Officially the Republic of Zimbabwe is a landlocked country located in southern Africa, between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, bordered by South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique. The capital and largest city is Harare. A country of roughly 16 million people, Zimbabwe has 16 official languages, with English, Shona, and Ndebele the most commonly used.
Since the 11th century, present-day Zimbabwe has been the site of several organised states and kingdoms as well as a major route for migration and trade. The British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes first demarcated the present territory during the 1890s; it became the self-governing British colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1923. In 1965, the conservative white minority government unilaterally declared independence as Rhodesia. The state endured international isolation and a 15-year guerrilla war with black-nationalist forces; this culminated in a peace agreement that established universal enfranchisement and de jure sovereignty as Zimbabwe in April 1980. Zimbabwe then joined the Commonwealth of Nations, which it withdrew from in December 2003. It is a member of the United Nations, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU), and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). It was once known as the “Jewel of Africa” for its prosperity.
Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980, when his ZANU-PF party won the elections following the end of white minority rule; he was the President of Zimbabwe from 1987 until his resignation in 2017. Under Mugabe’s authoritarian regime, the state security apparatus dominated the country and was responsible for widespread human rights violations. Mugabe maintained the revolutionary socialist rhetoric of the Cold War era, blaming Zimbabwe’s economic woes on conspiring Western capitalist countries. Contemporary African political leaders were reluctant to criticise Mugabe, who was burnished by his anti-imperialist credentials, though Archbishop Desmond Tutu called him “a cartoon figure of an archetypal African dictator”.The country has been in economic decline since the 1990s, experiencing several crashes and hyperinflation along the way.
On 15 November 2017, in the wake of over a year of protests against his government as well as Zimbabwe’s rapidly declining economy, Mugabe was placed under house arrest by the country’s national army in a coup d’état. On 19 November 2017, ZANU-PF sacked Robert Mugabe as party leader and appointed former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa in his place. On 21 November 2017, Mugabe tendered his resignation prior to impeachment proceedings being completed.
The name “Zimbabwe” stems from a Shona term for Great Zimbabwe, an ancient ruined city in the country’s south-east whose remains are now a protected site. Two different theories address the origin of the word. Many sources hold that “Zimbabwe” derives 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 live around Great Zimbabwe in the modern-day province of Masvingo. Archaeologist Peter Garlake claims that “Zimbabwe” represents a contracted form of dzimba-hwe, which means “venerated houses” in the Zezuru dialect of Shona and usually references chiefs’ houses or graves.
Zimbabwe was formerly known as Southern Rhodesia (1898), Rhodesia (1965), and Zimbabwe Rhodesia (1979). The first recorded use of “Zimbabwe” as a term of national reference dates from 1960 as a coinage 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 British colonisation of the territory during the late 19th century—was perceived by African nationalists 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, proposing names such as “Matshobana” and “Monomotapa” 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 unclear 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 Mawema mentioned the name during a political rally, “and it caught hold, and that was that”. The black nationalist factions subsequently used the name during the Second Chimurenga campaigns against the Rhodesian government during the Rhodesian Bush War of 1964–1979. Major factions in this camp included 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).