The Shona Kingdoms & the Portuguese

In the 11th century, the city of Great Zimbabwe was wealthy and powerful from trading gold and ivory for glass, porcelain and cloth from Asia with Swahili traders. By the 15th century, however, its influence was in decline because of overpopulation, overgrazing, political fragmentation and uprisings.

During this twilight period, Shona dynasties fractured into autonomous states. In the 16th century Portuguese traders arrived in search of riches and golden cities in the vast empire of Mwene Mutapa (or ‘Monomatapa’ to the Europeans). They hoped to find King Solomon’s mines and the mysterious land of Ophir.

A new alliance of Shona was formed – the Rozwi State – which covered over half of present-day Zimbabwe, until 1834 when Ndebele (Those Who Carry Long Shields) raiders, under the command of Mzilikazi, invaded from what is now South Africa. They assassinated the Rozwi leader. Upon reaching the Matobo Hills, Mzilikazi established a Ndebele state. After Mzilikazi’s death in 1870, his son, Lobengula, ascended the throne and relocated the Ndebele capital to Bulawayo.

Lobengula soon came face to face with the British South African Company (BSAC). In 1888 Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the company, urged him to sign the Rudd Concession, which granted foreigners mineral rights in exchange for 10,000 rifles, 100,000 rounds of ammunition, a gun-boat and £100 each month.

But a series of misunderstandings followed. Lobengula sent a group of Ndebele raiders to Fort Victoria (near Masvingo) to stop Shona interference between the British and the Ndebele. The British mistook this as aggression and launched an attack on Matabeleland. Lobengula’s kraals (hut villages) were destroyed and Bulawayo was burned. A peace offering of gold sent by Lobengula to the BSAC was commandeered by company employees. Ignorant of this gesture, the vengeful British sent the Shangani River Patrol to track down the missing king and finish him off. In the end, Lobengula died in exile of smallpox.

Without their king, the Ndebele continued to resist the BSAC and foreign rule. In the early 1890s they allied themselves with the Shona and guerrilla warfare broke out against the BSAC in the Matobo Hills. When Rhodes suggested a negotiated settlement, the Ndebele, with their depleted numbers, couldn’t refuse.

Meanwhile, finding little gold, the colonists appropriated farmlands on the Mashonaland Plateau. By 1895 the new country came to be called Rhodesia, after its founder, and a white legislature was set up. European immigration began in earnest: by 1904 there were some 12,000 settlers in the country, and seven years later the figure had doubled.

Beginnings of Nationalism

Conflicts between blacks and whites came into sharp focus after the 1922 referendum, in which the whites chose to become a self-governing colony rather than join the Union of South Africa. Although Rhodesia’s constitution was, in theory, nonracial, suffrage was based on British citizenship and annual income, so few blacks qualified. In 1930 white supremacy was legislated in the form of the Land Apportionment Act, which disallowed black Africans from ownership of the best farmland, and a labour law that excluded them from skilled trades and professions.

Poor wages and conditions eventually led to a rebellion and by the time Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were federated, in 1953, mining and industrial concerns favoured a more racially mixed middle class as a counterweight to the radical elements in the labour force.

Two African parties soon emerged – the Zimbabwe African Peoples' Union (ZAPU), under Joshua Nkomo, and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), a breakaway group under Ndabaningi Sithole. Following the federation’s break-up in 1963 and independence for Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) – ZAPU and ZANU were banned and their leaders imprisoned.

Ian Smith & the War for Independence

In 1964 Ian Smith took over the Rhodesian presidency and began pressing for independence. British prime minister Harold Wilson argued for conditions to be met before Britain would agree: guarantee of racial equality, course towards majority rule and majority desire for independence. Smith realised the whites would never agree, so in 1965 he made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

Britain responded by declaring Smith’s action illegal and imposed economic sanctions, which were also adopted by the UN in 1968 (in reality, though, sanctions were ignored by most Western countries and even by some British companies). Meanwhile, ZANU and ZAPU opted for guerrilla warfare. Their raids struck deeper into the country with increasing ferocity and whites, most of whom had been born in Africa and knew no other home, abandoned their properties.

On 11 December 1974, South Africa’s John Vorster and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda persuaded Smith to call a ceasefire and release high-ranking nationalists (namely ZANU and ZAPU party leaders, including Robert Mugabe, who were imprisoned in 1964 during their struggle for majority black rule) and to begin peace negotiations. The talks, however, broke down; ZANU split and Mugabe fled to Mozambique. The following year, ZANU chairman Herbert Chitepo was assassinated in Lusaka by Rhodesian intelligence.

The nationalist groups fragmented and reformed. ZANU and ZAPU created an alliance known as the Patriotic Front (PF) and their military arms – Zipra and Zanla – combined to form the Zimbabwe People’s Army.

Smith, facing wholesale white emigration and a collapsing economy, was forced to try an ‘internal settlement’: Sithole and the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Abel Muzorewa, joined a so-called ‘transitional government’ in which whites were guaranteed 28 out of the 100 parliamentary seats; veto over all legislation for 10 years; guarantee of their property and pension rights; and control of the armed forces, police, judiciary and civil service. An amnesty was declared for PF guerrillas.

The effort was a dismal failure. Indeed, the only result was an escalation of the war. To salvage the settlement, Smith entered into secret negotiations with Nkomo, offering to ditch both Sithole and Muzorewa, but Nkomo proved to be intransigent. Finally, Smith was forced to call a general, nonracial election and hand over leadership to Muzorewa, but on much the same conditions as the ‘internal settlement’.


On 10 September 1979, delegations met at Lancaster House, London, to draw up a constitution favourable to both the PF of Nkomo and Mugabe, and the Zimbabwean Rhodesian government of Muzorewa and Smith. Mugabe, who wanted ultimate power, initially refused to make any concessions, but after 14 weeks the Lancaster House Agreement was reached. It guaranteed whites (then 3% of the population) 20 of the 100 parliamentary seats.

In the carefully monitored election of 4 March 1980, Mugabe prevailed by a wide margin and Zimbabwe and its majority-rule government joined the ranks of Africa’s independent nations.

Soon after the economy soared, wages increased and basic social programs – notably education and health care – were initiated. However, the initial euphoria, unity and optimism quickly faded: a resurgence of rivalry between ZANU (run mostly by Shona people) and ZAPU (mostly by Ndebele) escalated into armed conflict and the ZAPU leader, Nkomo, was accused of plotting against the government. Guerrilla activity resumed in ZAPU areas of Matabeleland and Mugabe deployed the North Korean–trained Fifth Brigade in early 1983 to quell the disturbances. Villagers were gunned down and prominent members of ZAPU were eliminated in order to root out ‘dissidents’. The result was massacres in which tens of thousands of civilians, sometimes entire villages, were slaughtered. A world that was eager to revere Mr Mugabe closed its eyes.

Nkomo, meanwhile, fled to England until Mugabe, as strife threatened to erupt into civil war, publicly relented and guaranteed his safe return. Talks resulted in a ZAPU and ZANU confederation (called ZANU-PF) and amnesty for the dissidents, thereby masterfully sweeping the matter – but not the underlying discontent – under the rug. Zimbabwe’s one-party state had begun.

Life as the Opposition

In 1999 thousands attended a Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) rally to launch the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Morgan Tsvangirai, the secretary general, stated he would lead a social democratic party fighting for workers’ interests. The arrival of the MDC brought waves of new hope and real opportunity for the end of Mugabe’s era.

In 2000 Mugabe’s chief propaganda architect, Jonathan Moyo, led the president’s campaign for a new constitution. Three months later – and despite the full weight of state media and Treasury – the president’s constitution was given the thumbs down by the people. It was Mugabe’s first defeat and it notified him of MDC’s very real strength at the ballot box. A parliamentary election was due later that year. Ironically, the MDC’s greatest success would soon lead to a nasty defeat.

Mugabe responded to the threat of defeat with waves of violence, voter intimidation and a destructive and controversial land-reform program that saw many white farmers lose their land. This resulted in a large exodus of a skilled, educated workforce (it is estimated up to 3 million left the country). Despite this, and the election being damned by the US and EU as ‘neither free nor fair’, the MDC lost by a mere four seats. Two years later Mugabe’s rule was under even greater threat during the country’s presidential elections. Again, an election marred by violence and intimidation, backed by a new set of repressive laws, with no independent monitors and huge numbers of voters turned away, was won by Mugabe.

The next parliamentary election – in 2005 – was not so close. Mugabe and his security and propaganda networks had had five years since 2000 to readjust the playing field. Newspapers were closed (bombed in one case); the state dominated print, radio and TV; voters were offered food (and threatened with no food); the leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, went through two treason trials; and up to one million ghost voters were created on the roll. Mugabe won the elections.

Mugabe’s toughest ever electoral challenges came in 2008 in the presidential and parliamentary elections. Although the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai had been able to campaign in rural areas that were closed to it in previous elections, the 2008 election was again seen as deeply flawed, with areas where the number of votes cast exceeded the number of enrolled voters. Following election day, with growing signs that Mugabe had lost, Mugabe’s men took more than a month to ‘count’ votes. When they were finally announced, Tsvangirai won 47.9% against Mugabe’s 43.2%. With neither man having attained 50%, a second round of voting was needed, before which Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF unleashed waves of violence across the countryside. MDC supporters who had shown their allegiance to the party before the first round of voting were now easily identified. Scores – perhaps hundreds – were killed, many more tortured and thousands fled. In an attempt to stop some of the violence against his supporters, Tsvangirai withdrew from the second round a week before it was scheduled to take place. The second round went ahead anyway and led to yet another victory for Mugabe.

But while South Africa under then-president Thabo Mbeki continued to support Mugabe, pressure from other areas was growing. The economy had officially collapsed, Mugabe could not pay his army or civil service, and then came the cholera, which killed more than 4000 people.

In February 2009, Morgan Tsvangirai signed a coalition deal with Zanu-PF, a mutual promise to restore the rule of law and to ‘ensure security of tenure to all land holders’. Nonetheless, violence and land grabs continued. While largely tokenistic, the two-party experiment of shared government did, however, provide the most stable political environment in Zimbabwe for the past decade.

The power-sharing government was short-lived, however, with Mugabe's Zanu PF winning the 2013 elections comfortably with 61% of the vote, a result Tsvangirai declared 'null and void' due to alleged vote rigging.

In the meantime a new constitution was introduced to see presidential stints limited to two five-year terms, a timeframe that conveniently shouldn't interfere with 92-year-old Mugabe's ambition to be president for life.

Meanwhile from 2013 to today reports of land grabs and voter intimidation continue, while the diamond watchdog Partnership Africa Canada reports that Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party has misappropriated profits from the lucrative diamond industry for its campaign have many concerned. Furthermore, in early 2013 the finance minister announced a paltry US$217 was all that was left in government accounts.