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History of Zimbabwe

History of Zimbabwe Description

Following the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979 there was a transition to internationally recognised majority rule in 1980; the United Kingdom ceremonially granted Zimbabwe independence on 18 April that year. In the 2000s Zimbabwe’s economy began to deteriorate due to various factors, including mismanagement and corruption, the imposition of sanctions, such as among others the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, following the switch from Willing Buyer, Willing Seller to Fast Track land reform. Economic instability led several members of Military of Zimbabwe the military to try to overthrow the government in a coup d’état in 2007. Prior to its recognised independence as Zimbabwe in 1980, the nation had been known by several names: Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Zimbabwe Rhodesia.

Pre-Colonial era (1000–1887)

Prior to the arrival of Bantu speakers in present-day Zimbabwe the region was populated by ancestors of the San people who were present in the region when the first Bantu-speaking farmers arrived during the Bantu expansion around 2000 years ago.

These Bantu speakers were the makers of early Iron Age pottery belonging to the Silver Leaves or Matola tradition, third to fifth centuries A.D. found in southeast Zimbabwe. This tradition was part of the eastern stream of Bantu expansion  which originated west of the Great Lakes, spreading to the coastal regions of southeastern Kenya and north eastern Tanzania, and then southwards to Mozambique, south eastern Zimbabwe and Natal. More substantial in numbers in Zimbabwe were the makers of the Ziwa and Gokomere ceramic wares, of the fourth century A.D. Their early Iron Age ceramic tradition belonged to the highlands facies of the eastern stream, which moved inland to Malawi and Zimbabwe. Imports of beads have been found at Gokomere and Ziwa sites, possibly in return for gold exported to the coast.

A later phase of the Gokomere culture was the Zhizo in southern Zimbabwe. Zhizo communities settled in the Shashe-Limpopo area in the tenth century. Their capital there was Schroda (just across the Limpopo River from Zimbabwe). Many fragments of ceramic figurines have been recovered from there, figures of animals and birds and also fertility dolls. The inhabitants produced ivory bracelets and other ivory goods. Imported beads found there and at other Zhizo sites are evidence of trade, probably of ivory and skins, with traders on the Indian Ocean coast.

Another question is the branches of the Bantu languages which they spoke. It seems that the makers of the Ziwa/Gokomere wares were not the ancestral speakers of the Shona languages of today’s Zimbabwe who did not arrive in there until around the tenth century from south of the Limpopo river and whose ceramic culture belonged to the western stream. The linguist and historian Ehret believes that in view of the similarity of the Ziwa/Gokomere pottery to the Nkope of the ancestral Nyasa language speakers, the Ziwa/Gokomere people spoke a language closely related to the Nyasa group. Their language, whatever it was, was superseded by the ancestral Shona languages, although Ehret says that a set of Nyasa words occur in central Shona dialects today.

The evidence that the ancestral Shona speakers came from South Africa is that the ceramic styles associated with Shona speakers in Zimbabwe from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries can be traced back to western stream (Kalunndu) pottery styles in South Africa. The Ziwa/Gokomere and Zhizo traditions were superseded by Leopards Kopje and Gumanye wares of the Kalundu tradition from the tenth century.

Colonial era (1888–1980)

In the 1880s, the British arrived with Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company. In 1898, the name Southern Rhodesia was adopted. In 1888, British colonialist Cecil Rhodes obtained a concession for mining rights from King Lobengula of the Ndebele peoples. Cecil Rhodes presented this concession to persuade the government of the United Kingdom to grant a royal charter to his British South Africa Company (BSAC) over Matabeleland and its subject states such as Mashonaland. Rhodes sought permission to negotiate similar concessions covering all territory between the Limpopo River and Lake Tanganyika, then known as ‘Zambesia’.

The Shona staged unsuccessful revolts (known as Chimurenga) against encroachment upon their lands, by clients of BSAC and Cecil Rhodes in 1896 and 1897. Following the failed insurrections of 1896–97 the Ndebele and Shona groups became subject to Rhodes’s administration thus precipitating European settlement en masse which led to land distribution disproportionately favouring Europeans, displacing the Shona, Ndebele and other indigenous peoples.

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.

In 1953, in the face of African opposition, Britain consolidated the two colonies of Rhodesia with Nyasaland (now Malawi) in the ill-fated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland which was dominated by Southern Rhodesia. Growing African nationalism and general dissent, particularly in Nyasaland persuaded Britain to dissolve the Union in 1963, forming three colonies.

As colonial rule was ending throughout the continent and as African-majority governments assumed control in neighbouring Northern Rhodesia and in Nyasaland, the white-minority Rhodesia government led by Ian Smith made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from the United Kingdom on 11 November 1965. The United Kingdom deemed this an act of rebellion but did not re-establish control by force.

The white-minority government declared itself a “republic” in 1970. A civil war ensued with Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU and Robert Mugabe’s ZANU using assistance from the governments of Zambia and Mozambique. Although Smith’s declaration was not recognised by the United Kingdom nor any other power, Southern Rhodesia dropped the designation ‘Southern’ and claimed nation status as the Republic of Rhodesia in 1970 although this was not recognised internationally.

Independence and the 1980s

In the election Mugabe’s ZANU party wins a decisive victory over Nkomo and ZAPU. The newly independent nation takes the ancient name Zimbabwe. Mugabe rules at the start in a conciliatory manner. The provisions to protect European political rights are respected (Smith continues to serve as a member of parliament until 1987). And Nkomo is brought into the cabinet.

However there is an underlying conflict between ZANU and ZAPU. The former draws its support from the majority Shona people, while ZAPU is linked with the minority (but historically dominant) Ndebele. Tribal hostilities become a noticeable feature of Zimbabwe’s political life after Mugabe dismisses Nkomo from his cabinet in 1982, just two years after independence.

In 1987 the two leaders make a new attempt to resolve the nation’s divisions by merging their parties as ZANU-PF, making Zimbabwe effectively a one-party state. At the same time the constitution is changed to give Mugabe the role of executive president. Nkomo subsequently serves as a vice president (until his death in 1999).

During the 1980s Mugabe’s Marxist policies do harm to the economy, but in the changing fashion of the 1990s there is a move towards a market system. There is also a token gesture towards multiparty democracy, though this does nothing to prevent ZANU-PF winning 98% of the seats in parliament in 1995. In 1996 Mugabe is elected unopposed for a new six-year term as president.

Several factors cause widespread unease about Zimbabwe after twenty years of independence. Political opponents are persecuted. Sithole, for example, is evicted from his farm in 1994 and is arrested in 1995 for allegedly plotting to assassinate Mugabe. It is widely suspected that the underlying purpose in each case is to dissuade him from standing as a presidential candidate in 1996.

The white community is unsettled by frequently announced plans to appropriate many of their farms without compensation, for redistribution to Africans. And there are allegations of financial corruption in senior government circles.

The underlying tensions flare up in dramatic fashion during the first half of 2000. In February Mugabe is defeated in a referendum designed to increase his hold on power. His immediate response is to escalate his long-standing campaign to appropriate the larger commercial farms owned by white Rhodesians. Mugabe’s armed supporters, described as veterans of the war for independence, forcibly occupy some 500 farms (out of a total of 4500 owned by whites).

Meanwhile a new opposition party – the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), formed in January and led by a trade unionist, Morgan Tsvangirai – shows signs of being able to mount a very serious challenge to ZANU-PF in forthcoming elections.

The election campaign is marred by high levels of violence and intimidation from Mugabe supporters, resulting in thirty or more deaths. Even so, the result is close. ZANU-PF wins 62 seats in the new assembly, with MDC just short of victory with 57.

Immediately after the election, in June 2000, Mugabe publishes a list of 804 large commercial farms (most, but not all, white-owned) which are to be appropriated by the state for the resettlement of peasants. He insists that compensation is the responsibility of the British government.

This is something which in principle is agreed in London, since it is widely recognized that the ancestors of the British farmers claimed dubious ownership over these lands a mere hundred years ago. On independence in 1980 there was an agreed scheme for compensation. It was discontinued by Britain in 1988 on the grounds that the benefit was accruing not to Zimbabwe’s peasants but to the political elite (of 2000 farms acquired by the government in this way, 420 were transferred to the ownership of prominent ZANU-PF supporters).

The land problem is likely to remain on Zimbabwe’s political agenda rather longer than Mugabe himself, whose dictatorial behaviour and attempts to cling to power become increasingly extreme as the new millennium progresses.


Divisions within the opposition MDC had begun to fester early in the decade, after Morgan Tsvangirai was lured into a government sting operation that videotaped him talking of Mr. Mugabe’s removal from power. He was subsequently arrested and put on trial on treason charges. This crippled his control of party affairs and raised questions about his competence. It also catalysed a major split within the party. In 2004 he was acquitted, but not until after suffering serious abuse and mistreatment in prison. The opposing faction was led by Welshman Ncube who was the general secretary of the party. In mid-2004, vigilantes loyal to Mr. Tsvangirai began attacking members who were mostly loyal to Ncube, climaxing in a September raid on the party’s Harare headquarters in which the security director was nearly thrown to his death.

In May 2005 the government began Operation Murambatsvina. It was officially billed to rid urban areas of illegal structures, illegal business enterprises and criminal activities. In practice its purpose was to punish political opponents. The UN estimates 700,000 people have been left without jobs or homes as a result. Families and traders, especially at the beginning of the operation, were often given no notice before police destroyed their homes and businesses. Others were able to salvage some possessions and building materials but often had nowhere to go, despite the government’s statement that people should be returning to their rural homes. Thousands of families were left unprotected in the open in the middle of Zimbabwe’s winter. The government interfered with non-governmental organisation (NGO) efforts to provide emergency assistance to the displaced in many instances. Some families were removed to transit campswhere they had no shelter or cooking facilities and minimal food, supplies and sanitary facilities. The operation continued into July 2005, when the government began a program to provide housing for the newly displaced.

2006 to 2007

In August 2006 runaway inflation forced the government to replace its existing currency with a revalued one. In December 2006, ZANU-PF proposed the “harmonisation” of the parliamentary and presidential election schedules in 2010; the move was seen by the opposition as an excuse to extend Mugabe’s term as president until 2010.

Zimbabwe’s bakeries shut down in October 2007 and supermarkets warned that they would have no bread for the foreseeable future due to collapse in wheat production after the seizure of white-owned farms. The ministry of agriculture has also blamed power shortages for the wheat shortfall, saying that electricity cuts have affected irrigation and halved crop yields per acre. The power shortages are because Zimbabwe relies on Mozambique for some of its electricity and that due to an unpaid bill of $35 million Mozambique had reduced the amount of electrical power it supplies. On 4 December 2007, The United States imposed travel sanctions against 38 people with ties to President Mugabe because they “played a central role in the regime’s escalated human rights abuses.

Deterioration of the educational system

The educational system in Zimbabwe which was once regarded as among the best in Africa, has gone into crisis because of the country’s economic meltdown. Almost a quarter of the teachers have quit the country, absenteeism is high, buildings are crumbling and standards plummeting. One foreign reporter witnessed hundreds of children at Hatcliffe Extension Primary School in Epworth, 12 miles west of Harare, writing in the dust on the floor because they had no exercise books or pencils. The high school exam system unravelled in 2007. Examiners refused to mark examination papers when they were offered just Z$79 a paper enough to buy three small candies.

Corruption has crept into the system and may explain why in January 2007 thousands of pupils received no marks for subjects they had entered, while others were deemed “excellent” in subjects they had not sat. Various disused offices and storerooms have been turned into makeshift brothels at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare by students and staff who have turned to prostitution to make ends meet. Students are destitute following the institution’s refusal in July to re-open their halls of residence, effectively banning students from staying on campus. Student leaders believe this was part of the administration’s plan to take revenge on them for their demonstrations over deteriorating standards.

2008 elections

Zimbabwe held a presidential election along with a 2008 parliamentary election of 29 March. The three major candidates were incumbent President Robert Mugabe of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T), and Simba Makoni, an independent. As no candidate received an outright majority in the first round, a second round was held on 27 June 2008 between Tsvangirai (with 47.9% of the first round vote) and Mugabe (43.2%). Tsvangirai withdrew from the second round a week before it was scheduled to take place, citing violence against his party’s supporters. The second round went ahead, despite widespread criticism, and led to victory for Mugabe.

Marange diamond fields massacre

In November 2008 the Air Force of Zimbabwe was sent, after some police officers began refusing orders to shoot the illegal miners at Marange diamond fields. Up to 150 of the estimated 30,000 illegal miners were shot from helicopter gunships. In 2008 some Zimbabwean lawyers and opposition politicians from Mutare claimed that Shiri was the prime mover behind the military assaults on illegal diggers in the diamond mines in the east of Zimbabwe. Estimates of the death toll by mid-December range from 83 reported by the Mutare City Council, based on a request for burial ground, to 140 estimated by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai party.


In January 2009, Morgan Tsvangirai announced that he would do as the leaders across Africa had insisted and join a coalition government as prime minister with his nemesis, President Robert Mugabe . On 11 February 2009 Tsvangirai was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.By 2009 inflation had peaked at 500 billion % per year under the Mugabe government and the Zimbabwe currency was worthless. The opposition shared power with the Mugabe regime between 2009 and 2013, Zimbabwe switched to using the US dollar as currency and the economy improved reaching a growth rate of 10% per year.

In 2013 the Mugabe government won an election which The Economist described as rigged, doubled the size of the civil service and embarked on misrule and dazzling corruption.

Some Key Events in Zimbabwe’s History

1200-1600 – Era of the Monomotapa Empire, noted for international trade, gold mining and the construction of Great Zimbabwe, now a World Heritage site.

1889-23 – Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company uses British mandate to colonise what becomes Southern Rhodesia.

1965 – Prime Minister Ian Smith unilaterally declares independence from Britain under white-minority rule, leading to international isolation.

1980 – Independence following lengthy guerrilla war. Zanu party wins elections and Robert Mugabe becomes prime minister.

1983-87 – Gukurahundi campaign, in which 20,000 are thought to have been killed in Matabeleland by Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade. The violence ends following a unity accord, when the Zapu party is absorbed into the renamed governing Zanu-PF party.

1998-2002 – Zimbabwe intervenes in civil war in DR Congo.

2000s – Land redistribution: White farmers forced off land.

2002 – Commonwealth suspends Zimbabwe after disputed presidential election.

2008 – Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai beats Mugabe in the presidential election but is forced to withdraw from a run-off after his supporters become the target of increased violence.

2009 – Mugabe’s Zanu-PF loses parliamentary majority forcing power-sharing deal with Tsvangirai’s MDC which lasts until 2013.

2017 – Top army commander General Constantino Chiwenga warns of possible military intervention in the wake of factional fighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party.