Currency unit

Zimbabwe dollar













The history of this country has two strands: the African and the European.

Zimbabwe is named after the ruins of the same name, believed to have been the capital of an empire which from about the 13th century controlled the territory of present day Zimbabwe, northern Transvaal and parts of Botswana. The people at the coast referred to it as the empire of the Mwenumutapa or, as the Portuguese heard it, Monomatapa. This king is believed to have been of the Karanga branch of the Shona people who still live in the area. (The white settlers, who did not wish to believe that the Africans had had an empire, explained the ruins as having been made by Phoenicians, Egyptians or people from Ethiopia, but there is no historical or archaeological evidence to suggest this, though the "Jewish" clan known as the Lemba claim they were the craftsmen and trace their origin to the Yemen, which they must have left before the rise of Islam.) This empire declined in the 17th century, probably because the Portuguese had disrupted the trade routes with the Indian Ocean and the Swahili coast.

Pre-European Zimbabwe may well have been the main source of gold in the Middle East via the trade routes to Sofala in modern Mozambique, and up the Swahili coast and then to India or the Arabian Gulf.

The majority community, the Shona, were conquered by a breakaway group of the Zulus following the Mfecane (see South Africa) of the early 19th century. These were the amaNdebele (called by the Europeans Matabele) who had previously terrorized the area now called Botswana and the Western Transvaal. Thus the country is now a composite of two main groups. Since independence there have been guerrilla groups from the minority Ndebele, possibly assisted from the previous South African regime, but suppressed brutally by the Mugabe regime.

European settlers
The first European visitors to the area were probably Portuguese. In the 19th century the Portuguese government wished to join their territories of Mozambique and Angola, but were beaten to it by Cecil Rhodes who dreamed of a continuous British territory from Egypt to the Cape.

The borders of this country were defined by Cecil Rhodes and the European settlers who, to the modern observer, swindled the country out of Lobengula, the king of the Ndebele, in 1888 when he signed an agreement not to cede any territory to the Portuguese without consulting the British High Commissioner at the Cape. Later the same year Cecil Rhodes's emissaries asked Lobengula, then dominant in the area, for permission to look for minerals. But the agreement on paper, which he did not understand, gave the settlers all rights in the country and imposed a protectorate on him. A column of settlers arrived in 1890.

When the Ndebele discovered what the settlers had done they rose in a rebellion in 1893 and again in 1896 but did not have the weapons to resist. The country then became known as Southern Rhodesia. The railway from the Cape arrived at Bulawayo in 1896. European farmers came to settle on the land and employed the local people as poorly paid laborers, treating them in the same way as in South Africa and other colonies.

In 1922 there was a referendum of the settlers in Rhodesia about whether they should join South Africa as a fifth province. 5989 voted to join South Africa and 8774 voted for self-government (this tiny number determined the fate of the country).

They were granted internal self-government, the traditional first stage before dominion status. This meant that the British government gave up day to day control, which was exercised by a government elected by the settlers. In theory the British government retained oversight over the treatment of the "natives"; in practice they did not often intervene.

In 1953 the British government set up a Central African Federation of Southern and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi). This seems to have been an attempt 1) to find a logical way of managing the three colonies and preparing them for independence as a unit along the lines of South Africa; 2) to extend the control of the European settlers of Southern Rhodesia over the other countries, despite the known opposition of the Africans in the two territories. There were also settlers in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). African Nationalist parties were already in existence by this time.

The government of the Federation was formed by southern (White) politicians, alleged to be moderate, including a former New Zealand missionary, Garfield Todd and Sir Roy Welensky. When the federation dissolved in 1963 on Malawi's independence Southern Rhodesia removed the "southern" from its title and elected an extreme right wing government - the Rhodesia Front - first under Winston Field and then Ian Smith who in 1965 declared unilateral (that is, without the agreement of the British government) independence to avoid majority rule.

The UDI government was headed by Ian Smith, a farmer and former RAF officer in the second world war. His main intention was to maintain the control of the country by the European settlers, mostly British and South African, and resisting the call for representation by the African majority. There were several leaders of the Africans. The main Ndebele leader had been Joshua Nkomo who seemed likely to be the eventual winner. Another was the Shona leader Ndabaninge Sithole. But once the guerrilla war began other leaders came to eclipse these. Although Robert Mugabe had been in prison for much of the period of the war he was the eventual victor.

As Rhodesia, the 250,000 settlers of European origin resisted majority rule from 1965 until 1979.

A guerrilla war mounted by African nationalists made the white government untenable (and it was never recognized internationally). By 1979 it was clear to the white regime that they could not win the war. There was a brief period when Smith tried to come to an agreement with "moderate" African leaders, Bishop Abel Muzorewa was made prime minister in an interim government in which Smith and his Rhodesia Front party remained the dominant power. A British conference was held and the country reverted to Colonial rule for a short period. Elections were held, supervised by a British Governor, and Robert Mugabe elected as prime Minister and later president. There was a transition period of ten years during which the "white" group had certain members of the assembly guaranteed to them.

Zimbabwean troops have been deployed along the line of rail and oil pipe from Beira in Mozambique during the civil war in that country. These are vital links for Zimbabwe's economy.

In 1999 troops were sent to Congo-Kinshasa to fight on the side of Kabila against the Ugandan-Rwandan supported rebels. It is said the real purpose was to profit from the economic gains to be made in the Congo, essentially by looting.

From 1980 the economy remained strong, and mostly in the hands of those who controlled it in colonial times. Mugabe had early proclaimed his belief in Marxism-Leninism but didn't do much to disturb the way the economy was run. However, from the 1990s he declared his intention of taking over the "commercial" farms by force and the economy began its collapse as the former export in Maize and tobacco declined. He also began to take over the mining industries and other parts of what had been one of the most advanced modern economies in Africa (paradoxically, it had been stimulated by the trade sanctions during the period of UDI).

Although the farms were seized in the name of "land for the landless" most of them were given to his political associates who dismissed the numerous workers on these farms but planted little or nothing, thus bringing about a collapse of agricultural production.


Bantu languages:


Ndebele (a click language of the Angoni subgroup)


European languages


Afrikaans (a minority)







Since independence in 1979, the head of government has been Robert Mugabe, first as Prime Minister, then as President.

The independence constitution had reserved parliamentary places for the European settler minority, but this provision expired after ten years. Mugabe's stated intention was to set up a one-party state formally dedicated to Marxism-Leninism but parties other than the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Popular Front (ZANU-PF) party still existed though not in strength and were discouraged by strong arm tactics (political thugs). Zimbabwe appears to be avoiding the trend of other African states towards multi-party systems. As outside aid givers are now supposed to be requiring democracy as a condition for aid it may be thought that Mugabe cannot stand against the trend, but clearly he will not change willingly. At present (Feb 2005) it looks as though change is unlikely as long as he is in power.

A long period of civil disturbance to the point of guerrilla activity among the Ndebele (probably supported by the former South African regime) reinforced the trend towards a military dominated state. The guerrilla activity may now be at an end.

1995 "elections" returned the governing party mostly unopposed.

During 1999 a new constitution was proposed but was rejected in a referendum. In practice it would seem to be intended to entrench the power of the president. Elections held returned many opposition members but international observers believed many results were the results of intimidation.

There were Presidential elections in March 2002. The regime fought very dirty to prevent the opposition winning. Laws against press freedom (journalists must be licenced, no foreign press ownership, the president may not be criticised) make a free election impossible. It was reported that opposition members and activists were beaten or killed by government party squads, while the police did nothing. Another trick was to have too few polling stations in opposition areas, such as Harare, so that many people were unable to vote. Mugabe was declared the winner. Whether there was ballot box stuffing in rural areas is not certain.

Following the election the campaign against the remaining farmers of European descent intensified, resulting in increased unemployment and economic collapse. Parliamentary elections were called for March 2005. The opposition party (Movement for Democratic Change) was allowed to stand but observers reported many abuses of the voting process. Voters were told that if they didn't vote for the government they wouldn't receive food aid.

Following the election the government has destroyed the shanty towns around the capital, Harare, possibly because so many of the people voted for the opposition.

There have been reports that with the collapse of the economy even the police and army cannot now be paid.

In March 2007 an international conference of the neighbouring African states was held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which may be an attempt to get the 83 year old dictator to retire.

However, as Thabo Mbeki refused to act against Mugabe nothing was achieved. Perhaps he secretly agreed with Mugabe's attitude.

It is not clear what is the attitude of the new president in South Africa, Jacob Zuma, a Zulu with cultural connections to the Ndebele.

Presidential and parliamentary elections were held on 29/3/08. Many electoral irregularities were reported. Three candidates stood against Mugabe.

Exit polls suggest a majority want Mugabe to go, but the Electoral Commission refuses to release the presidential results, though Parliamentary results show that the Movement for Democratic Change has won more seats than Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF.
5/04/08 it seems Mugabe refuses to accept he has been defeated and is demanding a re-run of the election, eliminating the other candidates, between himself and Morgan Tsvangirai (usually pronounced Changirai) and his Movement for Democratic Change.

Mugabe gives the impression that he would not accept the result of the election unless it shows he has won. In effect this is a case of autogolpe. It was announced on 19/04/08 that the Electoral Commission was "recounting" the votes of 23 constituencies, most of which were previously declared for the MDC. Many assume that this "recount" is intended to change the announced result, or even has already been done by adding votes.

The Electoral Commission announced that Tsvangirai had received more votes but that there would have to be a second round. There have been reports that Mugabe's supporters are trying to terrorise people who voted the "wrong way" so that he would win the second round when it is held. In June, as the campaign began, the opposition were harassed by police and party militia. Some reporters said that the government in practice is now in the hands of the military who would not allow any electoral change. People who have left the country have no chance to vote - they would surely almost all vote against Mugabe.

20 June 2008 Mugabe announced he had been "appointed by god". In many countries this would bring the "men in white coats" to take him away.

The "run-off" election took place but the opposition candidate withdrew because of the ferocity of the attacks by party militias on the opposition supporters. There are numerous reports of people being forced to vote under threat of torture and death. Mugabe claimed victory and was sworn in. Some other African Union leaders called for him not to be recognised.

"Talks" with the opposition(who had actually won the majority) then took place but without any obvious result.

In November 2008 Mugabe was still resisting giving any power to the winners of the election.

In February 2009 Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister but it remained unclear what powers he would have as Mugabe had not conceded his powers.

Mugabe continues to live extravagantly while his people starve and die of cholera.

Interesting reading

Doris Lessing - The Grass is singing
Her first novel, set in colonial Rhodesia, followed by many others.

Going Home
an account of a visit just before the UDI period

Douglas Rogers - The Last Resort

The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe
Peter Godwin - The Fear: the last days of Mugabe

The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe

Review of this book







The commercial farming sector was still dominated by the European settlers who came there when the country was called Rhodesia. These provided an exportable surplus, one of the few countries in Africa able to export food. However, there has been a rapid rise in population and a demand to settle landless people on these farms. The drought of 1992 caused a food shortage and famine, though low government controlled prices for maize (corn) contributed by discouraging farmers from growing it. (And it didn't help that the World Bank advised selling the strategic reserve just before the drought).

There is also a modern mining sector: coal, gold and non-ferrous metals.

After South Africa, Zimbabwe was the most industrially developed economy of Africa. It developed fast during the period of sanctions from 1965 until independence in 1979.

There was a large tourist industry based on visits to the game parks and the Zambezi falls (Mosi oa Tunya or Victoria Falls).

The Government of Robert Mugabe had apparently dropped its intention to nationalize industries, following the failure of the communist economies. In practice a free market was permitted. The former settler community continued to control the commercial farming and industrial sector.

In April 1994 the government suddenly announced the nationalization of settler land. It seemed likely even then that if the farms were suddenly taken over by ministers and members of the ruling party (what seems to be happening) productivity would fall. Not a lot happened then.

A similar announcement in 1997 seemed more serious. In 2001 invasions of commercial farms effectively destroyed the economy as the main cash crop - tobacco - could not be planted. There is a shortage of maize - a crop that used to be exported.

In 2007 unemployment has reached very high levels - accurate statistics are not possible and inflation has reached the stage of hyperinflation. The country has so little foreign exchange (dollars or rands) that imports are impossible, especially of oil products for basic transport, or even of food. Large numbers of people are dependent on UN Food distribution - hindered by the insistence of Mugabe that only his supporters get fed.

Millions have left to move, mainly to South Africa.

The question now is whether and how the economy can be rebuilt after Mugabe is gone, which surely must be soon.

The modern economy has in practice completely collapsed, and people have reverted to subsistence, the only means of survival.

August 2008. The Central Bank announced that 10,000 million Z$ were to be replaced by one Zimdollar. But as the currency still has no basis this inflated away too, as the hyperinflation has not stopped. The use of foreign currency was made legal in December 2008. Essentially, this was the death of the local currency.

An interesting development is that Chinese capital is taking advantage of the derelict nature of the economy. Perhaps at the end British influence will have been replaced by Chinese. As with the British, the Chinese are interested in minerals for their industry. Will they treat the inhabitants any better?

Tsvangarai announced that civil servants would be paid in US$ dollars or South African rands. It is not clear where he would find these.

The Zimbabwe currency has ceased to be used.

Diamonds have been found in the east. But the workers there are robbed of their profits by the regime troops and police. See Unreported World - Blood diamonds







A high rate of infection by AIDS is likely to produce huge numbers of orphans (one third of all children by 2010). 50% of the army and police are said to be infected and one third of pregnant women test as HIV positive. A January 1993 estimate is of 1.5 million people infected (one sixth of the population), which points to a probable population decline but also the deaths of the most economically productive people.

Serious droughts may be becoming more frequent and are affecting the economy and the wildlife.

Cholera has been reported during November 2008 as the water supply service has broken down.






Human Rights

A long standing State of Emergency (enacted by Ian Smith in 1965) was ended in October 1990 but many of its provisions were made permanent. Imprisonment without trial is still possible.

Freedom of assembly, to form other political parties is restricted by extra-legal methods (sending the police to break up meetings) or party thugs, apparently under the direct control of the president. Laws against press freedom and criticism of the president were passed at the beginning of 2002, making a free election effectively impossible.

Some of the High Court judges were encouraged to retire early.

Police torture is reported as being routine treatment for opposition people. After many people in the urban areas voted for the opposition, Mugabe evicted people in shanty towns without compensation, claiming that all these towns were illegal according to planning law.

Supporters of the Movement for Democaratic Change have been arrested and held without trial, even though the leader has been made Prime Minister - thus showing that as yet (March 2009) he has limited power.

Climate effects

Increasing aridity is a possible development of climate change. But there is also the possibility of the Monsoon period becoming more intense.

Last revised 31/10/10

Southern Africa


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