Zimbabwe - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Zimbabwe: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


Zimbabwe, country in southern Africa, named after the famous 14th-century stone-built city of Great Zimbabwe, located in the southeast. The country is renowned for the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River and for its bountiful wildlife. Zimbabwe’s population is divided into two main ethnic and linguistic groups, the Ndebele and the Shona, the former mostly inhabiting the southwest. The capital is Harare, which is the center of a commercial farming district.

Inhabited for at least 2,000 years, the region of present-day Zimbabwe was the site of several large African states, notably Great Zimbabwe, Mutapa, and the Rozwi Empire. Zimbabwe was the British colony of Southern Rhodesia from the late 1800s until 1965, when its white settlers proclaimed it the state of Rhodesia, which Britain refused to recognize. In 1980 the majority black population won independence for the country as Zimbabwe.


Zimbabwe has a land area of 390,759 sq km (150,873 sq mi). From north to south its greatest distance is 760 km (470 mi), and from east to west it is 820 km (510 mi). The country borders Mozambique to the east and Botswana to the west. South Africa is located to the south, and the Limpopo River forms the boundary between the two countries. In the north the border is formed by the Zambezi River, beyond which is Zambia.

Natural Regions of Zimbabwe

The dominant topographical feature of Zimbabwe is its central granite plateau, which runs diagonally from the southwest to the northeast and is covered with rich farmland. The plateau is marked by granite outcrops and hills known as kopjes and is cut by a narrow outcropping of volcanic rock that runs roughly north to south for about 520 km (about 320 mi). This feature is known as the Great Dyke and is rich in gems and minerals. South of the plateau, the land slopes gently down to the valley of the Limpopo River. North of the central plateau, the land drops to the valley of the Zambezi River through the Zambezi Escarpment, an 80-km (50-mi) wide belt of hilly country that runs from east to west. In the northwest the land slopes more gently towards the Zambezi. Along the country’s eastern border are the Inyanga, Vumba, and Chimanimani mountain ranges. The highest point in Zimbabwe is Mount Inyangani at 2,592 m (8,504 ft), in the Inyanga Mountains. The lowest point is 150 m (480 ft) at the junction of the Lundi and the Sabi (Save) rivers in the southeast. The hot and humid valleys of the Zambezi and the Limpopo are infested with tsetse flies, which inhibit livestock raising, although the far southwest is dry grassland suitable for ranching and cattle breeding.

Rivers and Lakes of Zimbabwe

The Zambezi River, along the northern border, is Zimbabwe’s most important river. On the river, in the country’s far west, is Victoria Falls, a spectacular waterfall where the Zambezi flows over a cliff into a narrow gorge. The Zambezi is navigable between Victoria Falls and the Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique. A number of smaller rivers, chief among them the Mazoe and the Sanyati (known in its upper course as the Munyati), join the Zambezi in the north. The Sabi River rises in the center of the country and flows into Mozambique (where it is known as the Save River). The Limpopo River forms the country’s southern boundary with South Africa.

Kariba Dam is located on the Zambezi and houses a hydroelectric power station that serves both Zimbabwe and neighboring Zambia. The dam has formed Lake Kariba, a reservoir that is 282 km (175 mi) long and is a major source of fish and wildlife. A large number of smaller dams have been built throughout the country to provide water for cities or to support irrigated agriculture. There is extensive irrigation in the valley of the Sabi, and water from the upper Zambezi is used to irrigate the dry southwestern parts of the country.

Plant and Animal Life in Zimbabwe

Most of Zimbabwe is covered with savanna grassland and dotted with low masasa trees. Aloe plants are common in the drier areas, and the low-lying river valleys have baobab, acacia, and teak trees. The higher elevations have grassland and shrubs, interspersed with dense forests and patches of rain forest. Wildlife includes elephants, hippopotamuses, lions, hyenas, crocodiles, giraffes, baboons, and many types of antelope. For the most part, wildlife is confined in Zimbabwe’s game parks, the largest of which is Hwange National Park in the west. All the major mammal species are protected, with rhinoceros, cheetah, and hartebeest being among the endangered species.

Natural Resources of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe possesses rich agricultural resources. In 2003 an estimated 8 percent of the country was cultivated. Forests cover 45 percent of the country, although the logging industry is small and wood cut in Zimbabwe is used mostly for fuel. Zimbabwe is also rich in minerals. Gold has been mined since ancient times, and the Great Dyke contains deposits of dozens of different lucrative minerals.

Climate of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s climate is dependent on the rains brought by the Indian Ocean monsoons (seasonal winds). Up to 1,000 mm (40 in) of rain falls each year in the eastern part of the country between the months of October and March; rain levels reduce to about half that amount in the dry southwest. Little if any rain falls from March to October, when the weather gets cold with frosts common in the mountains and central plateau areas. Since the late 1970s rainfall has been very irregular and there have been serious droughts, which have led to soil erosion in some areas and decreased agricultural production. On the central plateau, average daily temperatures range from 7º to 21ºC (44º to 70ºF) in July and 16º to 26ºC (61º to 79ºF) in January. In the Zambezi valley they range from 13º to 28ºC (55º to 83ºF) in July and 22º to 32ºC (71º to 90ºF) in January.

Environmental Issues of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe was among the first African nations to formulate a coherent conservation strategy, introduced in 1987. About 14.7 percent (2007) of the country’s land is protected in a system that includes national parks, wildlife reserves, safari parks, and other areas. The government officially views the promotion of wildlife management as an economic form of sustainable resource use, and the country has a strong record of involving local people in the management of national parks, wildlife reserves, and other protected areas. Poaching is a serious threat, especially to valuable endangered species such as the black rhinoceros and African elephant. The government protects some animal reserves with armed wardens. Zimbabwe shares several transborder protected areas with its neighbors Botswana and Zambia.

Zimbabwe’s growing population puts significant pressure on Zimbabwe’s land. Overfarming and overgrazing have led to soil erosion. Widespread pesticide contamination—especially from the dieldrin and DDT used in tsetse fly control—has significantly affected wildlife and human health.


In 2009 Zimbabwe’s population was estimated to be 11,392,629, giving the country a population density of 30 persons per sq km (76 per sq mi). With a birth rate of 31 per 1,000 and a death rate of 16 per 1,000, Zimbabwe’s population growth rate is 1.5 percent. Life expectancy at birth was estimated at 46 years in 2009, down from 59 years in 1985. This drastic decline is largely attributable to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic in Zimbabwe that began in the late 1980s. Zimbabwe’s people have steadily drifted away from rural areas to the towns and cities since the 1980s. Still, by 2005 just 36 percent of the populated lived in urban areas.

Harare, the capital, is the center of government and a manufacturing and distribution hub for the surrounding agricultural area. Harare is located in north central Zimbabwe. The second most important city is Bulawayo, which was the capital of the Ndebele kingdom in the 19th century and is now the principal city of the southwest. Other towns of significant size include Chitungwiza, Gweru, and Mutare.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s population is divided into two major linguistic and ethnic groups: the Shona and the Ndebele. Numerous Shona subgroups, such as the Tavara, Korekore, and Manyika, are traditionally distinguished by region and dialect of Shona. Altogether, the Shona constitute 71 percent of the population. The Ndebele minority, representing 16 percent of the population, speak a language related to Zulu and are concentrated in the southwest. There are small but politically and economically significant minorities of people of Asian and European descent, as well as immigrants from nearby African countries, principally Mozambique. English is the official language of Zimbabwe and is used in government and education. Some of the white population are of Afrikaner origin and speak Afrikaans.

Religion in Zimbabwe

Protestant and Catholic missionaries attempted to spread Christianity into what is now Zimbabwe starting in the early 17th century. However, they made few converts until the establishment of British colonial control in the late 19th century. An estimated 62 percent of the population adhere to Christianity or to syncretic religions (merging Christian and indigenous beliefs). Most of the rest adhere to traditional indigenous religions. The largest Christian churches are Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Methodist. Each church draws its following from black and white segments of the population and from across social ranks. There are also a large number of African independent churches. The country also has small groups of Greek Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Education in Zimbabwe

Christian missionaries conducted the first formal education in Zimbabwe, and many schools still retain a strong religious affiliation. With the growth of white settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, schools for the white population were established in all the major towns. Public day schools were initially single sex and were complemented by private boarding schools modeled on those in Britain. As late as 1965 there were only two government-run secondary schools for blacks.

Primary education in Zimbabwe has been universal and compulsory since 1987. With nearly half the population of school age, there has been massive growth since the country’s independence in the provision of education. Education accounts for about 24 percent (1997) of government expenditure. About 88 percent (2006) of primary school-aged children are enrolled in school, but only 40 percent of appropriate-aged children attend secondary schools and just 4 percent attend colleges or universities. Zimbabwe has a number of colleges and universities, including the University of Zimbabwe (founded as the University College of Rhodesia in 1955) and Zimbabwe Open University (1999) in Harare, and the National University of Science and Technology (1990) in Bulawayo. Literacy has increased dramatically since independence. Adult literacy was estimated at 91 percent (94 percent for males and 88 percent for females) in 2007, up from only 39 percent in 1962.

Way of Life in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has inherited many traits from its colonial past. The white population reproduced the sport-based culture of colonial Britain and has produced world-class sports figures, competing at the highest level in rugby, cricket, and golf. Africans tend to be more interested in football (soccer). The African middle and upper classes tend to imitate the lifestyle of the old colonial ruling class, while younger Africans are drawn to the popular urban styles of South Africa. European-style clothing and housing are fashionable, although traditional rondavels (round thatched huts made of wood) are preferred in rural areas.

Social Issues and Social Services in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s white population still lives very much aloof from the African majority, and there is relatively little social mixing. Whites enjoy a high standard of living and control most of the country’s private businesses. The government promised since independence to redistribute white farmland to landless African peasants and began seizing white farms in 2000. The seizure and subsequent distribution of the land are sources of tension in the country.

Zimbabwe’s biggest social problem is the spread of AIDS, which became an epidemic in the 1990s. In 2003 it was estimated that 1.2 million people in Zimbabwe were infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. The growing number of people who contract AIDS increases costs of medical and social services, as well as of education and training programs. In response to the epidemic, the government launched a campaign to educate people about the causes of AIDS and to encourage them to take steps to prevent its spread.


Zimbabwe has important cultural traditions that distinguish it from other African states, notably its history of architecture. The central granite plateau was traditionally home to various Shona peoples who built elaborate and precisely constructed stone structures. There are hundreds of stone ruins throughout the country ranging from large town sites like Great Zimbabwe (after which the country is named), Dhlodhlo, and Khami, to small isolated villages; some of the ruins date as far back as the 11th century AD. The stone building tradition was unique to this area and reached high levels of skill and sophistication. The Shona also have a tradition of carving the green and brown soapstone found in the region, and the carved soapstone birds of Great Zimbabwe have inspired a thriving modern industry of stone carving. Shona sculptors have achieved international fame.

Traditional dance and music, which makes use of the mbira (a hand-held board with mounted metal strips that are plucked with the thumbs) and the marimba (a type of xylophone), were neglected during the colonial period. Since independence, however, there has been a revival of traditional styles, with performers finding new audiences among tourists. Important also in the traditional culture were the stories of the Shona spirit mediums, who provided contact with the ancestors and became guardians of the oral histories of both the Shona and the Ndebele. Illiteracy and censorship by the white-controlled government limited the development of a written literature by black Zimbabweans until the 1980s. Noted postindependence authors include Charles Mungoshi and Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Harare developed originally as a European-style city with European theater and music, museums, an art gallery, and archives. The Queen Victoria Museum played a significant role in developing archaeology in Zimbabwe and a knowledge of the past, while the National Gallery pioneered the appreciation of Shona sculpture. The National Archives remain a major source for the history not only of the colonial period but of the Shona and Ndebele peoples. Bulawayo is home to the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, as well as a number of theaters, libraries, and art galleries.


Before the arrival of European settlers in the late 19th century, the peoples of what is now Zimbabwe practiced mixed farming (raising both crops and livestock), with cattle ranching predominating in the drier south and west. Gold mining and trade supplemented agriculture. The arrival of Europeans led to the growth of the commercial farming sector. Much of the best land was taken over by white settlers, who grew maize (corn) or fruit or practiced mixed farming. By the 1930s, however, the mainstay of settler agriculture was tobacco. Large numbers of low-paid Africans worked settler farms, many recruited from Mozambique. Gold mining continued, but the development of a large mining and industrial sector only took off after World War II (1939-1945), when Southern Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called) benefited from large-scale investment that flowed into the colony. A wide range of mining enterprises were begun, exploiting the colony’s chrome, asbestos, and copper deposits, and an industrial sector developed producing consumer goods and even heavy steel manufactures such as railway locomotives.

The international community imposed economic sanctions on Rhodesia when its white government declared independence in 1965. This resulted in further diversification of industrial production, particularly in the sector of consumer goods, as local producers sought to beat the sanctions by servicing the demands of domestic and regional markets. After independence in 1980, Zimbabwe joined the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (now the Southern African Development Community), a regional economic bloc. However, the country faced strong competition from South African industries, and agriculture suffered from severe drought for much of the 1980s.

In the early 21st century the Zimbabwean government deepened the country’s economic crisis. Starting in 2000 the government began seizing white-owned farms, ostensibly to redistribute the farmland to landless black Zimbabweans. Many of Zimbabwe’s skilled professionals, as well as most of its white farmers, left the country in the first years of the century. Agricultural production plummeted, depriving the country of its traditional source of export revenue, and debt and inflation skyrocketed. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) suspended aid due to the government’s poor fiscal management, and Zimbabwe plunged into an economic meltdown. Inflation reached a stage that economists refer to as hyperinflation (see Inflation and Deflation). As prices soared out of control, a thriving black market emerged.

In early 2008 Zimbabwe reported an annual inflation rate of more than 2 million percent. By July it had soared to a world-record hyperinflation rate of 230 million percent. Shortly after reaching that milestone, the government stopped issuing inflation figures. The country introduced a Z$100 billion note that barely covered the cost of a loaf of bread. It was followed by a Z$100 trillion note. In January 2009 Zimbabwe effectively abandoned its currency, allowing all its citizens to use the currencies of other countries. As 2009 began Zimbabwe’s economy ranked as the most bankrupt and fiscally untenable in the world with an unemployment rate of 90 percent.

Labor in Zimbabwe

In 2007 Zimbabwe’s labor force was 5.7 million people. Trade unions represent Zimbabwe’s major industries and service sectors. All are affiliated with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which was founded in 1981. Employers’ associations are strong in the agricultural sector, particularly the Commercial Farmers’ Union, founded in 1942.

Services in Zimbabwe

The service sector accounts for 59 percent of Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product (GDP). Tourism, education, and public services are the most important sectors. Zimbabwe has some of the most important tourist attractions in southern Africa and is now a major destination for tourists from all over the world. The biggest attraction is Victoria Falls, followed by Hwange National Park, Lake Kariba, and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. The mountains of eastern Zimbabwe also receive many visitors. In 2007, 2.5 million tourists visited the country.

Industry in Zimbabwe

The industrial sector diversified during the years that sanctions were imposed on Rhodesia (1965 to 1980), and today Zimbabwe produces a wide range of consumer goods. The most important products are iron and steel, textiles, processed food, and chemicals. Industry, primarily manufacturing and mining, accounted for 23 percent of GDP in 2005.

Agriculture of Zimbabwe

Despite the government’s dismantling of the country’s well-developed commercial sector starting in 2000, agriculture remains one of the keys to Zimbabwe’s economic prosperity. In 2005 agriculture (including forestry and fishing) accounted for 18 percent of GDP. The country’s main commercial products are tobacco, sugar, and various grains. Citrus fruit, cut flowers, cotton, and coffee are smaller but still important products. Cattle ranching is important in the southwest. Subsistence farmers grow corn, cassava, and beans, and raise goats, sheep, and cattle.

Mining in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has a long tradition of mining, going back before European colonization. The country contains a wide range of minerals, especially in and around the Great Dyke. Zimbabwe’s chief mineral exports include gold, nickel, and chromite. Coal is an important power source.

Energy in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is rich in coal and hydroelectric resources. Coal-burning thermal power stations produced 42 percent of the country’s electricity in 2006, while the remaining 58 percent came from hydroelectric facilities at the Kariba Dam.

Transportation in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s major rail line runs along the country’s central plateau between the cities of Harare and Bulawayo. Bulawayo is linked by rail to the major cities of South Africa by way of Botswana, and to the copper-mining towns of Zambia via Victoria Falls. Spurs lead to the Mozambican ports of Beira and Maputo. The country has an extensive network of roads, of which 19 percent (2002) are paved. Harare has an international airport, and smaller airfields serve other cities and the main tourist areas, including Victoria Falls. Air Zimbabwe is the national airline.

Communications in Zimbabwe

The state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation operates a national television station and numerous national radio stations broadcasting in English, Shona, Ndebele, and other African languages. The Chronicle, published in Bulawayo, and The Herald, published in Harare, are Zimbabwe’s largest English-language daily newspapers. Both are government-owned and -monitored. Dozens of nondaily registered periodicals and newspapers, most in English, are published, as well.

Foreign Trade in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s foreign trade position is structurally unhealthy, in that it typically imports more than it exports. The country’s main customers for exports are the United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa, Japan, and China. South Africa is by far the primary source for imports; other large suppliers are Mozambique, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Zimbabwe’s most important imports include petroleum products, machinery, motor vehicles, and foodstuffs. Chief exports include tobacco and other agricultural products as well as gold and other minerals.

Currency and Banking of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s basic unit of currency is the Zimbabwe dollar. Officially, 6,370,153 Zimbabwe dollars equal U.S.$1 (2009). The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, founded in 1964, is the bank of issue, and several commercial banks operate throughout the country. The Zimbabwe Stock Exchange is located in Harare.


Until independence in 1980, Zimbabwe was effectively ruled by the white population, through a parliament elected by a voting population limited to whites and only a small number of blacks. After independence a new constitution was drawn up that declared Zimbabwe a majority-rule republic. The 1980 constitution guarantees the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, regardless of race, ethnic group, place of origin, creed, or gender. Constitutional amendments approved in 1987 and 1990 provide for direct election of the president, abolish reserved seats in the legislature for whites, and establish a unicameral legislature. There is universal suffrage, and the voting age is 18.


Under a power-sharing agreement announced in September 2008, the head of state is an executive president, who is responsible for foreign policy and has the power to declare martial law. The head of government is the prime minister, who presides over the cabinet.


Zimbabwe has a bicameral (two chamber) parliament, consisting of the Senate and the House of Assembly. The House of Assembly has 210 seats, all of which are popularly elected for five-year terms. The Senate has 93 seats, of which 60 are elected by direct ballot for five-year terms. The remaining 33 Senate seats comprise 10 provincial governors nominated by the president, 16 traditional chiefs elected by the Council of Chiefs, 2 held by the president and deputy president of the Council of Chiefs, and 5 appointed by the president.


Zimbabwe’s legal system is based on English common law (the body of law that developed in England beginning in the 12th century) and traditional Zimbabwean law. There is a Supreme Court, consisting of a chief justice and four judges of appeal. Below the Supreme Court is the High Court, consisting of 13 judges, which has original jurisdiction in major civil and criminal cases. Below the High Court are regional courts, magistrates courts, customary law courts, and local courts. These last two tiers are traditional Zimbabwean courts presided over by chiefs and headmen, which hear small claims cases and cases concerned with marriage and children. The executive branch appoints all judges.

Local Government

Zimbabwe is divided into eight provinces and the cities of Harare and Bulawayo, which have provincial status. Each of these units is governed by a provincial council and a provincial governor. The powers of the provincial administrations are closely circumscribed by the central government. Beneath the provincial councils are dozens of district councils, rural councils, town councils, and municipal councils. At the lowest level of administration are village development councils and ward development councils.

Political Parties

Zimbabwe’s dominant political party is the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). ZANU-PF began as the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which was founded in 1963 as a Marxist party seeking majority rule in Zimbabwe. The military wings of both ZANU and the rival nationalist party Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) merged after 1976 as the Popular Front (PF), and after independence in 1980, ZANU was known as ZANU-PF. ZANU-PF and ZAPU merged in 1988. In the 1990s ZANU-PF moved away from Marxism. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is the main opposition party. Smaller parties include the conservative Zimbabwe African National Union-Ndonga (ZANU-Ndonga), founded by ZANU cofounder Ndabaningi Sithole; and the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM), a breakaway party from ZANU-PF.

Defense in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s armed forces, consisting of an army and an air force, had 29,000 personnel in 2006. Military service is not compulsory.

International Organizations in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is a member of the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU). The country also helped found the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (now the Southern African Development Community), an organization for economic cooperation between southern African countries.


Zimbabwe’s central plateau historically has formed a distinct cultural area. Bounded on the north and south by the Zambezi and Limpopo river valleys, on the east by mountains, and on the west by the Kalahari Desert, the area was well watered, fertile, and rich in minerals, and therefore was favorable for human habitation. San (Bushmen) hunters lived on the plateau for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years during prehistoric times and created remarkable rock paintings that are found throughout Zimbabwe in high-elevation granite shelters.

Early Civilizations in Zimbabwe

About 2,000 years ago Iron Age peoples established themselves on the plateau, developing a series of distinctive pottery styles, herding cattle, and mining gold and copper that they traded with peoples of the coast. These people were the ancestors of the modern Shona population. About the 11th century AD the first stone building began, and this rapidly developed into a distinctive and impressive architectural style. Stone building reached its first peak in the city of Great Zimbabwe, which was built between the 11th and 15th centuries.

By the 11th century the population was grouped in small village communities that were ruled over by dynasties of chiefs, called Karanga. The major Karanga chiefs built their capitals in stone and by the 15th century they controlled the trade in gold to the coast of present-day Mozambique. The most important of the chieftaincies were Mutapa in the Mazoe River valley, Chicanga in the Inyanga highlands, and Quiteve in the Mozambique lowlands. These states established gold-trading fairs in their territory, which attracted traders from the coast.

Portuguese Influence in Zimbabwe

In 1498, in the same period that the Karanga chiefs were extending their power over the lowland areas of Mozambique, the Portuguese arrived on the Indian Ocean coast. The Portuguese traded gold at the fairs and in 1569 sent a large military expedition led by Francisco Barreto to establish Portuguese control over the chieftaincy of Mutapa. This attempt failed, but Portuguese traders became influential in all the main fairs. Early in the 17th century locally recruited armies under Portuguese control conquered the Karanga chieftaincies of the north, including Mutapa, and invaded the central and southern areas. Small Portuguese trading towns were established, the most important being at Dambarare on the upper Mazoe.

The Rozwi Empire and the Ndebele

In 1693 the Portuguese were defeated by the Rozwi chieftaincy of Changamire, whose power was based in Torwa (also called Butua) in the southwest. The Portuguese were driven off the central plateau and only retained a nominal presence at one of the fairs in the eastern highlands. The whole of present-day Zimbabwe was brought under the control of Changamire and became known as the Rozwi Empire. The Rozwi chiefs revived the tradition of building in stone and constructed impressive cities throughout the southwest. The economic power of the Rozwi Empire was based on cattle wealth, but gold mining continued, and gold was traded for luxury imports.

In the 1790s the whole southern African region began to experience a prolonged series of droughts. They weakened the Rozwi Empire, which allowed local chiefs and spirit mediums to begin seizing power. The gold fairs functioned only intermittently. Then in the early 19th century, the period of regional warfare and forced migrations known as the mfecane began. Following victories by the Zulu king Shaka in what is now eastern South Africa, the Ndwandwe, a Nguni-speaking people, were forcibly dispersed, and armed bands led by Ndwandwe chiefs migrated northward, invading the Rozwi Empire. The empire was devastated by the Ndwandwe armies of Nxaba and Zwangendaba. In the early 1830s the last Rozwi ruler was killed in his capital of Khami.

A decade later, another Nguni people, the Ndebele, entered what is now Zimbabwe from the southwest under their king, Mzilikazi. Mzilikazi had fled the Transvaal (present-day northern South Africa) after his armies were defeated by Afrikaners (South African descendents of Dutch and French Huguenot settlers). The king built a new Ndebele capital, called Bulawayo, in the southwest. The Ndebele kingdom replicated the military and economic organization of the Zulu and introduced the Ndebele dialect (a Nguni language similar to Zulu). In addition to his powerful military force, the Ndebele monarch derived his wealth and power from large herds of cattle. During the mid-19th century most of the Karanga chieftaincies (whose people were now known as Shona) of central and northern Zimbabwe retained their independence, though from time to time they were forced to pay tribute to the Ndebele.

Cecil Rhodes

Beginning in the 1860s increasing numbers of European ivory hunters entered the area from the south and from the coast. These hunters returned to Europe with reports of vast gold deposits, spurring European interest in Matabeleland (as Europeans called the territory of the Ndebele, in the south) and Mashonaland (as they called the land of the Shona, in the north). During the 1880s the coastline of Africa was partitioned between Germany, Portugal, and Britain, and competition between European and African powers for land in the interior became intense. The Portuguese sent missions to secure the submission of the northern Shona chiefs, the Gaza Empire of southern Mozambique brought the eastern borderlands under its rule, and Afrikaner settlers began to spread north from the Transvaal. However, it was the British rulers of Cape Colony (in what is now western South Africa) who in the end successfully won concessions of land from the Ndebele king. In 1888 Lobengula, king of the Ndebele, granted a mineral concession encompassing Mashonaland (which he nominally controlled) to Cape Colony politician and financier Cecil John Rhodes. The following year the British government granted Rhodes a charter to establish the British South Africa Company. The company was given sweeping powers, including the power not only to mine but also to settle and administer a huge, vaguely defined area north of the Transvaal, including both Mashonaland and Matabeleland.

Although Rhodes held nominal authority over this ill-defined region, in 1890 very little of it was actually under British control, so Rhodes organized expeditions to secure the region and as far north as possible. In 1890 Rhodes’s “pioneer column” crossed Matabeleland and established the city of Salisbury (present-day Harare) in northern Mashonaland. The white settlers proceeded to conquer and settle a vast territory, while Rhodes built railroads and telegraphs to link the region to the outside world. Faced with severe economic problems, as workable gold had not been discovered, Rhodes and Leander Starr Jameson, the administrator of the territory, organized an attack on the Ndebele king. In 1893 the British defeated the Ndebele and distributed vast herds of captured cattle and land to white settlers, temporarily rescuing Rhodes’s company from financial disaster. The chartered territory was officially named Rhodesia, after Rhodes, in 1895.

In late 1895 Jameson led a British military force from Rhodesia in a raid on the Transvaal, hoping to incite British settlers there to overthrow the Afrikaner government. Jameson and his party were quickly arrested, however, and the raid was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, in Rhodesia the Shona and Ndebele took the opportunity to unite under the leadership of influential spirit mediums to overthrow the settlers’ rule. It was not until British troops had been sent in 1897 that the rebellion was finally put down. The same year, colonial administrators divided Rhodesia into two separate colonies: Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). Rhodes worked to encourage British settlement in Northern and Southern Rhodesia until his death in 1902.

Settler Colony

As Rhodes hoped, Southern Rhodesia grew as a settler-dominated colony under the rule of the British South Africa Company. Whites laid out farms along the railroad, which ran along the plateau between Salisbury and Bulawayo. In order to provide cheap labor for the colony’s farms and mines, colonial administrators imposed heavy monetary taxes on black inhabitants (who had no money, and therefore were forced to seek jobs) and encouraged immigration from Mozambique.

The settlers established a legislative council, and when the British South Africa Company charter expired in 1923, a referendum was held on whether to join South Africa. The vote went against union, and Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony. This marked the beginning of decades of prosperity for white settlers in Southern Rhodesia. In 1930 the colonial government passed the Land Apportionment Act, which divided the colony into separate areas for whites and blacks. The act allocated white settlers, who numbered only about 50,000 (less than 5 percent of the colony’s population), approximately 50 percent of the land.

The Great Depression of the 1930s held back economic prosperity and white immigration. Tobacco farming developed, however, and after World War II (1939-1945) the colony witnessed considerable immigration and investment. By 1950 the white population had risen to about 125,000.

In 1953 white settlers in Northern and Southern Rhodesia pressured the British government to unite Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland (present-day Malawi) to form the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (also known as the Central African Federation). The federation, which allowed white settlers in the colonies to consolidate their economic power, had its capital in Salisbury and was dominated by Southern Rhodesia. The federation lasted until 1963 and saw rapid economic expansion, as Southern Rhodesia industrialized and became the second-most powerful economy in southern Africa, after South Africa. The regions of the colony allocated to blacks grew overcrowded in the 1950s, prompting large numbers of blacks to move to the colony’s urban areas. By 1960 the white population had grown to 220,000.

During this period, black opposition to white settler rule grew more active and vocal. The first African labor unions began to appear in the 1920s, and in the 1950s African nationalist parties formed. As support for the parties grew, the colonial government became increasingly repressive and resisted the idea of majority rule.

White-Ruled Rhodesia

In 1962 Nyasaland broke away from the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which was formally dissolved in 1963. Southern Rhodesia’s white settlers, now led by Ian Douglas Smith and his Rhodesian Front party, sought independence from Britain. However, Britain’s newly elected Labour government refused to agree to independence without significant constitutional reform that would provide for eventual black African rule. In November 1965 Smith announced the Unilateral Declaration of Independence for Rhodesia, severing ties to Britain. The United Nations (UN) quickly levied sanctions against the illegal nation. In 1969 Rhodesia formally declared itself a republic.

Britain failed to take any decisive action against Rhodesia’s white government and in 1970 and 1971 tried to negotiate a settlement with Smith. Smith refused to make significant concessions and defied the weak international sanctions that had been imposed. Covertly supported by South Africa, another white-ruled state, the white Rhodesians held power without much difficulty until the mid-1970s.

The first Zimbabwean nationalist parties had emerged in the 1950s, and the early political leader of stature was Joshua Nkomo. Nkomo led a number of political movements, most notably the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), which was formed in 1962 and supported largely by the Ndebele of the southwest. In 1963 the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) was established by dissident Marxists who sought a more radical political stance. ZANU was led by Ndabaningi Sithole until he was replaced in 1976 by Robert Gabriel Mugabe. The colonial government banned both ZAPU and ZANU shortly after their creation, and the movements consequently developed as clandestine guerrilla groups seeking the overthrow of the white government.

In the mid-1970s guerrilla attacks became more formidable, with ZANU proving the more effective of the guerrilla movements. After 1976 the military wings of ZANU and ZAPU joined forces to create a more powerful liberation army, called the Patriotic Front (PF). Peace negotiations, at first brokered by South Africa, began in 1976, but no agreement was reached. In 1979 Rhodesia’s white regime attempted to compromise by introducing a new constitution that allowed limited black majority rule with political safeguards for whites. After elections the same year, a moderate black leader, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, formed a coalition government with the Rhodesian Front and took office as prime minister. However, ZANU and ZAPU did not accept this arrangement, viewing Muzorewa as a puppet of the white government. In 1980 the Rhodesian government accepted British and American mediation and signed the Lancaster House agreement for majority rule. In elections held that year, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), as ZANU became known, decisively defeated ZAPU. Mugabe was installed as prime minister, and the nation was renamed Zimbabwe.

Independent Zimbabwe

The Lancaster House agreement had protected the position of Zimbabwe’s white inhabitants, who were allocated 20 seats in parliament. Land reform, specifically the redistribution of white-owned land to landless black peasants, was promised but was delayed in order to smooth the transition to majority rule. During the 1980s the new government increasingly moved away from its Marxist rhetoric and toward supporting a capitalistic economy. The civil war in Mozambique and unresolved political conflict in South Africa threatened the stability of the new state. Zimbabwe incurred the wrath of South Africa by supporting both the African National Congress (ANC), which opposed South Africa’s minority-rule government, and Mozambique’s government, which South Africa was attempting to overthrow by supporting a rebel group. South Africa threatened to attack ANC bases in Zimbabwe and blocked Zimbabwean exports through South African ports. Zimbabwe consequently suffered economic dislocation as it was forced to export its products through Mozambique. This required the Zimbabwean armed forces to protect the railroad corridor to the Mozambican port of Beira from South African-sponsored rebel attacks. Mugabe was one of the founders of the Southern African Development Cooperation Committee (SADCC), an organization formed to reduce regional economic dependence on South Africa, and he played a prominent role in trying to counter the influence of South Africa.

The 1980s also saw unrest within Zimbabwe. Insurrection threatened in Matabeleland in the southwest, as Ndebele dissidents who questioned the validity of the 1980 elections began to stockpile arms. The government severely repressed the Ndebele opposition, and Nkomo and other members of the Ndebele-supported ZAPU were expelled from the government. In 1985 legislative elections, ZANU won again by a landslide everywhere but in Matabeleland. However, corruption scandals rocked Mugabe’s government, and several splinter parties broke away from ZANU-PF. In an effort to consolidate his power, in 1987 Mugabe had the constitution revised, replacing the office of prime minister with that of president, which combines the posts of head of state and head of government. In 1988 Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Nkomo’s ZAPU agreed to merge under the name of ZANU-PF, and Zimbabwe’s ethnic and political tension eased greatly. Mugabe appointed Nkomo one of two joint vice presidents in 1990.

Recent Developments in Zimbabwe

In the early 1990s the transition to majority rule in South Africa coincided with peace negotiations in Mozambique, and Zimbabwe seemed poised to turn its lackluster economy around. In exchange for economic aid and assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Zimbabwe agreed to a structural adjustment package designed to move the country from a state-controlled economy to a free-market economy. These measures led to further economic struggles for many Zimbabweans, and popular discontent for Mugabe grew. Mugabe was reelected as president in 1996, running unopposed after the withdrawal of two opposition candidates who protested against allegedly unfair electoral regulations.

In 1997 Mugabe announced a controversial program of land redistribution. Hundreds of white-owned commercial farms, making up nearly half of Zimbabwe’s total commercial farmland, were designated to be seized without compensation and divided among landless blacks and blacks with only small landholdings. Faced with strong protests by white farmers and the international economic community, the Zimbabwean government retreated from this position. In what was widely seen as a significant challenge to Mugabe’s authority, Zimbabwean voters in February 2000 rejected a constitutional referendum that would have expanded Mugabe’s powers and allowed the government to seize white-owned farms without compensation. Soon after the referendum, however, government-backed militias began violently occupying white-owned farms. Most of Zimbabwe’s white farmers fled the country, and soon few white-owned farms remained. Opposition groups accused the government of distributing seized farmland only to supporters of the ruling party. The seizures and resulting chaos destroyed the country’s commercial agricultural sector, forcing many Zimbabweans to survive on food donated from other countries.

Mugabe was reelected president in March 2002. Allegations of voter intimidation and other irregularities led some international observers to declare the presidential election flawed. ZANU-PF similarly dominated 2005 legislative elections. In May 2005 Zimbabwean police forces abruptly began demolishing what the government termed “illegal structures” in urban areas around the country. The bulldozing of shantytowns left hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans without homes.

In the aftermath of the farmland seizures, the economy of Zimbabwe suffered a complete meltdown. The collapse of the agricultural sector deprived the country of its main source of revenue, and the country became mired in massive deficits. The rate of inflation soared beyond control several years in succession, and in January 2008 officially reached 100,000 percent annually. About 80 percent of the people lived in poverty, and shortages of food and fuel were widespread. The economic collapse led to growing discontent with Mugabe and his ZANU-PF. Also, divisions within the ruling party became evident when a former finance minister, Simba Makoni, presented himself as a candidate in the 2008 presidential election. He ran against Mugabe and the main opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change (known as MDC-T).

Presidential and parliamentary elections were held concurrently in March 2008. ZANU-PF lost its majority for the first time since majority rule was achieved in 1980, winning 97 seats in the 210-seat House of Assembly. The MDC won 99 seats, and a breakaway MDC faction known as MDC-M won 10 seats; the remainder went to independents. The results for the Senate were evenly divided, with ZANU-PF and the combined opposition each taking 30 seats. In the presidential election Tsvangirai won 47.9 percent of the vote and Mugabe 43.2 percent, necessitating a runoff since neither candidate had an absolute majority.

In June, as the runoff election approached, Tsvangirai withdrew from the contest and called for a boycott, citing a campaign of violence and intimidation against his party and its supporters. The MDC-T charged that 86 people were killed, 10,000 injured, and more than 200,000 displaced as their homes were destroyed in what it described as a concerted campaign of state-sponsored violence against the party. Government election officials refused to remove Tsvangirai’s name from the ballot, and in the runoff on June 27, the official election results gave Mugabe 85 percent of the vote. International election observers and election monitors from the African Union cited widespread voter intimidation, raising the question of whether the African Union would recognize the election results as legitimate.

In early July a summit meeting of the African Union called for a national unity government. Under the terms of the resolution, Mugabe was required to relinquish some of the absolute power he had held in Zimbabwe since the country achieved majority rule in 1980. Mugabe also faced criticism from former allies, including South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

After several months of continued negotiations, mediated by South African president Thebo Mbeki, Mugabe and opposition leaders announced a preliminary power-sharing agreement in September 2008. Under the agreement, Mugabe was to remain as president, responsible for foreign policy and with the power to declare martial law, while Tsvangirai became prime minister with executive authority as head of the government and oversight of the cabinet. A third opposition figure, Arthur Mutambara of the MDC-M, was named a deputy prime minister.

Final agreement on a power-sharing pact was reached in January 2009, and in February, Tsvangirai took office as prime minister, while Mugabe remained as president. Under this pact, authority over certain ministries, such as the ministry that controls the police, was to be shared. Tsvangirai took office at a time when Zimbabwe’s economy was devastated, with continuing hyperinflation and an unemployment rate of 90 percent. In addition a cholera epidemic had claimed the lives of more than 3,400 people, and more than half the population was dependent on emergency food aid.

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