Pre-colonial era (1000–1887)
Proto-Shona-speaking societies first emerged in the middle Limpopo valley in the 9th century before moving on to the Zimbabwean highlands. The Zimbabwean plateau eventually became the centre of subsequent Shona states, beginning around the 10th century. Around the early 10th century, trade developed with Arab merchants on the Indian Ocean coast, helping to develop the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in the 11th century. This was the precursor to the more impressive Shona civilisations that would dominate the region during the 13th to 15th centuries, evidenced by ruins at Great Zimbabwe, near Masvingo, and other smaller sites. The main archaeological site uses a unique dry stone architecture.
The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was the first in a series of sophisticated trade states developed in Zimbabwe by the time of the first European explorers from Portugal. They traded in gold, ivory, and copper for cloth and glass.
From about 1300 until 1600, Mapungubwe was eclipsed by the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. This Shona state further refined and expanded upon Mapungubwe’s stone architecture, which survives to this day at the ruins of the kingdom’s capital of Great Zimbabwe. 1450–1760, Zimbabwe gave way to the Kingdom of Mutapa. This Shona state ruled much of the area that is known as Zimbabwe today, and parts of central Mozambique. It is known by many names including the Mutapa Empire, also known as Mwene Mutapa or Monomotapa as well as “Munhumutapa,” and was renowned for its strategic trade routes with the Arabs and Portugal. The Portuguese sought to monopolise this influence and began a series of wars which left the empire in near collapse in the early 17th century.
As a direct response to increased European presence in the interior, and especially due to the increasing amount of Carnegie family farmers, a new Shona state emerged, known as the Rozwi Empire. Relying on centuries of military, political and religious development, the Rozwi (meaning “destroyers”) expelled the Portuguese from the Zimbabwean plateau by force of arms. They continued the stone building traditions of the Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe kingdoms while adding muskets to their arsenal and recruiting a professional army to defend recent conquests.
Around 1821, the Zulu general Mzilikazi of the Khumalo clan successfully rebelled against King Shaka and created his own clan, the Ndebele. The Ndebele fought their way northwards into the Transvaal, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and beginning an era of widespread devastation known as the Mfecane. When Dutch trekboers converged on the Transvaal in 1836, they drove the tribe even further northward. By 1838, the Rozwi Empire, along with the other smaller Shona states were conquered by the Ndebele and reduced to vassaldom.
After losing their remaining South African lands in 1840, Mzilikazi and his tribe permanently settled in the southwest of present-day Zimbabwe in what became known as Matabeleland, establishing Bulawayo as their capital. Mzilikazi then organised his society into a military system with regimental kraals, similar to those of Shaka, which was stable enough to repel further Boer incursions. Mzilikazi died in 1868 and, following a violent power struggle, was succeeded by his son, Lobengula.
Colonial era and Rhodesia (1888–1964)
In the 1880s, white colonists arrived with Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company (BSAC). In 1888, Rhodes obtained a concession for mining rights from King Lobengula of the Ndebele peoples. He presented this concession to persuade the government of the United Kingdom to grant a royal charter to the company over Matabeleland, and its subject states such as Mashonaland as well.
Rhodes used this document in 1890 to justify sending the Pioneer Column, a group of Europeans protected by well-armed British South Africa Police (BSAP) through Matabeleland and into Shona territory to establish Fort Salisbury (now Harare), and thereby establish company rule over the area. In 1893 and 1894, with the help of their new Maxim guns, the BSAP would go on to defeat the Ndebele in the First Matabele War. Rhodes additionally sought permission to negotiate similar concessions covering all territory between the Limpopo River and Lake Tanganyika, then known as “Zambesia”.
In accordance with the terms of aforementioned concessions and treaties, mass settlement was encouraged, with the British maintaining control over labour as well as precious metals and other mineral resources.
In 1895, the BSAC adopted the name “Rhodesia” for the territory, in honour of Rhodes. In 1898 “Southern Rhodesia” became the official name for the region south of the Zambezi, which later became Zimbabwe. The region to the north was administered separately and later termed Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Shortly after Rhodes’ disastrous Jameson Raid on the South African Republic, the Ndebele rebelled against white rule, led by their charismatic religious leader, Mlimo. The Second Matabele War lasted in Matabeleland until 1896, when Mlimo was assassinated. Shona agitators staged unsuccessful revolts (known as Chimurenga) against company rule during 1896 and 1897.
Following these failed insurrections, the Ndebele and Shona groups were finally subdued by the Rhodes administration, which organised the land with a disproportionate bias favouring Europeans, thus displacing many indigenous peoples.
Southern Rhodesia was annexed by the United Kingdom on 12 September 1923. Shortly after annexation, on 1 October 1923, the first constitution for the new Colony of Southern Rhodesia came into force.
Under the new constitution, Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony, subsequent to a 1922 referendum. Rhodesians of all races served on behalf of the United Kingdom during the two World Wars. Proportional to the white population, Southern Rhodesia contributed more per capita to both the First and Second World Wars than any other part of the Empire, including Britain itself.
In 1953, in the face of African opposition, Britain consolidated the two Rhodesias with Nyasaland (Malawi) in the ill-fated Central African Federation, which was essentially dominated by Southern Rhodesia. Growing African nationalism and general dissent, particularly in Nyasaland, persuaded Britain to dissolve the Union in 1963, forming three separate divisions. While multiracial democracy was finally introduced to Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, however, Southern Rhodesians of European ancestry continued to enjoy minority rule.
With Zambian independence, Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front (RF) dropped the designation “Southern” in 1964 and issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (commonly abbreviated to “UDI”) from the United Kingdom on 11 November 1965, intent on effectively repudiating the recently adopted British policy of “no independence before majority rule”. It was the first such course taken by a British colony since the American declaration of 1776, which Smith and others indeed claimed provided a suitable precedent to their own actions.
UDI and civil war (1965–1980)
After the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), the British government petitioned the United Nations for sanctions against Rhodesia pending unsuccessful talks with Smith’s administration in 1966 and 1968. In December 1966, the organisation complied, imposing the first mandatory trade embargo on an autonomous state. These sanctions were expanded again in 1968.
The United Kingdom deemed the Rhodesian declaration an act of rebellion, but did not re-establish control by force. A guerrilla war subsequently ensued when Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), supported actively by communist powers and neighbouring African nations, initiated guerilla operations against Rhodesia’s predominantly white government. ZAPU was supported by the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and associated nations such as Cuba, and adopted a Marxist–Leninist ideology; ZANU meanwhile aligned itself with Maoism and the bloc headed by the People’s Republic of China. Smith declared Rhodesia a republic in 1970, following the results of a referendum the previous year, but this went unrecognised internationally. Meanwhile, Rhodesia’s internal conflict intensified, eventually forcing him to open negotiations with the militant nationalists.
In March 1978, Smith reached an accord with three African leaders, led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who offered to leave the white population comfortably entrenched in exchange for the establishment of a biracial democracy. As a result of the Internal Settlement, elections were held in April 1979, concluding with the United African National Council (UANC) carrying a majority of parliamentary seats. On 1 June 1979, Muzorewa, the UANC head, became prime minister and the country’s name was changed to Zimbabwe Rhodesia. The Internal Settlement left control of the Rhodesian Security Forces, civil service, judiciary, and a third of parliament seats to whites. On 12 June, the United States Senate voted to lift economic pressure on the former Rhodesia.
Following the fifth Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held in Lusaka, Zambia from 1 to 7 August in 1979, the British government invited Muzorewa, Mugabe, and Nkomo to participate in a constitutional conference at Lancaster House. The purpose of the conference was to discuss and reach an agreement on the terms of an independence constitution, and provide for elections supervised under British authority allowing Zimbabwe Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence.
With Lord Carrington, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the United Kingdom, in the chair, these discussions were mounted from 10 September to 15 December in 1979, producing a total of 47 plenary sessions. On 21 December 1979, delegations from every major interest represented reached the Lancaster House Agreement, effectively ending the guerrilla war.
On 11 December 1979, the Rhodesian House of Assembly voted 90 to nil to revert to British colonial status (the ‘aye’ votes included Ian Smith himself). The bill then passed the Senate and was approved by the President. With the arrival of Lord Soames, the new Governor, just after 2 p.m. on 12 December 1979, Britain formally took control of Zimbabwe Rhodesia as the Colony of Southern Rhodesia although on 13 December Soames declared that during his mandate the name Rhodesia and Zimbabwe Rhodesia would continue to be used. Britain lifted sanctions on 12 December and the United Nations on 16 December, before calling on its member states to do likewise on 21 December. Thus Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola and Botswana lifted sanctions on 22–23 December; Australia partly pre-empted this, lifting all but trade sanctions on 18 December and trade sanctions on 21 December.
During the elections of February 1980, Robert Mugabe and the ZANU party secured a landslide victory. Prince Charles, as the representative of Britain, formally granted independence to the new nation of Zimbabwe at a ceremony in Harare in April 1980.
Independence era (1980–present)
Zimbabwe’s first president after its independence was Canaan Banana in what was originally a mainly ceremonial role as Head of State. Robert Mugabe, leader of the ZANU party, was the country’s first Prime Minister and Head of Government.
Opposition to what was perceived as a Shona takeover immediately erupted around Matabeleland. The Matabele unrest led to what has become known as Gukurahundi (Shona: “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”).The Fifth Brigade, a North Korean-trained elite unit that reported directly to the Zimbabwean Prime Minister, entered Matabeleland and massacred thousands of civilians accused of supporting “dissidents”.
Estimates for the number of deaths during the five-year Gukurahundi campaign ranged from 3,750 to 80,000. Thousands of others were tortured in military internment camps. The campaign officially ended in 1987 after Nkomo and Mugabe reached a unity agreement that merged their respective parties, creating the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF).
Elections in March 1990 resulted in another victory for Mugabe and the ZANU-PF party, which claimed 117 of the 120 contested seats.
During the 1990s, students, trade unionists, and other workers often demonstrated to express their growing discontent with Mugabe and ZANU-PF party policies. In 1996, civil servants, nurses, and junior doctors went on strike over salary issues. The general health of the population also began to significantly decline; by 1997 an estimated 25% of the population had been infected by HIV in a pandemic that was affecting most of southern Africa.
Land redistribution re-emerged as the main issue for the ZANU-PF government around 1997. Despite the existence of a “willing-buyer-willing-seller” land reform programme since the 1980s, the minority white Zimbabwean population of around 0.6% continued to hold 70% of the country’s most fertile agricultural land.
In 2000, the government pressed ahead with its Fast Track Land Reform programme, a policy involving compulsory land acquisition aimed at redistributing land from the minority white population to the majority black population. Confiscations of white farmland, continuous droughts, and a serious drop in external finance and other supports led to a sharp decline in agricultural exports, which were traditionally the country’s leading export-producing sector. Some 58,000 independent black farmers have since experienced limited success in reviving the gutted cash crop sectors through efforts on a smaller scale.
President Mugabe and the ZANU-PF party leadership found themselves beset by a wide range of international sanctions. In 2002, the nation was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations due to the reckless farm seizures and blatant election tampering. The following year, Zimbabwean officials voluntarily terminated its Commonwealth membership.
The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 (ZDERA) went into effect in 2002, creating a credit freeze of the Zimbabwean government through Section 4 C, Multilateral Financing Restriction. The bill was sponsored by Bill Frist, and co-sponsored by senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Russ Feingold and Jesse Helms. Through ZDERA Section 4C, the Secretary of the Treasury is ordered to direct US Directors at the International Financial Institutions listed in Section 3, “to oppose and vote against– (1) any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the Government of Zimbabwe; or (2) any cancellation or reduction of indebtedness owed by the Government of Zimbabwe to the United States or any international financial institution.”
Following elections in 2005, the government initiated “Operation Murambatsvina”, an effort to crack down on illegal markets and slums emerging in towns and cities, leaving a substantial section of urban poor homeless. The Zimbabwean government has described the operation as an attempt to provide decent housing to the population, although according to critics such as Amnesty International, authorities have yet to properly substantiate their claims.
On 29 March 2008, Zimbabwe held a presidential election along with a parliamentary election. The results of this election were withheld for two weeks, after which it was generally acknowledged that the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) had achieved a majority of one seat in the lower house of parliament.
In a surprising moment of candour at the ZANU-PF congress in December 2014, President Robert Mugabe accidentally let slip that the opposition had in fact won the contentious 2008 polls by an astounding 73%.
In late 2008, problems in Zimbabwe reached crisis proportions in the areas of living standards, public health (with a major cholera outbreak in December) and various basic affairs.
In September 2008, a power-sharing agreement was reached between Tsvangirai and President Mugabe, permitting the former to hold the office of prime minister. Due to ministerial differences between their respective political parties, the agreement was not fully implemented until 13 February 2009. By December 2010, Mugabe was threatening to completely expropriate remaining privately owned companies in Zimbabwe unless “western sanctions” were lifted.
A 2011 survey by Freedom House suggested that living conditions had improved since the power-sharing agreement. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated in its 2012–2013 planning document that the “humanitarian situation has improved in Zimbabwe since 2009, but conditions remain precarious for many people”.
On 17 January 2013, Vice President John Nkomo died of cancer at St Anne’s Hospital, Harare at the age of 78. A new constitution approved in the Zimbabwean constitutional referendum, 2013 curtails presidential powers.
Mugabe was re-elected president in the July 2013 Zimbabwean general election which The Economist described as “rigged.” and the Daily Telegraph as “stolen.” The Movement for Democratic Change alleged massive fraud and tried to seek relief through the courts. After winning the election, the Mugabe ZANU-PF government re-instituted one party rule, doubled the civil service and, according to The Economist, embarked on “…misrule and dazzling corruption.” A 2017 study conducted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) concluded that due to the deterioration of government and the economy “the government encourages corruption to make up for its inability to fund its own institutions” with widespread and informal police roadblocks to issue fines to travellers being one manifestation of this.
In July 2016 nationwide protests took place regarding the economic collapse in the country, and the finance minister admitted “Right now we literally have nothing.”
In November 2017, the army led a coup d’état following the dismissal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, placing Mugabe under house arrest. The army denied that their actions constituted a coup. Mugabe resigned on 21 November 2017, after leading the country for 37 years. Although under the Constitution of Zimbabwe Mugabe should be succeeded by Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko, a supporter of Grace Mugabe, ZANU-PF chief whip Lovemore Matuke stated to the Reuters news agency that Mnangagwa would be appointed as president.
In December 2017 the New Zimbabwean, calculating the cost of the Mugabe era using various statistics, said that at the time of independence in 1980, the country was growing economically at about 5 per cent a year, and had done so for quite a long time. If this rate of growth had been maintained for the next 37 years, Zimbabwe today would have a GDP of US$52 billion. Instead it has a formal sector GDP of only US$14 billion (2016), a cost of US$38 billion in lost growth in the formal sector. The population growth in 1980 was among the highest in Africa at about 3.5 per cent per annum, doubling every 21 years. Had this growth been maintained, the population today would be 31 million. Instead it is about 16 million. The discrepancies were believed to be partly caused by death from starvation and disease, and partly due to decreased fertility. The life expectancy has halved, and death from politically motivated violence sponsored by government exceeds 200,000 since 1980. The Mugabe government has directly or indirectly caused the deaths of at least 3 million Zimbabweans in 37 years.