Zimbabwe’s civil society is suffocating as we turn our eyes away

Siri Gloppen (2023)

By Siri Gloppen   (written as an op-ed for Panorama (in Norwegian as part of the RightsAct project)

The room for manoeuvre for rights activists in Zimbabwe has been dramatically curtailed since I was last here in 2018.  Legislative changes criminalize regime-critical strikes and demonstrations, and activists are abducted in broad daylight, tortured and, in some cases, killed. Now the activists fear a new bill, which, according to them, could spell the end of their work.

There was joy in Zimbabwe when Robert Mugabe was forced from power in 2017, after three decades as president of an increasingly authoritarian police state. But the joy was short-lived. The election the following year fuelled fears that the “military-backed transition” would make the situation worse for both civil society and the population.

The man behind the coup, former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is popularly called the crocodile, or E.D., emerged victorious from the violent electoral process with assurances that “Zimbabwe is open for business.”

 But the past five years have given the country an increasingly militarized and corrupt regime and dramatically deteriorating living conditions.

 Today, 44 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty.[1] Nine out of ten work in the informal economy and “everyone” has to add extra jobs to survive. [2] Many emigrate, among them a large proportion of the country’s health workers and others with higher education, and it is estimated that a third of all Zimbabweans are in the diaspora.[3]

 E.D. and his ZANU-PF party also emerged victorious in elections earlier this year, an election that all international observers overruled, including the delegation from neighboring countries in the SADCC, but without any repercussions.

 The room for opposition and criticism is gone

 I am in Zimbabwe together with colleagues from CMI and the University of Bergen as part of the research project RightACT, which investigates how rights activists adapt their strategies to changing political circumstances and uncertainty.

 Together with local colleagues, we interview civil society actors – courageous and visionary students, trade union leaders, lawyers, priests, artists and journalists – but the working conditions for those working to improve the rights situation for the people of Zimbabwe have deteriorated dramatically since I was last here in 2018.

 We hear about activists abducted in broad daylight, who are tortured and in some cases killed. Student activists are arrested, expelled from the university and blacklisted. Thus, they can neither start new education, get a job, nor legally leave the country.

 Legislative changes and a failing legal system

 Legislative changes passed in recent years have criminalized “baseless allegations of human rights violations” and conversations with representatives of foreign governments without permission. Strikes and demonstrations are punishable by imprisonment if they do not have prior approval—which is impossible for organizations critical of the authorities and thus labeled as “regime change agents.”

 Harming Zimbabwe’s independence or national interests, for example by attending meetings calling for economic sanctions, can result in the death penalty. Digital activism or journalism that communicates “falsehoods,” or can be perceived as incitement to violence, is punishable by imprisonment.

 The legislative changes have raised fears, partly because the vague formulations make it difficult to know what the authorities can crack down on. Many people say to us: ‘maybe it’s enough that we talk to you’ and ‘there are informants everywhere’.

 At the same time, opposition figures and activists no longer trust that they will receive protection in the judiciary. The courts are perceived as politically corrupted.

 It is pointed out that the judges were given large loans before the election as proof that independence cannot be expected in matters of interest to those in power. And that applies to many issues since the president’s family and military leaders have ownership interests in most things, not least in the lucrative mining industry.

 Zimbabwe has enormous mineral values: gold, platinum, diamonds. The country also has Africa’s largest deposit of lithium, which is used in batteries, and thus is hugely sought after due to the green shift.

 Unprocessed lithium, only the military is allowed to export, In the mining areas of the Midlands, the organisations we talk to report on lawless conditions with criminal cartels and paramilitary groups terrorizing both them and the population.

 The new bill

 What the people we talk to see as the greatest threat to the work ahead is the proposed amendments to the Voluntary Organisations Act.

 The bill was passed by parliament in February and fears are that the president will sign into law, despite international pressure. Then existing foundations must apply to become private NGOs and if the authorities will not register them – for example, because they are considered to engage in political activities or have political ties – they become illegal and must stop operating on the day, without appeal.

 If they pass the eye of the needle and are registered, the authorities can appoint board representatives and place major restrictions on the possibilities of receiving support from abroad. “Then it’s over for us,” several said.

 At the same time, the activists feel that the outside world has tired when it comes to Zimbabwe.

 There is much less international attention and even less money, especially for traditional democracy and rights work. 

 What are activists and independent journalists doing in this situation?

 A couple of the people we spoke to say, “We continue as before and take the problems when they come,” but most change operations.

 Some – especially those who organize many young people – are adopting new forms of action, such as political satire, internet activism, graffiti and “flash mobs” that are over before the police arrive. But most people self-censor and work less politically and confrontationally.

 They focus their activities on fields that are less political, and where there is more money to be made, such as climate and the environment, women’s rights, living conditions and health.

 They also cooperate to a greater extent with the authorities locally and centrally and try to influence policy and implementation in various areas. If they work this way, there are greater opportunities than before (but also the risk of being co-opted).

 Unlike Mugabe, Mnangagwa invites dialogue with organisations that do not challenge politically.

 Interestingly, LGBTIQ+ rights are an area where it is a little easier to work than before, and easier than in some other countries in the region.

 Zimbabwe was the first African country to use homophobia politically – it is almost 30 years since Mugabe referred to homosexuals as worse than pigs and dogs – but this is not an area that threatens political power or business interests, and homophobia is so far not part of President Mnangagwa’s repertoire.

 LGBTIQ+ organizations can thus to a greater extent try to work with the authorities, and enter into alliances with other civil society organizations. They are also considering litigation to try to change the law. Whether they will succeed or whether it will cause setbacks, time will tell.

 What is clear is that for those who challenge the regime in Zimbabwe politically or economically, the situation is worse than it has been at any time since liberation. And little international attention and support makes a difficult situation worse. Allies are important when there is a storm.


[1] African Development Bank: «Zimbabwe Economic Outlook» (2023) https://www.afdb.org/en/countries/southern-africa/zimbabwe/zimbabwe-economic-outlook .

[2] Zimbabwe Human Rights Association: State of Peace Report 2022

[3] Reuters «Over 4,000 Zimbabwean doctors and nurses left the country in 2021» https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/over-4000-zimbabwean-doctors-nurses-left-country-2021-2022-11-20/

Photo:  bixentro (Flicr)