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The wonderful ancient rock art dotted around Zimbabwe is testimony to early Khoisan p­eople, hunter-gatherers who inhabited Zimbabwe from the 5th century. They retreated to the southeast when Bantu settlers from the north began arriving in the 10th century.

In the 11th century a powerful and wealthy Shona dynasty rose at Great Zimbabwe in the vicinity of modern-day Masvingo, and Swahili traders began trading there. They were followed by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, but by then the Great Zimbabwe society had crumbled and the Shona dynasties had fractured into autonomous states.

In the 1830s Ndebele warrior people from the south arrived in Zimbabwe, and a few years later their chief, Mzilikazi, established his capital at Bulawayo. Later that century the Ndebele, under Mzilikazi’s son Lobengula, were to put up great resistance to British settlers.


In 1888 Cecil John Rhodes, an ambitious colonial entrepreneur, formed the British South Africa Company (BSAC) and colonised Zimbabwe, establishing the capital at Fort Salisbury (Harare). The colonists appropriated farmlands, and by 1895 the new country was being referred to as Rhodesia. A white legislature was set up, and European immigration began in earnest. In the late 1890s the Shona and Ndebele combined forces against the British pioneers in the first Chimurenga, or Umvukela (war for liberation), but were defeated.

Over the following decades a series of laws discriminating against indigenous people were established. Not surprisingly, they led to black opposition. In the 1950s and 1960s two African parties, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), emerged, but it wasn’t long before they were banned and their leaders imprisoned. In 1966 the second Chimurenga began, and a long, bloody bush war between freedom fighters and Rhodesian forces was waged until the late 1970s.

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Hostilities ended with independence in 1980. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe, the ZANU candidate, its first prime minister (in 1989 he became the executive president). Rivalries between the two main parties – ZANU (mostly Shona) and ZAPU (mostly Ndebele) – were shelved before independence. But after 1980 differences quickly surfaced.

In response to some mutterings of ZAPU rebels, Prime Minister Mugabe sent in his North Korean–trained Fifth Brigade to the heart of the country and Ndebele-majority land. The result was horrific massacres in which tens of thousands of civilians, sometimes entire villages, were slaughtered. A world eager to revere Mr Mugabe and show apartheid South Africa an example of a harmonious Zimbabwe closed its eyes. The eyes of Zimbabweans’ were forced shut. A peace deal was later signed – ostensibly forced by the threat of more military action – between the ruling ZANU and the minority ZAPU. Zimbabwe’s one-party state had begun.

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Life as the opposition

A number of opposition parties came and went between 1990 and 1997, most led by former ruling-party stalwarts. The arrival, however, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – borne from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions – brought waves of new hope and real opportunity for the end of Mugabe’s era.

Ironically, the MDC’s greatest success led to its ultimate defeat. 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.

The tide had turned and it seemed a clear majority of the highly educated populace wanted change. Mugabe responded to the threat of defeat with waves of violence, voter intimidation, and a chaotic and destructive ‘land reform’ programme. Despite this, and the election being damned by the US and European Union 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 stolen by Mugabe.

The next parliamentary election – in 2005 –was not so close. Mugabe and his security and propaganda network 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 bought with 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 ballot role. The result was that Mugabe not only guaranteed victory in the 2005 elections, but was brazen enough to steal a two-thirds majority and hence change the ability to alter Zimbabwe’s constitution and pave the way for a successor of his choice. Mass protests are continually planned against government, but people appear more concerned with feeding their families than fighting the well-armed state.

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The land fiasco

With the economy in dire straits and Mugabe furious that white farmers had supported the MDC, the president played the race card. Hoping to win the support of the majority peasant population and pacify war veterans, he began violently confiscating land from white commercial farmers for resettlement by African farmers.

Few independent observers will disagree that land reform was necessary in Zimbabwe, where prior to 2000, 70% of the best land was owned by around 4000 white commercial farmers. But Mugabe’s policy had little to do with equitable distribution of land, and much to do with power. Hundreds of black farm workers were killed, along with scores of white farmers. Land was given to ministers, party faithful and foreign friends. Some genuine farmers attempted to work their new land, though critical shortages of fuel, seed and fertiliser meant their efforts came to none. Other farm invaders simply stole crops, stripped houses, machinery and irrigation systems, then fled, leaving millions of acres of land idle. Every now and then various ministers mention that it may be time to invite some white farmers back, but in reality, farm invasions continue with more than tacit government support.

The results have devastated the country and its people.

It is, of course, necessary to put Zimbabwe’s current tragedy into the context from which it emerged. Though none of this is much use to Zimbabweans, who now find themselves suffering more than during colonial days.

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Pain in the cities

In May 2005 the Zimbabwean government began a demolition campaign that over the next three cold months destroyed urban markets and homes, arbitrarily arresting market vendors and locking up street children. The operation – named Murambatsvina (or ‘drive out the trash’) – particularly targeted the poor. Coming on top of massive unemployment and in the midst of winter, the operation brought almost one million Zimbabweans closer to their knees.

President Mugabe said he wanted people to return to their rural homes, and that the operation was to clean up ‘a chaotic state of affairs’ in the informal sector. A more widely held view is that after successful revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Zimbabwean government – now by any measure a dictatorship – was making a pre-emptive strike against densely populated areas that opposed his government. By de-urbanising cities, the government could send people to rural areas where it controlled food.

The result was devastating. A report released by a UN Special Envoy to Zimbabwe said the nationwide operation had destroyed the homes and/or livelihood of 700, 000 Zimbabweans, indirectly affected one out of five Zimbabweans, and had left the country ‘deeper in poverty, deprivation and destitution’. It was, said the UN, ‘the worst possible thing at the worst possible time’.

Zimbabwe today

In February 2009 Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) signed a coalition deal with Mugabe's ZANU-PF. For a time the deal led to renewed optimism that Mugabe may eventually release his iron grip on power. So far the agreement has held although Tsvangirai claimed in 2011 that ZANU-PF violence had rendered the coalition impotent. In December 2011 Mugabe denounced the power-sharing deal as a 'monster' and announced his intentions to run in the next elections.

For the latest information check out the BBC's Zimbabwe profile.

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