The list of 291 private voluntary organisations de-registered recently is basically a list of non-profit organisations that once collected money or donations from the general public, at least in some form, and spent it on stated aims, but which now appear to be moribund or simply dead.
The registrar of PVOs is not arbitrary in de-registration. In all cases before crossing the organisation off the list of registered organisations the registrar first of all is obliged to write to the secretary of the PVO at the last address they have, and ask if there are any reasons for not registering. And if there is no reply, then he can assume they are inactive and can delist.
In many cases, if the organisation is still functioning and doing the work that it was registered for, but forgot the annual return, then there is a flurry of activity, and an abject apology for forgetting to keep the registration up to date, and the required accounts, record of activity and the desired financial statements are hurriedly submitted.
But a lot of the organisations on the latest list are simply no longer active, and it is very probable that there is no secretary or any other committee member and any bank accounts were long ago closed or frozen by the bank concerned for lack of activity and lack of funds to pay monthly charges.
Some organisations that have gone into hibernation may still have a couple of active people who hope one day to resuscitate the PVO and will carefully keep the listing alive, although the annual returns may well consist of nothing more than a report of zero activity, with zero assets, zero revenue and zero expenditure and the two remaining enthusiasts stating that they are the committee.
On the list there are a number of church groups. Here we come across an important point. Churches, or any religious organisation, whose activities are confined to religious purposes are not required to register.
So if we have a church youth group that simply meets, and organises activities for its own members, then registration is not required.
But if it decides to organise a dance, and charge entrance fees to outsiders to raise funds, then suddenly it moves into the group that does need to register.
This is why many religious organisations carefully split off any activity that does have some outside donors or which engages in charitable activity outside the church membership, then register this as a PVO and keep separate accounts.
What, of course, can happen is that this registered church group later on decides not to bother with outside donors and outside fundraising, and then forgets to tell the Register of PVOs that it is now just a pure in-house religious group.
Churches can receive foreign money for some of their religious work, and that just has to be clean money, and some found universities, schools and hospitals, all needed, but these are registered under the appropriate education and health laws which have their own requirements and rules.
We also have on the list extinct arts groups, such as a choir that has not performed for a decade, or moribund old pupils associations that may well have just become a private social club that no longer raises funds, at least from outsiders.
The main thrust of the Private Voluntary Organisations Act is to make sure that any group whatsoever that raises money or accepts assets from the general public outside its own membership can account for this, but if it is a private club whose sole source of revenue is the membership and whose sole collectors of benefits are the same members, then there is no need. They can police themselves and are covered by the Constitutional right of freedom of association. The public needs not protection from private clubs.
The original need for registration was to eliminate con artists and fraudsters feeding off the public. But now registration, accounts and the like is also to prevent the new crimes of money laundering and the general financing of what is called terrorism.
This is stressed in the recent amendment process. Even churches can run into this sort of trouble, considering that every religion these days has, somewhere in the world, people who engage in these sort of activities and so the extra care is justified.
It must be stressed that monitoring, and approval of what a charitable organisation or a PVO does not preclude or control party political activity.
Political organisations, just like religious organisations, are exempted from registration if they confine themselves to political activities. They have their own legislation, but this basically stops foreigners sponsoring a political party or paying into party funds, and demands accounts from candidates standing in elections.
The new amendments do stop private voluntary organisations from supporting parties or candidates, or funding them, as the wall between PVOs and political parties is raised higher.
In fact the Act makes it clear that any beneficiaries of a charity of PVO cannot be discriminated on any ground, and there is a long list that includes race, religion and political affiliation. But any Zimbabwean can contribute to any party they like, but has to do this openly and directly, not sneaking round the side, and foreigners cannot use a PVO to launder their party donations.
There is a lot of talk these days about “civic society”. This includes a lot. But the laws for private voluntary organisations take into its orbit all those groups that help the poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. Others are single-issue lobby groups, and Zimbabwe has benefited immensely from them. Most of our environmental law, for example, is built on determined lobbying over decades.
Of course civic society groups might well be involved in politics in the widest sense of that word. Some lobby Governments and some lobby Parliament.
The basic tenets of the Private Voluntary Organisations Act are to protect the public from fraud or criminal funding, to recognise the sterling work done by so many active people by giving them the widest opportunities to do this work, and to make sure that there are walls between such groups of activists and political parties, and for that matter churches, which are expected to register separate organisations for any work they do outside religion or politics.