progressive legislative reform agenda to open up democratic space for CSOs and Zimbabweans, these reforms remained outstanding. The human rights situation also did not improve during the lifespan of the IG despite the secondment of a few CSO representatives to top government offices and to new institutions, such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and the Zimbabwe Media Commission, among others. These institutions were ineffective, with the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission facing operational constraints. During the last ten months of the IG, between October and July 2013, CSOs and their staff members were also repeatedly targeted and a number of directors were charged with operating "illegally," which essentially means not registered.

Following ZANU PF’s overwhelming victory in the 2013 elections, civil society continued to prioritize the harmonization of laws with the new Constitution. However, with ZANU PF's dominance in parliament, efforts at amendment of restrictive laws governing CSO regulation and association, assembly and expression rights, were unsuccessful. CSO leaders facing charges that they operated illegal organizations continued to face potential court cases. In 2016, government restrictions reached a peak with the government's response to protests organized and shared via social media, such as #ThisFlag, which inspired Zimbabweans to air grievances about the country's governance. Between July 5, 2016 and July 15, 2016, at least 300 people were arrested and charged with violating provisions of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act after participating in peaceful protests over economic mismanagement by the government. By the end of September 2017 the majority of trials against people who had been arrested during the #ThisFlag protests were finalized. Most of those who were arrested were not convicted, but two organizers of the protests who were convicted are challenging these convictions.

The change of leadership following the military intervention in November 2017 has done nothing to address the many issues affecting CSOs. After ZANU PF again won the elections on July 31, 2018, the heavy-handedness of the military against protestors led to the loss of six lives during protests calling for the release of election results on August 1, 2018. Although the government has established an international commission of inquiry to look into these events, the culture of violence, disrespect of court orders and unwillingness to do away with laws impacting civic space negatively remains. As a result, the laws which have been used to suppress fundamental freedoms are still in place even though former president, Robert Mugabe, has been removed from power.

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At a Glance

Organizational Forms Private Voluntary Organizations, Trusts, and Unincorporated Associations (“Universitas”)
Registration Body For PVOs: The Registrar and the PVO Board, a body made up of representatives from 6 ministries and 3 PVO representatives.

For Trusts: The Registrar of Deeds.
Barriers to Entry Mandatory registration under the PVO Act, with penalties (fines and imprisonment) for carrying out activities or seeking financial assistance as an unregistered group.

Complex registration procedures for PVOs, including requirement to publish notice in local paper, calling for persons to lodge objections with Registrar.

No fixed time period for government review of PVO registration applications.

Vague grounds for denial of PVO registration, including where the applicant “appears unable to abide by the objectives” stated in its application.

Foreign organizations required to conclude memorandum of understanding with Government.
Barriers to Activities Ministry authority to interfere in internal affairs, through suspension of all or any of the members of the PVO’s executive committee where “it is necessary or desirable to do so in the public interest.”

Ministry authority to inspect “any aspect of the affairs or activities” of any PVO.

Severe sanctions available, including fines and imprisonment, against PVO for failing to abide by provisions of PVO Act.

Establishment of government-owned non-government organizations (GONGOs).

CSOs not required to submit letters of notification of intent to hold meetings in public spaces (unlike political parties), but police have continuously banned CSO activities, and interpreted "notification” to mean actual application even though CSOs are not required to do neither.

Selective application of law by governmental authorities resulting is some CSOs being targeted
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy Prohibition against insulting the office or person of the President, uttering words which are likely to undermine police authority, or communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the state. (The Constitutional court has yet to deliver a substantive ruling on whether the insult provisions must be declared unconstitutional as violating the right to freedom of expression.)
Barriers to International Contact No legal barriers. In practice, however, immigration authorities have denied entry to foreigners, or confiscated passports from CSO representatives. At times, district administrators and police have required CSOs to agree to Memoranda of Understanding with them that in practice restrict their meetings with local communities. Limited access to cash (foreign currency) or funds held in accounts using Visa or Mastercard..
Barriers to Resources Foreign funding for conducting voter education prohibited.

There have been calls by the president to bar CSOs that receive foreign funding from observing the 2018 elections.

Hostile environment created by government accusations against PVOs that receive foreign funding.

Liquidity challenges and cash not readily available at some banks.

CSOs have to apply to use funds in accounts and in some instances the Central Bank has to approve these cash requirements. It is difficult to access foreign currency such as US dollars.
Barriers to Assembly Police interpret “notification” to mean "submit an application" even when organizers are not required to do so. This especially affects CSOs.

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Key Indicators

Population 12,973,808
Capital Harare
Type of Government Parliamentary Democracy
Life Expectancy at Birth Male: 46.36 years
Female: 45.16 years
Literacy Rate Male: 94.2%
Female: 87.2%
Religious Groups Syncretic (part Christian, part indigenous beliefs): 50%; Christian: 25%; indigenous beliefs: 24%; Muslim and other: 1%
Ethnic Groups African: 98% (Shona 82%, Ndebele 14%, other 2%); mixed and Asian: 1%; white: less than 1%
GDP per capita $428 (2012 est.)

Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2009.

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International Rankings

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale 
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 154 (2016) 1 – 182
World Bank Rule of Law Index 8 (2016) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 20 (2016) 100 – 0
Transparency International 154 (2016) 1 – 180
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Not Free
Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 5 (2018)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
Rank: 13 (2017) 178 – 1

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Legal Snapshot

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Yes 1991
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1) No --
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Yes 1991
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR) No --
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Yes 1991
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Yes 1991
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women No --
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Yes 1990
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) No --
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Yes 2013
Regional Treaties    
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights Yes 1986
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child Yes 1995
Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community Yes 2001
Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa Yes 2003
Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights Yes 1998

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

On May 22, 2013, a new Constitution came into force in Zimbabwe after it was published in the government Gazette. This followed a resounding “yes” vote after a referendum was conducted in the country to decide on whether to adopt this Constitution. The Constitution was a product of the reform agenda under the IG and was supposed to usher in democratic free and fair elections. This Constitution effectively replaced the Lancaster House Constitution although some of the provisions remained in force for the purpose of the elections.

Section 58 Freedom of assembly and association
(1) Every person has the right to freedom of assembly and association, and the right not to assemble or associate with others.
(2) No person may be compelled to belong to an association or to attend a meeting or gathering.

59 Freedom to demonstrate and petition
Every person has the right to demonstrate and to present petitions, but these rights must be exercised peacefully.

60 Freedom of conscience
(1) Every person has the right to freedom of conscience, which includes—
(a) freedom of thought, opinion, religion or belief; and
(b) freedom to practise and propagate and give expression to their thought, opinion, religion or belief, whether in public or in private and whether alone or together with others.
(2) No person may be compelled to take an oath that is contrary to their religion or belief or to take an oath in a manner that is contrary to their religion or belief.
(3) Parents and guardians of minor children have the right to determine, in accordance with their beliefs, the moral and religious upbringing of their children, provided they do not prejudice the rights to which their children are entitled under this Constitution, including their rights to education, health, safety and welfare.
(4) Any religious community may establish institutions where religious instruction may be given, even if the institution receives a subsidy or other financial assistance from the State.

61 Freedom of expression and freedom of the media
(1) Every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes—
(a) freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information;
(b) freedom of artistic expression and scientific research and creativity; and
(c) academic freedom.
(2) Every person is entitled to freedom of the media, which freedom includes protection of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources of information.
(3) Broadcasting and other electronic media of communication have freedom of establishment, subject only to State licensing procedures that—
(a) are necessary to regulate the airwaves and other forms of signal distribution; and
(b) are independent of control by government or by political or commercial interests.
(4) All State-owned media of communication must—
(a) be free to determine independently the editorial content of their broadcasts or other communications;
(b) be impartial; and
(c) afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions.
(5) Freedom of expression and freedom of the media exclude—
(a) incitement to violence;
(b) advocacy of hatred or hate speech;
(c) malicious injury to a person’s reputation or dignity; or
(d) malicious or unwarranted breach of a person’s right to privacy.

62 Access to information
(1) Every Zimbabwean citizen or permanent resident, including juristic persons and the Zimbabwean media, has the right of access to any information held by the State or by any institution or agency of government at every level, in so far as the information is required in the interests of public accountability.
(2) Every person, including the Zimbabwean media, has the right of access to any information held by any person, including the State, in so far as the information is required for the exercise or protection of a right.
(3) Every person has a right to the correction of information, or the deletion of untrue, erroneous or misleading information, which is held by the State or any institution or agency of the government at any level, and which relates to that person.
(4) Legislation must be enacted to give effect to this right, but may restrict access to information in the interests of defence, public security or professional confidentiality, to the extent that the restriction is fair, reasonable, necessary and justifiable in a democratic society based on openness, justice, human dignity, equality and freedom.

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Relevant national-level laws and regulations affecting civil society include:

  1. Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment Act, 2013
  2. Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO)Act [Chapter 17:05]
  3. Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Act [Chapter 17:05] General Notice 99 of 2007 – Code of Procedure for the Registration and Operations of Non-Governmental Organizations in Zimbabwe
  4. The Cooperative Societies Act [Chapter 24:05]
  5. Emergency Powers Act [Chapter 11:04]
  6. Foreign Subversive Organizations Act [Chapter 11:05]
  7. Unlawful Organizations Act [Chapter 11:13] [1]
  8. Suppression of Foreign and International Terrorism Act [Chapter 11:21] (Not yet in force)
  9. Prevention of Discrimination Act [Chapter 8:16]
  10. Labour Act [Chapter 28:04]
  11. Income Tax Act [Chapter 23:06]
  12. Indigenisation and Empowerment Act [Chapter 14:33]
  13. Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment (General) Regulations, 2010 (Statutory Instrument 21 of 2010)
  14. Deeds Registries Act [Chapter 20:05] (Act No 10 of 1959)
  15. Deeds Registries Regulations, 1977 (RGN 249 of 1977)
  16. Public Order Security Act [Chapter 11:17] (Act No.1 of 2002 as amended most recently by Act 18 of 2007
  17. Immigration Act [Chapter 4:02]
  18. Immigration Regulations, 1998 (Statutory Instrument 195 of 1998)
  19. Standard Scale of Fines as substituted by the Finance Act, 2009 (No. 3 of 2009) with effect from 23rd April 2009
  20. Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act
  21. Public Order and Security (POSA) Act
  22. Protected Areas and Places Act
  23. Interception of Communication Act [2]
  24. Official Secrets Act [3]
  25. Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act [4]
  26. Flag of Zimbabwe Act, 2001

[1] Due to be repealed by the Suppression of Foreign and International Terrorism Act [Chapter 11:21] Act 5 of 2007 whose date of commencement is yet to be fixed by the President.

[2] [Chapter 26:20] Has provisions that allow the state to intercept communications of targeted individual or organisation through an intercept order, but no provisions allowing targeted individual or organisation to be heard in open court or to challenge such interception before order is granted.

[3] [Chapter 11:09] Has provisions that have been used to restrict access to crucial information that civil society needs from government officials for accountability purposes and to encourage increased public participation and discussion. This Act has been used on several occasions by the executive to stop scrutiny of state action by the courts.

[4] [Chapter 10:27] Restricts access to information held by public officials. Civil society wishing to engage in monitoring activities has not been able to access this crucial information.

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

The Government has launched a number of regulatory initiatives, which, while ultimately not resulting in enactment, do serve to distract and/or threaten the civic sector with a more restrictive legal environment.

Examples include:

1. Most notably, the NGO Bill of 2004 was enacted by Parliament, but never approved by the President, and it has since lapsed. The Bill would have prohibited local NGOs engaged in issues of governance from accessing foreign funds.

2. In 2009, the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Labor issued the “Joint Memorandum re: Amendment to the PVO Act and the Deeds Registries Act” (2009). The Memo proposed that trusts, which are registered with the Deeds Registry, and fall within the definition of a PVO, be expressly included within the ambit of the PVO Act – and therefore be obliged to register as a PVO before commencing activities. This would have subjected trusts to a burdensome two-tiered registration process, and to broad control by the Registrar and PVO Board.

3. On March 22, 2010, the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare reportedly announced the Government’s intention to promulgate a legal instrument to regulate all organizations that are involved in HIV/AIDS in order to effectively coordinate the national response to the epidemic. The intention was apparently to create a legally binding obligation on all such CSOs to report to or be accountable to the National Aids Council (a state entity), established pursuant to the National Aids Council Act. 

4. In October 2012, and June 2013, there were amendments to the Electoral Act, which sought to bar CSOs from conducting any form of voter education without accreditation from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. Reproduction and distribution of any forms of the voters' roll was also criminalized. Further amendments to the Electoral Act made in May 2018 did not remove these barriers.

5. The Private Voluntary Organisation Act was listed on the schedule of laws that are to be amended in order to be harmonized with the provisions of the new Constitution. The draft law has not yet been made available.

6. The President mentioned in his 2018 legislative agenda, delivered to Parliament on September 18, 2018 that to mitigate security risks and cyber-crime related threats, a Cyber Crime and Cyber Security Bill will be tabled, together with a Data Protection Bill and an Electronic Transactions and Electronic Commercial Bill. Previous versions of the Cyber Crime and Cyber Security Bill set out severe limitations to citizens’ access to information. The legislation would allow authorities to arbitrarily seize mobile phones, tablets and laptops; monitor private communications; interrupt broadband service; and sentence violators to imprisonment. The legislation arose at a time when the government was responding to anti-government protests that have largely been organized and shared via social media. Hashtags such as #ThisFlag, which has inspired Zimbabweans since May 2016 to air grievances about the country's governance, have attracted large numbers of followers. The introduction of the Ministry of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation will be responsible for overseeing the administration to the Cyber Crimes law that is yet to be finalized.

7. The government intends to introduce a Cooperative Societies Amendment Bill to strengthen the regulation of cooperatives in the country.

8. There are pending court cases that seek to hold organizers of protests accountable for damage caused during protests even if they were not negligent or responsible for such damage. Cases from 2017 are still pending, and there are new cases relating to post-election protests following the polls on July 31, 2018. If organizers are held accountable, it could have a chilling effect on those who wish to organize protests in future.

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Legal Analysis

Organizational Forms

The three primary forms of civil society organization (CSO) in Zimbabwe are private voluntary organizations (PVOs), trusts and the associational form known as “universitas”. The characteristics and governing framework are described below.

Unconfirmed statements by government officials put the number of CSOs operating in Zimbabwe at over 20,000. The reports are unconfirmed since there is no publicly available record or database of registered legal entities. The multiple organizational forms that CSOs may and indeed do assume adds to the uncertainty.

Private Voluntary Organizations

A private voluntary organization (PVO) is defined as “any body or association of persons, corporate or unincorporate, or any institution, the objects of which include or are one or more of the following:

  1. the provision of all or any of the material, mental, physical or social needs of persons or families;
  2. the rendering of charity to persons or families in distress;
  3. the prevention of social distress or destitution of persons or families;
  4. the provision of assistance in, or promotion of, activities aimed at uplifting the standard of living of persons or families;
  5. the provision of funds for legal aid;
  6. the prevention of cruelty to, or the promotion of the welfare of, animals;
  7. such other objects as may be prescribed;
  8. the collection of contributions for any of the foregoing.” 
    [Private Voluntary Organizations Act, Section 2]


Trusts are regulated under the Deeds Registries Act, which allows the Registrar of Deeds to register notarial deeds in donation or in trust. Trusts typically have unlimited objectives which are often intended to benefit an identifiable constituency. The trust form, however, has also been used as a way of registering organizations that have faced difficulties in registering under the PVO Act. The PVO Act excludes trusts in its definition of what constitutes a PVO. [PVO Act, Section 2(1)(h)(iii)]


The use of the membership form known as “universitas” springs from the practice of recognizing an entity which has members, a constitution and activities that are entirely for the benefit of its members. It can be viewed as a common law persona; this form was recognized by the Zimbabwean Supreme Court in Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights & Anor v. The President of the Republic of Zimbabwe & Anor. Such an entity is excluded from registering under the PVO Act and is therefore not viewed as a PVO, but as the corporate form “universitas”.

Public Benefit Status

Zimbabwean law does not provide for any special “public benefit” or tax-exempt” status that is available only to certain CSOs, based on the purposes which they pursue.

According to the Income Tax Law, all CSOs are generally exempt from taxation on donations and grants received, as well as membership dues.

Barriers to Entry

The legal framework applicable to trusts and to “universitas” are generally permissive, but the PVO Act contains several legal barriers relating to establishment and registration.

Mandatory registration

The PVO Act makes registration mandatory, in that any organization that seeks to carry out work as defined under section 2 of the PVO Act must be registered. Section 6(1)(a) and (b) of the PVO Act reinforce this mandate by providing that “no private voluntary organization shall commence or continue to carry on its activities or seek financial assistance from any source unless it has been registered in respect of a particular object or objects in furtherance of which it is being conducted.” Section 6(2) and (3) of the PVO Act prohibit any individual from serving in the management or control of such an organization with the knowledge that such institution is not registered. For contravening section 6(2) on collection of funds from the public, one is subject to six months imprisonment or a fine not exceeding level five (approximately USD 200) or both; for contravening section 6(3) on managing or controlling an unregistered entity, one is subject to imprisonment not exceeding 3 months or a fine not exceeding level four (approximately USD 100) or both.

Registration procedures

The PVO Act provides for complex registration procedures. Once an application has been lodged, the PVO in question must publish in a local paper, at its own expense, a notice as prescribed by the PVO Act calling for persons with objections to lodge them with the Registrar of PVOs within the prescribed time limit (within 21 days of the date of publication). Once the registration papers are lodged with the Registrar of PVOs, who is ordinarily the Director of Social Welfare in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, the application forms are then submitted to the Private Voluntary Organizations Board (PVOB).

Time period for government review

The Act is silent regarding a time period for the review process.

Grounds for denial

The legal grounds for denial include vague language that is subject to abuse. Specifically, the PVOB may grant or deny the application for registration, if the organization appears unable to abide by the objectives stated in its application or if the constitution and management of the organization fail to comply with the PVO Act. (emphasis added)

Foreign Organizations

Foreign organizations that seek to carry out work in Zimbabwe, and in particular work of a humanitarian nature or whose objectives are covered under the PVO Act, are required to register as such. Most international organizations operate as PVOs and are supposed to have a direct memorandum of understanding (MoU) or cooperation with the Government (usually at both national and local levels.) Section 3 of the General Notice 99/2007 requires an international organization to file its application with the Registrar of PVOs. The application documents must include curriculum vitae and an Interpol or local police clearance certificate for the country representative, among other requirements.

Barriers to Operational Activity

The PVO Act contains a number of barriers to operational activity, as detailed below.

Interference in Internal Governance

If the Minister believes that a PVO has failed to comply with its objectives or constitution, has been subject to maladministration, or has engaged in illegal activities, or that “it is necessary or desirable to do so in the public interest,” the Minister through notice in a government gazette may suspend all or any of the members of the Executive Committee of the PVO. The Minister may also amend or revoke any suspension. [PVO Act, Section 21] The suspension shall of course result in a vacancy on the Executive Committee of the PVO; if thirty days expire and the suspension is not lifted, an election will be called based on the constitution of the PVO. [PVO Act, Section 21(3)] If the entire executive committee has been suspended, a trustee (curator) may be appointed to manage the PVO for sixty days (60) or upon filling of the vacancies of the Executive Committee, whichever comes first. [PVO Act, Section 22] According to Section 7 of GN99/2007, the Registrar is the supervising authority of all PVOs in terms of the developmental impact of programs and monitoring of the organizations’ corporate governance. The monitoring entails field visits by social service officers to project areas, analysis of submitted annual narrative reports and audited financial statements.


The Minister is authorized to send inspectors to examine the accounts and any documents of any PVO. Once a notice has been delivered to the PVO, the PVO is expected to comply by providing all required information. The documents that are effectively seized by virtue of the notice can be kept for a “reasonable period”. [PVO Act, Section 20] The reports that should be submitted to the State inspector include “any aspect of the affairs or activities of any private voluntary organization,” and the inspector has the right “to examine books, accounts and any other documents that relate to the financial affairs.” The reports must be submitted to the Registrar; in the past, however, few organizations have complied with this requirement and there has been no enforcement against PVOs per se, but rather against organizations deemed to be political (even if not PVOs).

In addition, on January 19, 2018 the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare issued a notice, by way of an advertisement in a local state-controlled newspaper (The Herald), calling on private voluntary organizations (PVOs) to submit their 2017 returns (activity reports and audited financial statements). The notice also advises organizations described as “operating outside the law” to regularize their operations by approaching the nearest Social Welfare Offices to register as PVOs. Registration requirements include providing: (i) the organization’s constitution; (ii) a curriculum vitae for executive committees (which should comprise at least seven people); (iii) police clearance for these members; (iv) various completed forms; and (v) an advertisement in local newspapers. The notice goes further to warn that “many organisations are registering as Trusts but operating as PVOs. This anomaly need [sic] to be regularized.” No further information has been provided at this time. This is not the first time that trusts have been identified for particular scrutiny, although they are lawfully permitted to operate in terms of alternative laws.

Severe sanctions

The PVO Act provides for sanctions in the event of the PVO failing to abide by provisions of the Act. Offences under the PVO Act include raising funds as an unregistered organisation; being an office bearer despite having been convicted for more than 5 years for a crime involving dishonesty; and the failure to provide information as requested by an inspection officer. Available sanctions include fines, imprisonment or both, cancellation of the registration, suspension of board members and/or dismissal.

Government Harassment

It is not uncommon in Zimbabwe for the Government to disrupt the activity of CSOs, especially in the lead up to elections or during humanitarian crises. State interference may take the form of repeated requests for information or threatened suspension of activity. For example, in June 2008, the Government sought a blanket suspension of all PVOs engaged in humanitarian work, causing disruption of food aid and assistance to persons in need, including people living with HIV/AIDs (PLWHA) and orphans. In addition, in 2011, a provincial governor summoned field monitors to a meeting at his offices where he said that "the environment has to be cleared" before national elections can be held. Later in February 2012, when CSOs did not sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the governor or hand in copies of their trust deeds and constitutions to the governor's office, the governor suspended 29 international and local CSOs in the province. Some foreign organizations operating in Zimbabwe have had their operations suspended by the Government of Zimbabwe under the guise of rooting out organizations involved in political activity through partisan distribution of relief.


The establishment of government sponsored CSOs, or GONGOs, has become prevalent since 2000. Such entities include associations of workers, students, doctors, teachers, and CSOs. These government-sponsored CSOs have contributed to mixed messaging in respect to the operating environment of CSOs and the general human rights situation in the country.

Arbitrary Requirements and Fees Imposed on NGOs

Some CSOs are forced to pay exorbitant fees by local authorities in order to carry out their work. Local authorities charge CSOs amounts ranging from US$100, US$300 and up to US$1,000 per year in order to conclude a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the local authorities. Where an organization refuses to pay the amount, no MoU is granted and the CSO's activities are not allowed to proceed. This practice is alleged to have the approval of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development. Significantly, however, there is no legal requirement for CSOs to conclude MoUs with local authorities.

Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

The Constitution of Zimbabwe has progressive provisions that uphold the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media. However, in practice laws that are subordinate to the Constitution have been used to restrict free speech. Laws have also been selectively applied, placing severe restrictions on speech and advocacy activity, especially where the speech or advocacy is critical of government policy or focused on politically unpopular causes.

Organizations that engage in advocacy find themselves operating under a number of laws that hinder free expression. Key problematic provisions include the insult provisions in the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (section 33). Specifically, Section 33 of the Criminal Law Act, along with the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), criminalize the insulting of the office or person of the President. In addition, section 31 of the Criminal Law Act makes it a crime to communicate falsehoods that are prejudicial to the state, which can be interpreted broadly, and section 177 criminalizes uttering words which are likely to undermine policing authority. Other troubling provisions of laws include provisions of the Electoral Act that prohibit CSOs from engaging in "voter education", which can be broadly interpreted, without approval from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

In practice, many individuals have been arrested and prosecuted under these laws. Such laws cause individuals and organizations to censor themselves or engage in selective and thorough reviews before placing any information in the public domain. As but one example, the Government targeted Amani Trust for its involvement in high-level advocacy and its critique of the Government’s human rights record. In August 2002, Dr Francis Lovemore, medical director of Amani Trust was arrested on allegations that the Trust was guilty under POSA of “publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the state.” The arrest stemmed from press reports which referred to Amani Trust’s work with victims of torture and politically motivated rape. The offices of Amani Trust were raided and searched by police. Dr Lovemore was released without charge. Then, in November 2002, the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs published a list of NGOs which were alleged to be a threat to peace and security in Zimbabwe. Amani Trust appeared on the Minister’s list and was reportedly accused of working with the British Government to unseat President Robert Mugabe and destabilize the nation. That same month, the Trust closed its offices following the Government’s decision to criminalize the non-registration of CSOs under the PVO Act.

Thus, the potential State response to CSO advocacy can include arrests, raids, threats, malicious prosecution and other forms of harassment. For example, Itai Dzamara was abducted on March 9, 2015. He was part of a group known as Occupy Africa Unity Square, which held regular demonstrations at a public park near Parliament and spoke out about the continued rule of President Robert Mugabe. Dzamara still has not been found, and state actors such as the police have not taken adequate action to ensure his safe return. As a result, other members of civil society continue to operate in fear. Moreover, most advocacy materials, publications and opinions are prepared and published with consideration of potential state responses.

There are also efforts being made by the government to regulate the internet, particularly the use of social media platforms and digital communications, through the introduction of laws that impose penalties on people who use social media platforms to express dissenting views on governance issues or who are considered to be organizers of anti-government protest. In July 2016, Evan Mawarire, a pastor, was arrested and initially charged with inciting violence after he led a successful campaign calling on Zimbabweans to speak out against bad governance. His campaign was centered around the flag of Zimbabwe and referred to as ‘This Flag Campaign.’ The charges were later changed to attempting to overthrow a Constitutional Government. The change of charges was successfully challenged by lawyers leading to the magistrate ruling that Mawarire’s continued prosecution would be unlawful as his constitutional right to be advised of the charge he faced as an accused person had not been observed after his arrest.

In 2017, Zimbabwe introduced the Ministry of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation. This Ministry will greatly limit the right to free speech and advocacy because it will be responsible for overseeing the administration of the Cybercrime Law, which is yet to be finalized.

Barriers to International Contact

CSOs do not suffer from legal barriers restricting contact and cooperation either domestically or internationally. Many CSOs cooperate through networks, associations and unions, both within and outside the country. There are no legal restrictions relating to Internet access, although the law does allow the State to intercept such communications (through the Interception of Communications Act).

The State has in some instances used the immigration authorities at the various ports of entry to bar or restrict CSO’s foreign contacts. Notable examples are the systematic arrests and deportations of human rights defenders. Indeed, in 2005, the State considered the idea of introducing ‘exit visas’; this proposal has since been shelved. The idea then was to give the state the power to bar certain individuals it accused of going beyond borders to spread falsehoods about the socio-political situation of the country. This was mainly targeted at CSOs and members of the then-opposition MDC. ALthough the 'exist visa' plan was not carried out, there have been instances where targeted politicians and members of CSOs have had their passports confiscated or where the State simply refused to issue new passports or renew expired ones in order to ensure that the targeted individuals did not leave Zimbabwe.

At the end of October 2017, the President made public statements that any CSO funded by sources from Western coutnries will not be allowed to observe the 2018 elections. Access to communities for international CSOs has continued to be restricted as the 2018 elections approach. For example, local authorities, such as the district administrators and police, have sought to impose administrative requirements by requesting that certain CSOs sign Memoranda of Understanding with their offices if they wish to implement activities in the communities.

Barriers to Resources

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act (ZEC Act) prohibits the receipt of foreign funding for conducting voter education. Section 16 provides that “No foreign contribution or donation for the purposes of voter education shall be made except to the Commission, which may allocate such contribution or donation to any person referred to in section 14(3) or subsection 15(1).” Other than this specific prohibition, there are no legal limitations more broadly limiting the ability of CSOs to obtain funding from any particular source. But there are a number of constraints that have arisen in practice.

First, and most commonly, the Government of Zimbabwe has attacked PVOs that receive foreign funding as instruments used by the West to undermine the State. Government criticism of such PVOs has created a hostile atmosphere surrounding civil society, and especially those organizations that receive foreign funding.

Second, the Government has effectively ‘stolen’ funding from CSOs – that is, funds from CSOs, located in the Reserve Bank, and allocated for the Global Fund for HIV/AIDs and Tuberculosis – and used those funds for governmental purposes.

The PVO Act is silent on investment and on generating income through economic activity. In practice, NGOs generate income in a variety of ways, such as selling publications at nominal costs and through consultancies for fees. It is expected, however, that funds generated from economic activity be used for the non-profit purposes of the NGO. [PVO Act, Section 10]

The monetary policy of the government to introduce bond notes is regarded as an attempt to introduce a local currency that has no value, which would make the US Dollars secured by CSOs inaccessible. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has imposed cash limits on CSOs as well as the public sector more generally. This has severely curtailed access to funds.

Finally, the unavailability of hard currency in Zimbabwe and restrictions on funds that can be used through Visa and Mastercards due to the foreign currency shortage is likely to affect the advocacy activities of CSOs in Zimbabwe, which find difficulties in receiving or sending money abroad.

Barriers to Assembly

Section 58 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe provides that:
(1) Every person has the right to freedom of assembly and association, and the right not to assemble and associate with others.
(2) No person may be compelled to belong to an association or to attend a meeting or gathering.

Section 59 of the Constitution also states that “Every person has the right to demonstrate and to present petitions, but these rights must be exercised peacefully.”

Other laws regulating assemblies include:

  • Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which regulates public gatherings, demonstrations, and marches;
  • Section 37 of Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which criminalizes public gatherings that cause or are likely to cause the breach of peace; and
  • Protected Areas and Places Act.

Advance Notification
Notification is required in cases of “public gatherings” but not private meetings. Section 2 of POSA defines a public gathering as being composed of more than 15 people and conducted in a public place or involving a meeting where the public is allowed to attend. Meetings that are held in a private place do not qualify as “public gatherings.” Section 25 of POSA provides that if there is a public gathering, written notice must be provided to the police five days in advance or seven days for a demonstration or procession. During election season, the period of notice is reduced to three days.

The police, however, often "misinterpret" these provisions and harass members of opposition political parties and civil society activists who hold private meetings by requiring that they notify the police every time they want to hold a meeting even if it does not constitute a public gathering.

In addition, although the authorities must respond to a notification request, there are no clear timeframes written in the law. It is never clear whether or not the police will invoke the provisions of POSA to prohibit assemblies when the police are not notified.

Place Restrictions
Section 27 of POSA prohibits assemblies within 20 meters of Parliament, 100 meters from the vicinity of the Supreme Court, and 100 meters from areas that are protected under the Protected Areas and Places Act.

Criminal Penalties
According to Section 37(c)(ii) of the Criminal Code, “any person participating in a public gathering who performs any action, utters any words, distributes any writing, sign or other visible representation that is obscene, threatening or abusive or breaching the peace may be found guilty and liable to a fine or a prison term of 5 years.”

In addition, Section 19 of POSA provides for imprisonment of up to 10 years for a person “performing any action, uttering any words or distributing any writing, sign or other visible representation that is obscene, threatening, abusive or insulting, intending thereby to provoke a breach of the peace or realizing that there is a risk or possibility that a breach of the peace may be provoked.” As with the Criminal Code, this language is vague and allows excessive government discretion to criminalize the behavior of participants in an assembly that is protected under international law.

At the end of September 2017 the majority of trials against at least 648 people who had been arrested during protests that occurred between July and September 2016 known as the #ThisFlag protests concluded. Most of those who were arrested were charged with violating provisions of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act after participating in the protests, which were peaceful and called for an end to economic mismanagement by the government. While almost all of the people who were arrested were not convicted, two organizers of the protests who were convicted were challenging their convictions as of November 2017.

Lack of Police Protection and Excessive Police Force
Only participants that are affiliated with the ruling ZANU PF party normally receive police protection during assemblies. Participants in assemblies that are viewed as not being sympathetic to the ruling party are not guaranteed protection from the police.

Excessive police force is commonly used against assemblies that are considered unsympathetic to the ruling party. One of the most notable incidents of excessive police force occurred in April 2011 in the case of State v Pastor Paul Yesah and 13 Others, when police officers broke up a prayer service organized by NGOs and arrested 14 people who were part of the congregation. During this arrest, anti-riot police indiscriminately fired tear gas canisters at the residences and churches surrounding the venue of the service. The participants were detained and at least five of them were tortured. Thirteen (13) of the arrested individuals were eventually released after several days, but only one person was charged with an offense.

Police also have increasingly sought to prevent peaceful protestors from opposition political parties or civil society from carrying out protests by denying them permission on grounds of the lack of availability of police officers to offer protection. They claim they are busy with other duties, or in some instances openly refuse to allow protests on grounds there is likely to be some members of the public who might disrupt the protests.

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UN Universal Periodic Review Reports Not available
Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs Zimbabwe
USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes Not available
U.S. State Department 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Zimbabwe
Fragile States Index Reports Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
IMF Country Reports Zimbabwe and the IMF
International Commission of Jurists ICJ: Zimbabwe
Human Rights Watch Report Sleight of Hand: Repression of the Media and the Illusion of Reform in Zimbabwe 2010
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library Zimbabwe

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News and Additional Resources

While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change.  If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

General News

Zimbabwe arrests Mnangagwa critic over Facebook post (August 2018)
Zimbabwean police have arrested a critic of Emmerson Mnangagwa on charges of insulting the president in a Facebook post, lawyers have said, highlighting allegations of a crackdown on government opponents. Munyaradzi Shoko, a well-known critic of Mnangagwa, was held after he posted statements on Facebook saying the president's name was "generally associated with evil and devilish deeds."

Zimbabwean Civil Society Remain Cautious Over Upcoming Elections (June 2018)
On June 28, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition held a press briefing in Johannesburg. The briefing was on the upcoming Zimbabwean elections set to take place on July 31. The Coalition said while there have been changes made since the military coup and a change in the presidency, many issues remain in the lead up to the elections. The chairperson of the Crisis Coalition, Rashid Mahiye said this includes the violence in Zimbabwe, court orders not being obeyed and the latest threat to the life of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. A bomb went off a rally during the weekend in Bulawayo, with two fatalities.

Man arrested for 'insulting' Zimbabwean flag by not standing still (March 2017)
Zimbabwean police in the northern city of Kariba have arrested a man on allegations of insulting and disrespecting the country's national flag when he did not stand still. Courage Mushunje has been charged with contravening the Flag of Zimbabwe Act after he allegedly kept on walking when the national flag was being hoisted down at Kariba Border Post. In Zimbabwe, during an official flag hoisting or lowering ceremony citizens must come to a halt and stand respectfully to attention for the duration. Mushunje's arrest comes amid a crackdown by police on civilians allegedly denigrating the flag. The flag has been a symbol of growing protests against the government

Government Proposes Tighter Controls over Social Media (August 2016)
In response to plans by the government of Zimbabwe to introduce legislation to tightly restrict access to social media and monitor private communications, with stiff criminal penalties for violators, Freedom House issued the following statement: “The government of Zimbabwe’s Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill would severely limit citizens’ access to information, as the government tries to stifle calls for economic and political reform." The government’s planned legislation would allow authorities to arbitrarily seize mobile phones, tablets and laptops; monitor private communications; interrupt broadband service; and sentence violators to imprisonment.The legislation, which would supplement the National ICT Policy, is part of the government’s response to recent anti-government protests that have largely been organized and shared via social media. Hashtags such as #ThisFlag have attracted large numbers of followers.

Statement On the Disappearance of Civil Society Activist Itai Dzamara (March 2016)
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of civil society activist Itai Dzamara. The United States urges the government of Zimbabwe to ensure that the constitutionally-guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms are honored and enjoyed by all Zimbabweans, regardless of political affiliation. We also encourage the government of Zimbabwe to fully investigate cases of politically motivated violence and abductions to ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted and victims receive justice.

Human rights lawyers concerned about Dzamara's continued disappearance (March 2015)
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) expressed concern over the mystery surrounding Itai Dzamara's whereabouts. Dzamara, a former journalist who turned civil rights activist, was abducted by unknown men from a Harare suburb in early March while having a haircut. ZLHR recently applied to the High Court for the state to avail Dzamara. The court granted an order that obliges the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) to work closely with lawyers appointed by ZLHR to search for Dzamara and to report progress of the search to the Registrar of the High Court by 1600hours every other Friday up to the time he is found.

Group Remembers Victims of Chiadzwa Crackdown (November 2014)
The Centre for Natural Resources Governance (CNRG) says the government should set up a commission of inquiry to probe human rights abuses perpetrated by state security agents in Chiadzwa. Farai Maguwu, the director of CNRG, said President Robert Mugabe's government should not pretend that nothing happened during Operation Hakudzokwi which was meant to flush out illegal diamond diggers. At least 200 people are estimated to have died during the violent crackdown on the diamond diggers in 2008. The government has never acknowledged the rights violations.

News archive

Zimbabwe court says Robert Mugabe 'insult law' invalid (October 2013)

Demonstrators Assaulted during International Day of Peace Event (September 2013)

Uncomfortable Questions For Zimbabwe Civil Society (September 2013)

Zimbabwe elections 'must be held by 31 July' (June 2013)

Government urged to harness CSOs and private partnerships for development (May 2013)

Zimbabwe 'bars' EU and US from observing polls (March 2013)

Zimbabwe must respect fundamental freedoms in run-up to constitutional referendum (February 2013)

Masvingo governor threatens NGOs (February 2013)

Civil society ‘under siege’ as police raid youth offices in Bulawayo (February 2013)

Police raid NGO offices (January 2013)

Leading Rights Activists Arrested in Zimbabwe (January 2013)

UN condemns attacks on human rights defenders ahead of elections (January 2013)

Zimbabwe targets human rights activists (November 2012)

Government discusses funding "hostile" NGOs (November 2012)

Civil society in save Constitution campaign (November 2012)

Civil society organizations meet to discuss draft constitution (October 2012)

EU: Zimbabwe sanctions stay until elections (July 2012)

NGO’S crackdown continues as Chikomo's trial commences (July 2012)

Reports say EU planning Zimbabwe sanctions lift (July 2012)

Scores of protestors arbitrarily detained in Bulawayo (July 2012)

Human rights NGO shut down for running ‘illegal’ organization (July 2012)

Zimbabwe's constitutional process drags on (June 2012)

Violations persist as UN Chief visits (May 2012)

Civil society groups present conflicting reports (May 2012)

U.N. Rights Commissioner due in Zimbabwe to assess situation (May 2012)

15 members of opposition political party arrested under Public Order and Security Act (March 2012)

Government fails Human Rights test (October 2011)

Zimbabwe Justice Minister Under Fire For Rejecting Reform Amendments (October 2011)

West Using NGOs to Fan Instability, Says Minister (October 2011) 

Freedom House Condemns Crackdown on Peaceful WOZA Protest in Zimbabwe (September 2011)

Zimbabwe's CSO’s launch advocacy charter at UN human rights council (September 2011)

Rights Group: Zimbabwe Police Arrest 13 Demonstrators (July 2011)

Chiefs want NGOs back (July 2011)

Police raid, invade WOZA members private meeting place (June 2011)

Zimbabwe rights groups protest crackdown (May 2011)

Constitution back on track as parties compromise (May 2011) 

Zimbabwe: The Road to Reform or Another Dead End? (April 2011)

Zimbabwe Human Rights Activist Charged With Failure to Register Group (April 2011) 

Civic groups demand end to persecution of rights defenders (April 2011) 

Joint statement on escalating violence, increasing instability and targeted victimization of civil society leaders, the media and ordinary citizens (February 2011)

Free Activists Charged for Viewing Mideast Video (February 2011)

Government to Summon NGOs (July 2010)

EU demands 'concrete progress' on Zimbabwe rights (July 2010)

Outreach Process Monitors Face More Arrests and Threats (July 2010)

Copac Slams NGOs (July 2010)

VP Mujuru Warns NGOs (May 2010)

EU imposes another year of sanctions (February 2010)

The foregoing information was collected by the ICNL Civic Freedom Monitor partner in Zimbabwe (tmugabe@alumni.nd.edu). 

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