Zimbabwe / officially the Republic of Zimbabwe, is a landlocked country located in southern Africa, between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. It is bordered by South Africa to the south, Botswana to the southwest, Zambia to the northwest and Mozambique to the east. The capital is Harare. Zimbabwe achieved de jure sovereignty from the United Kingdom in April 1980, following 14 years as an unrecognised state under the conservative white minority government of Rhodesia, which unilaterally declared independence in 1965.
Zimbabwe has 16 official languages, with English, Shona and Ndebele being most common. The present territory was first demarcated by Cecil Rhodes of the British South Africa Company, becoming a self-governing colony as Southern Rhodesia in 1923. President Robert Mugabe is head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces; Morgan Tsvangirai is the serving Prime Minister. Renowned as a champion for the anti-colonial cause, Mugabe is also viewed as an authoritarian responsible for Zimbabwe’s mediocre human rights record and substantial economic decline. He has held power since internationally recognised independence in 1980: as head of government since 1980 and head of state since 1987.
The name “Zimbabwe” is based on a Shona term for Great Zimbabwe, an ancient ruined city in the country’s south-east whose remains are now a protected site. There are two theories on the origin of the word. Various sources hold that the word is derived from dzimba-dza-mabwe, translated from the Karanga dialect of Shona as “large houses of stone” (dzimba = plural of imba, “house”; mabwe = plural of bwe, “stone”). The Karanga-speaking Shona people are found around Great Zimbabwe in the modern-day province of Masvingo. Archaeologist Peter Garlake claims that “Zimbabwe” is a contracted form of dzimba-hwe which means “venerated houses” in the Zezuru dialect of Shona, and is usually applied to chiefs’ houses or graves.
Zimbabwe was formerly known as Southern Rhodesia (1923), Rhodesia (1965), and Zimbabwe Rhodesia (1979). The first recorded use of “Zimbabwe” as a term of national reference was in 1960, when it was coined by the black nationalist Michael Mawema, whose Zimbabwe National Party became the first to officially use the name in 1961. The term Rhodesia—derived from the surname of Cecil Rhodes, the primary instigator of white colonisation of the territory during the late 19th century—was perceived as inappropriate because of its colonial origin and connotations. According to Mawema, black nationalists held a meeting in 1960 to choose an alternative name for the country, and the names Machobana and Monomotapa were proposed before his suggestion, Zimbabwe, prevailed. A further alternative, put forward by nationalists in Matabeleland, had been “Matopos”, referring to the Matopos Hills to the south of Bulawayo.
It was initially not clear how the chosen term was to be used—a letter written by Mawema in 1961 refers to “Zimbabweland”—but “Zimbabwe” was sufficiently established by 1962 to become the generally preferred term of the black nationalist movement. In a 2001 interview, black nationalist Edson Zvobgo recalled that the name was mentioned by Mawema during a political rally, “and it caught hold, and that was that”. The name was subsequently used by the black nationalist factions during the Second Chimurenga campaigns against the Rhodesian government during the Rhodesian Bush War. The most major of these were the Zimbabwe African National Union (led by Robert Mugabe from 1975), and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, led by Joshua Nkomo from its founding in the early 1960s.
Pre-colonial era (1000–1886)
Towers of Great Zimbabwe
Proto-Shona speaking societies first emerged in the middle Limpopo valley in the 9th century before moving on to the Zimbabwean highlands. The Zimbabwean plateau eventually became the centre of subsequent Shona states, beginning around the 10th century. Around the early 10th century, trade developed with Arab merchants on the Indian Ocean coast, helping to develop the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in the 11th century. This was the precursor to the more impressive Shona civilisations that would dominate the region during the 13th to 15th centuries, evidenced by ruins at Great Zimbabwe, near Masvingo, and other smaller sites. The main archaeological site uses a unique dry stone architecture.
The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was the first in a series of sophisticated trade states developed in Zimbabwe by the time of the first European explorers from Portugal. They traded in gold, ivory and copper for cloth and glass.
From about 1300 until 1600, Mapungubwe was eclipsed by the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. This Shona state further refined and expanded upon Mapungubwe’s stone architecture, which survives to this day at the ruins of the kingdom’s capital of Great Zimbabwe. From c. 1450–1760, Zimbabwe gave way to the Kingdom of Mutapa. This Shona state ruled much of the area that is known as Zimbabwe today, and parts of central Mozambique. It is known by many names including the Mutapa Empire, also known as Mwene Mutapa or Monomotapa as well as “Munhumutapa,” and was renowned for its stategic trade routes with the Arabs and Portugal. Eventually, however, the Portuguese sought to monopolise this influence and began a series of wars which left the empire in near collapse in the early 17th century.
As a direct response to increased European presence in the interior, a new Shona state emerged, known as the Rozwi Empire. Relying on centuries of military, political and religious development, the Rozwi (meaning “destroyers”) expelled the Portuguese from the Zimbabwean plateau by force of arms. They continued the stone building traditions of the Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe kingdoms while adding muskets to their arsenal and recruiting a professional army to defend recent conquests.
Around 1821, the Zulu general Mzilikazi of the Khumalo clan successfully rebelled against King Shaka and created his own clan, the Ndebele. The Ndebele fought their way northwards into the Transvaal, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and beginning an era of widespread devastation known as the Mfecane. When Dutch trekboers converged on the Transvaal in 1836, they drove the tribe even further northward. By 1838, the Rozwi Empire, along with the other petty Shona states were conquered by the Ndebele and reduced to vassaldom.
After losing their remaining South African lands in 1840, Mzilikazi and his tribe permanently settled the southwest of present-day Zimbabwe in what became known as Matabeleland, establishing Bulawayo as their capital. Mzilikazi then organised his society into a military system with regimental kraals, similar to those of Shaka, which was stable enough to repel further Boer incursions. Mzilikazi died in 1868 and, following a violent power struggle, was succeeded by his son, Lobengula.
Colonial era (1888–1965)
Company rule in Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, and Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland
Matabeleland in the 19th century.
In the 1880s, white colonists arrived with Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company (BSAC). In 1888, Rhodes obtained a concession for mining rights from King Lobengula of the Ndebele peoples. He presented this concession to persuade the government of the United Kingdom to grant a royal charter to the company over Matabeleland, and its subject states such as Mashonaland as well.
Rhodes used this document in 1890 to justify sending the Pioneer Column, a group of Europeans protected by well-armed British South Africa Police (BSAP) through Matabeleland and into Shona territory to establish Fort Salisbury (now Harare), and thereby establish company rule over the area. In 1893 and 1894, with the help of their new Maxim guns, the BSAP would go on to defeat the Ndebele in the First Matabele War. Rhodes additionally sought permission to negotiate similar concessions covering all territory between the Limpopo River and Lake Tanganyika, then known as “Zambesia”.
In accordance with the terms of aforementioned concessions and treaties, mass settlement was encouraged, with the British maintaining control over labour as well as precious metals and other mineral resources. In 1895 the BSAC adopted the name “Rhodesia” for the territory, in honour of Rhodes. In 1898 “Southern Rhodesia” became the official denotation for the region south of the Zambezi, which later became Zimbabwe. The region to the north was administered separately and later termed Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
Shortly after Rhodes’ disastrous Jameson Raid on the South African Republic, the Ndebele rebelled against their white rulers, led by their charismatic religious leader, Mlimo. The Second Matabele War lasted until 1897, when Mlimo was murdered. Shona agitators also staged unsuccessful revolts (known as Chimurenga) against company rule during 1896 and 1897. Following these failed insurrections, the Ndebele and Shona groups were finally subdued by the Rhodes administration, which organised the land with a disproportionate bias favouring Europeans, thus displacing many indigenous peoples.
Opening of the railway to Umtali in 1899
Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony in October 1923, subsequent to a 1922 referendum. Rhodesians served on behalf of the United Kingdom during World War II, mainly in the East African Campaign against Axis forces in Italian East Africa. Proportional to the white population, Southern Rhodesia contributed more per capita to both the First and Second World Wars than any other part of the Empire, including Britain itself.
In 1953, in the face of African opposition, Britain consolidated the two Rhodesias with Nyasaland (Malawi) in the ill-fated Central African Federation, which was essentially dominated by Southern Rhodesia. Growing African nationalism and general dissent, particularly in Nyasaland, persuaded Britain to dissolve the Union in 1963, forming three separate divisions. While multiracial democracy was finally introduced to Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, however, Southern Rhodesians of European ancestry continued to enjoy minority rule.
With Zambian independence, Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front (RF) dropped the designation “Southern” in 1964 and issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (commonly abbreviated to “UDI”) from the United Kingdom on 11 November 1965, intent on effectively repudiating the recently adopted British policy of “no independence before majority rule”. It was the first such course taken by a British colony since the American declaration of 1776, which Smith and others indeed claimed provided a suitable precedent to their own actions.
UDI and civil war (1965–1979)
Main articles: Rhodesia, Rhodesian Bush War, Zimbabwe Rhodesia, and Lancaster House Agreement
Ian Smith signing the Unilateral Declaration of Independence on 11 November 1965 with his cabinet in audience.
After the Unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), the British government petitioned the United Nations for sanctions against Rhodesia pending unsuccessful talks with the Smith government in 1966 and 1968. In December 1966, the organisation complied, imposing the first mandatory trade embargo on an autonomous state. These sanctions were expanded again in 1968.
The United Kingdom deemed the Rhodesian declaration an act of rebellion, but did not re-establish control by force. A guerilla war subsequently ensued when Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), supported actively by neighbouring African nations, initiated guerilla operations against the white government.
Ian Smith’s formation of a republic in 1970 was recognised only by South Africa, then governed under apartheid. Meanwhile, Rhodesia’s internal conflict intensified, eventually forcing him to open negotiations with the militant nationalists.
Bishop Abel Muzorewa signs the Lancaster House Agreement seated next to British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington.
In March 1978, Smith reached an accord with three African leaders, led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who offered to leave the white population comfortably entrenched in exchange for the establishment of a biracial democracy. As a result of the Internal Settlement, elections were held in April 1979, concluding with the United African National Council (UANC) carrying a majority of parliamentary seats. On 1 June 1979, Muzorewa, the UANC head, became prime minister and the country’s name was changed to Zimbabwe Rhodesia. The internal settlement left control of the police, security forces, civil service and judiciary in settler hands. It also reserved one-third of the seats in parliament for whites. On 12 June, the United States Senate voted to lift economic pressure on the former Rhodesia.
Following the fifth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held in Lusaka, Zambia from 1 to 7 August in 1979, the British government invited Muzorewa, Mugabe, and Nkomo to participate in a constitutional conference at Lancaster House. The purpose of the conference was to discuss and reach an agreement on the terms of an independence constitution, and provide for elections supervised under British authority allowing Zimbabwe Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence.
With Lord Carrington, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom, in the chair, these discussions were mounted from 10 September to 15 December in 1979, producing a total of 47 plenary sessions. On 21 December 1979, delegations from every major interest represented reached the Lancaster House Agreement, effectively ending the guerilla war.
During the elections of February 1980, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU secured a landslide victory. Opposition to what was perceived as a Shona takeover immediately erupted around Matabeleland. The Matabele unrest led to what has become known as ‘Gukurahundi’ (Shona: “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”) or the Matabeleland Massacres, which lasted from 1982 until 1985. It has been estimated that at least 20,000 Matabele were murdered and tens of thousands of others were tortured in military internment camps. The slaughter only ended after Nkomo and Mugabe reached a unity agreement in 1988 that merged their respective parties, creating the Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front.
Zimbabwean elections in March 1990 resulted in another victory for Mugabe and his party, which claimed 117 of the 120 contested seats. Observers found the campaign to be “neither free nor fair”. During the 1990s, students, trade unionists, and workers often demonstrated to express their growing discontent with increasingly despotic Mugabe rule. In 1996, civil servants, nurses, and junior doctors went on strike over salary issues. The general health of the civilian population also began to significantly founder. By 1997 an estimated 25% of the population of Zimbabwe had been infected by HIV.
Land issues re-emerged as the main issue for the ruling party around 1997. Despite the existence of a “willing-buyer-willing-seller” land reform programme since the 1980s, white Zimbabweans continued to hold about 70% of the most arable land. Robert Mugabe began to forcibly redistribute this land to his associates in 2000. Mandatory confiscation of white farmland was affected by continuous droughts, as well as a serious lacking in inputs and finance, leading to a sharp decline in agricultural exports, which was traditionally the country’s leading export-producing sector. Some 58,000 independent black farmers have since experienced limited success in reviving the gutted cash crop sectors through efforts on a smaller scale.
Charged with committing numerous human rights abuses and running the economy of his own nation into the ground, Mugabe found himself beset with a wide range of sanctions. In 2002, the nation was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations due to the reckless farm seizures and blatant election tampering. The following year, Zimbabwean officials voluntarily terminated its Commonwealth membership.
Following fraudulent elections in 2005, the government initiated “Operation Murambatsvina”, an effort to crack down on illegal markets and slums emerging in towns and cities, leaving a substantial section of urban poor homeless. On 29 March 2008, Zimbabwe held a presidential election along with a parliamentary election. The results of this election were withheld for two weeks, after which it was generally acknowledged that the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) had achieved a majority of one seat in the lower house of parliament.
In late 2008, problems in Zimbabwe reached crisis proportions in the areas of living standards, public health (with a major cholera outbreak in December) and various basic affairs. In September 2008, a power-sharing agreement was reached between Tsvangirai and President Mugabe, permitting the former to hold the office of prime minister. Due to ministerial differences between their respective political parties, the agreement was not fully implemented until 13 February 2009. A 2011 survey by Freedom House suggests that living conditions have improved since the power-sharing agreement. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs states in its 2012–2013 planning document that the “humanitarian situation has improved in Zimbabwe since 2009, but conditions remain precarious for many people”.
A new constitution approved in the Zimbabwean constitutional referendum, 2013 curtails presidential powers and will lead to an election to decide whether Robert Mugabe extends his three-decade rule.
Geography and environment
Geography of Zimbabwe
Zambezi River in the Mana Pools National Park
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in southern Africa, lying between latitudes 15° and 23°S, and longitudes 25° and 34°E. Most of the country is elevated in the central plateau (high veld) stretching from the southwest to the northwest at altitudes between 1,200 and 1,600 m. The country’s east is mountainous with Mount Nyangani as the highest point at 2,592 m. About 20% of the country consists of the low veld under 900m. Victoria Falls, one of the world’s biggest and most spectacular waterfalls, is located in the country’s northwest as part of the Zambezi river. The country has a tropical climate with a rainy season usually from late October to March. The climate is moderated by the altitude. Zimbabwe is faced with recurring droughts; and severe storms are rare.
Flora and fauna
Elephant at water hole in Hwange National Park
The country is mostly savanna, although the moist and mountainous east supports tropical evergreen and hardwood forests. Trees include teak and mahogany, knobthorn, msasa and baobab. Among the numerous flowers and shrubs are hibiscus, spider lily, leonotus, cassia, tree wisteria and dombeya.
There are around 350 species of mammals that can be found in Zimbabwe. There are also many snakes and lizards, over 500 bird species, and 131 fish species.
Large parts of Zimbabwe were once covered by forests with an abundant wildlife. Deforestation and poaching has reduced the amount wildlife. Woodland degradation and deforestation, due to population growth, urban expansion and lack of fuel, are a major concern and have led to erosion and land degradation which diminish the amount of fertile soil. Zimbabwe is a country that relies mostly on hydroelectric power. Zimbabwe had once relied heavily on electricity from Mozambique and other neighbouring countries, but due to the accumulation of debt Mozambique has cut off Zimbabwe’s power supply. This has caused ZESA, Zimbabwe’s main electricity supplier, to begin excessive load shedding all over Zimbabwe with some urban areas only having electricity three days a week. Thus the amount of deforestation has increased as the population in urban areas has also started using firewood for fuel whereas before it was mainly the rural population due to lack of electricity in the rural areas.
A n’anga (Traditional Healer) of the majority (70%) Shona people, holding a kudu horn trumpet
Zimbabwe’s total population is 12 million. According to the United Nations World Health Organisation, the life expectancy for men was 37 years and the life expectancy for women was 34 years of age, the lowest in the world in 2006. An association of doctors in Zimbabwe has made calls for President Mugabe to make moves to assist the ailing health service. The HIV infection rate in Zimbabwe was estimated to be 14% for people aged 15–49 in 2009. UNESCO reported a decline in HIV prevalence among pregnant women from 26% in 2002 to 21% in 2004.
Some 85% of Zimbabweans are Christian; 62% of the population attends religious services regularly. The largest Christian churches are Anglican, Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist and Methodist. As in other African countries, Christianity may be mixed with enduring traditional beliefs. Besides Christianity, ancestral worship is the most practised non-Christian religion, involving spiritual intercession; the Mbira Dza Vadzimu, which means “Voice of the Ancestors”, an instrument related to many lamellophones ubiquitous throughout Africa, is central to many ceremonial proceedings. Mwari simply means “God the Creator” (musika vanhu in Shona). Around 1% of the population is Muslim.
Bantu-speaking ethnic groups make up 98% of the population. The majority people, the Shona, comprise 70%. The Ndebele are the second most populous with 20% of the population. The Ndebele descended from Zulu migrations in the 19th century and the other tribes with which they intermarried. Up to one million Ndebele may have left the country over the last five years, mainly for South Africa. Other Bantu ethnic groups make up the third largest with 2 to 5%. These are Venda, Tonga, Shangaan, Kalanga, Sotho, Ndau and Nambya.
Minority ethnic groups include white Zimbabweans, who make up less than 1% of the total population. White Zimbabweans are mostly of British origin, but there are also Afrikaner, Greek, Portuguese, French and Dutch communities. The white population dropped from a peak of around 278,000 or 4.3% of the population in 1975 to possibly 120,000 in 1999 and was estimated to be no more than 50,000 in 2002, and possibly much less. Most emigration has been to the United Kingdom (between 200,000 and 500,000 Britons are of Rhodesian or Zimbabwean origin), South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Mixed-race citizens form 0.5% of the population and various Asian ethnic groups, mostly of Indian and Chinese origin, are also 0.5%.