Zimbabwe National History


Due to it’s pleasant climate, Zimbabwe has long been a centre of human habitation. By the 11th century a flourishing Shona civilisation known as the Monomotapa Empire had developed, with its capital at Great Zimbabwe. A hilltop fortress and walled enclosure formed by huge stone walls fitted without mortar can still be seen here. At one time, trading links extended beyond India.

By the 1830s, the expansion of the Zulu nation in South Africa was forcing neighbouring tribes to move way. The Ndebele moved north to occupy the southern part fo Zimbabwe, displacing some of the native Shona people.

In the 1890s, the British South Africa Company (BSAC), formed by Cecil Rhodes, moved into the territory of the Ndebele and Shona to exploit the mineral reserves found there. The company obtained a royal charter to administer the region, in the same manner as for the earlier colonisation of India by the British East India Company. The new colony was named Southern Rhodesia after the company’s founder. Ambitions to acquire a block of British territory stretching from the Cape to Cairo, and then build a railway on it, didn’t survive the death of Rhodes.

Between 1898 and 1923 Southern Rhodesia was governed by a British High Commissioner in South Africa, but the BSAC controlled all internal aspects of administration. In 1923 Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing colony. In the following years the settlers progressively constructed a racially segregated society, in which half of the land was allocated to the small number of whites, and the other half to the much larger black population.

In 1953 the colonies of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland joined together to form the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (also known as the Central African Federation). The federal capital was in Salisbury, and so Southern Rhodesian politicians had a major influence on the direction of the country. The years after World War Two saw a large increase in the number of white immigrant settlers arriving in southern Africa. Many found the social and economic conditions in Rhodesia ideal for commercial farming. The native black population favoured cattle rearing, and so there was no local tradition of intensive arable farming until white settlers arrived.

By the early 1960s, the decolonisation process was gathering momentum and in 1962 the Rhodesian Front (RF) was established by white settlers to oppose any move to black majority rule in the country. In 1963 the Federation broke up, because of African opposition to the undue dominance of Rhodesia’s white population. The northern colonies became independent countries, while Southern Rhodesia remained a British colony.

Negotiations with the British Government to secure independence failed to reach a settlement and so, after having had its position endorsed in a general election, the Rhodesian Government under Ian Smith announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) on 11 November 1965. In the following year African nationalists began a guerrilla war to force change, but the Rhodesian security forces were able to contain the violence for several years. At the same time economic sanctions were imposed, but these proved to be largely ineffective.

By the 1970s the Rhodesian security forces had forced the guerrillas to relocate to bases outside of the country, mainly on the Mozambique and Zambia borders. However, the independence from Portugal of politically sympathetic Mozambique in 1975 offered the guerrillas a secure base from which to plan and conduct operations. Also, the formation of the Patriotic Front (PF) alliance between the hitherto seriously divided ZANU (Shona) and ZAPU (Ndebele) guerilla groups further increased their military strength.

The worsening security situation and continuing pressure from South Africa finally forced the Rhodesian Government to attempt an internal settlement with moderate black leaders. Bishop Abel Muzorewa became the first black Prime Minister in 1978, of a country now called Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. He ruled for only about six months.

A settlement that didn’t include the Patriotic Front was doomed to failure, and so in 1979 new talks involving all parties were held at Lancaster House in London. In November 1979 agreement was reached on a new constitution that protected the whites while giving power to the black population. On 18 April 1980, Zimbabwe formally gained independence under Robert Mugabe, the ZANU-PF leader and newly elected Prime Minister.

Initially, a spirit of reconciliation oversaw government relations with the whites, but this did not extend to members of ZAPU-PF and other black political groups. ZAPU-PF was sidelined on every possible occasion and in 1983 ZAPU-PF leader Joshua Nkomo was sacked from the government. This led to severe unrest in Matabeleland, which was quelled with extreme violence by the army’s 5th Brigade, resulting in the deaths of up to 20,000 people. In late 1987 the weakened ZAPU-PF was absorbed into ZANU-PF, creating a virtual one-party state.

Mugabe’s control of the country was strengthened in 1988 by the move to a US-style executive presidency. In March 1992 parliament passed a law permitting the seizure (without compensation) of land from commercial farmers for redistribution to the poor. By 1996 intimidation and murder of political opponents by government supporters had become widespread. In the March 1996 presidential elections, the opposition candidates withdrew after the voting rules were changed to favour Mugabe, (one of these opposition candidates was ZANU founder Ndabaningi Sithole).

In 1997 the Zimbabwe Dollar tumbled to an unprecendented low level. A growing economic crisis provoked riots and strikes in 1998. In September 1999 the Zimbabwe Confederation of Trade Unions (ZCTU), civic groups, farmers and academics joined together to establish the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the first major opposition political party in more than ten years.

In February 2000 a referendum was held on a new draft constitution favoured by the government. The MDC ran a successful campaign for a ‘no’ vote, which angered pro-government activists – most notably Chenjerai Hunzvi, head of Zimbabwe’s War Veterans Association. Later that month, the War Veterans leadership organised the seizure of hundreds of white-owned farms by armed groups of squatters. Although described as ‘War Veterans’, most of the men involved were actually unemployed teenagers – far too young to have served in the liberation war which ended twenty years ago. Many thousands of black farm labourers where immediately put out of work, and much of the farmland fell into disuse as the new inhabitants had no experience of farming methods. The best farms became the property of members of the Mugabe family and senior government figures.

In the June 2000 parliamentary elections, the MDC managed to win 57 seats out of 120, despite widespread intimidation. This demonstrated the MDC’s growing appeal and the rapid decline in ZANU-PF support. In January and March 2002 laws were passed which seriously limited press freedom. Many foreign reporters were banned from entering Zimbabwe and local journalists were prosecuted for reporting ‘false news’.

During April 2002 a state of disaster was declared as worsening food shortages threatened to bring about a famine. Presidential elections were held in March 2002, amid a massive increase in political violence and intimidation. MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai was charged with treason just before the voting took place. Mugabe was quickly declared the election winner, despite condemnation of the process by independent observers.

In December 2002, evidence came to light that the ZANU-PF government was purposely preventing emergency food aid from reaching areas which supported the MDC in the recent elections. The Police were shown to be actively involved in diverting food to ZANU-PF members.

Upon independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had a balance of payments surplus, a low foreign debt and regularly exported surplus food. After two decades of Robert Mugabe’s rule, the economy is in rapid decline, a land crisis has been created, political instability increases daily and much of the population is starving. A famine looms.

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