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Race and History Forum


Contributed By: Eric Young

The Zimbabwean plateau, bounded in the south by the Limpopo river, in the north by the Zambezi, and in the east by the Chimanimani mountains and eastern highlands, includes such natural wonders as Victoria Falls and the historic Matopos hills. It is also an area that has experienced three great waves of violence: the first as a result of the Zulu mfecane from South Africa; the second from colonial conquest; and the third during the war for independence. Land, the foundation of Zimbabwe's natural beauty, has been the issue that has most dramatically defined the country's history and politics.

Remains of Homo sapiens rhodesiensis found on the Zimbabwean plateau have been carbon-dated at 100,000 years old. But the first humans to leave behind more extensive records were the Khoikhoi, hunter-gatherers who produced thousands of rock paintings throughout Zimbabwe, and especially in the Matopos hills, between 2000 and 5000 years ago. Some time between 200 B.C.E. and 500 C.E., Bantu-speaking agriculturists and herders using iron tools began migrating into the area, forcing the Khoikhoi north. Many of these groups spoke the Shona language, and by the 10th century, Shona speakers were the most numerous people in the region.

After 1000 B.C.E., centralized states began to develop among the Shona as some groups monopolized the trade with Arabs from the coast of Mozambique. In the 14th century, competition for trade in gold and ivory resulted in the creation of distinct empires. The first major empire was Great Zimbabwe (1250 and 1550), followed by the Torwa empire under Khame. At about the same time the Munhumutapa kingdom of the Mutapa, an expansionist trading state, emerged to the northeast. The Munhumutapa kingdom also produced gold, dug from small surface deposits. The last Shona empire was the Changamire, who became known as the Rozvi, a confederation of tribute-paying chieftainships in the southwest. Although the empires and chieftainships differed in style of governance, all Shona groups believed that land was sacred, belonging to all people and being held only temporarily by the chief and elders.

In the early 1800s, the violent upheavals known as the mfecane that followed the rise of the warrior-king Shaka in South Africa pushed new groups into Shona territory, leading to the eventual collapse of the southern Shona empires. The Nguni under Soshangane attacked the Shona at Manyika in the early 1820s. Two decades later the last emigrant Nguni group, the Ndebele under Mzilikazi, destroyed the Rozvi state in the southwest. The Ndebele incorporated local Shona inhabitants and established their own kingdom near present-day Bulawayo, in the area that became known as Matabeleland. The Ndebele kingdom was highly centralized, possessing an effective army led by senior chiefs under the command of the king, first Mzilikazi and later his son Lobengula. Both the Ndebele's gradual expansion and their periodic cattle raids increased tensions over land in Shona territory, or Mashonaland.

Until the late 1800s the only Europeans to venture into Matabeleland and Mashonaland were a few missionaries, including David Livingstone, and explorers. The first settlers came in 1890 when Cecil Rhodes sent nearly 200 farmers, artisans, miners, soldiers, doctors, and others the so-called Pioneer Column plus more than 300 policemen north from Johannesburg, under the flag of the British South Africa (BSA) company. Rhodes's objective was to find gold, expand British influence, and contain Afrikaner expansion. But the pioneers found little gold in Mashonaland the surface deposits had been depleted at least 100 years earlier. Turning instead to farming and cattle ranching, the settlers fared so poorly for the first several years that they relied on trade with local Africans for foodstuffs. In order to secure better land for themselves, the settlers soon began forcing Africans into Tribal Reserves.

In Matabeleland land was scarcer than it had been in Mashonaland, and King Lobengula realized that Rhodes and the BSA company wanted to acquire the territory for settlers and prospectors. He turned to the British Crown for protection, but Britain approved of Rhodes's plan and gave a free hand to the BSA. Consequently the BSA, using a cattle dispute as the pretext, invaded Matabeleland and defeated Lobengula in 1893. The imposition of new taxes and tribal reserves led to a rebellion against white rule in 1896-1897. Brutally suppressed, it was the last large-scale rebellion for nearly 70 years.

Offering scant mineral wealth, the Zimbabwean plateau initially attracted few white settlers. Those who did come, mostly from South Africa, sought unfettered access to the best possible land for farming and ranching. Settlers resented the BSA's intervention in land policies and challenged its supremacy. In 1923 the British held an all-white referendum in Southern Rhodesia, and the settlers voted to become a self-governing rather than company-run territory. This gave white Rhodesians more power to "resettle" Africans on Tribal Reserves (later called Native Reserves) and to impose in-kind taxes of cattle. The settlers also stole cattle outright. The 1930 Land Apportionment Act formally classified land according to race, with over 50 percent of the land European and 30 percent African.

Although Africans bitterly resented the Native Reserves, other aspects of Rhodesian colonialism also led to the emergence of African nationalism. The few educational opportunities available to Africans were usually religious or technical in nature. Mission schools taught humility and obedience, and the state school taught manual labor and minor artisan trades. Labor conditions and employment opportunities were also discriminatory. African wages were kept low and trade unions were prohibited in domestic service, mining, and agriculture, the three largest sectors of African employment. Discontent first emerged in the African press, especially in the Daily News and the Catholic Moto, and among the industrial labor unions that had not been banned. However, nationalist protests were sporadic and the leadership was often fragmented. The African National Congress, or ANC (distinct from the South African counterpart by the same name), founded in 1934, was often the mouthpiece for labor unions and individuals to voice their grievances. But the Rhodesian government, through censorship and the banning of undesirable organizations, firmly suppressed any more militant actions.

In the 1950s Britain gradually began to extricate itself from its colonies throughout Africa. In 1953 politicians in London, Pretoria, and Salisbury created the Central African Federation (also known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland), uniting Southern and Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Africans initially expressed ambivalence about the federation, but as it became evident that an "independent" federation would be more oppressive than British rule, their opposition grew. Under increasing pressure from African nationalists, the federation dissolved in 1963, with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland becoming independent Zambia and Malawi, respectively. The whites of Southern Rhodesia, much more numerous and prosperous than their kin to the north, chose a course of confrontation. Stridently opposed to making concessions to Africans, in 1964 Rhodesian Front party leader Ian Smith became prime minister. Smith called a referendum on independence and whites voted overwhelmingly for the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or UDI. The international community responded with moral condemnation and international sanctions. In independent Rhodesia, although whites numbered less than one-seventeenth of the total population, they held one-third of the land.

Given the Rhodesian government's land policies, it is not surprising that the primary reason Africans fought for their independence was for land, the source of their livelihood as well as the sacred home of their ancestors. Traditional chiefs and spirit mediums played a vital role by asking the people to welcome the nationalist soldiers as "sons of the soil" coming to reclaim the land for the people and their ancestors.

Initially peaceful, African nationalism became progressively militant as the Rhodesian government continued to force Africans onto Tribal Trust Lands. After the dissolution of the short-lived National Democratic Party, Joshua Nkomo formed the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) in 1961. Two years later several leading Shona members of ZAPU broke away, charging that the party was Ndebele-dominated, to form the Zimbabwe African National Union, or ZANU, under the leadership of Ndabaningi Sithole.

In 1964 ZANU and ZAPU began attacking white farms. Lacking popular support and military training, both parties soon recognized that they were no match for the Rhodesian military, and quickly adopted new strategies. ZANU began recruiting militants and politicizing the rural population, using force when necessary. ZAPU, by contrast, concentrated on building a large conventional force in camps in neighboring Zambia and Angola. It was not until late 1972 that ZANU began launching concerted attacks. The war progressed slowly, as the divided nationalists sought to build popular support for their cause. The Rhodesian military, meanwhile, forced Africans into guarded villages, imposing a cordon sanitaire in the north to prevent the insurgents from crossing the border, and increasing white and African conscription into the Rhodesian Security Forces. The Rhodesian government further fragmented the nationalist movements by negotiating with moderate opposition groups. Its position was bolstered by the state-controlled economy, centered on light manufacturing and agriculture, which fared remarkably well despite international sanctions.

The turning point came in 1975 with the independence of Mozambique. This galvanized the opposition groups and provided them with unhindered access to all of eastern Zimbabwe. The Rhodesian government's attempt to negotiate a peaceful compromise, providing for a political system with limited African rights, also failed. In 1977 ZANU and ZAPU reinvigorated their war effort. The number of ZANU insurgents operating in Zimbabwe jumped from approximately 3000 in 1977 to 10,000 in 1978, and the party, under the new leadership of Robert Mugabe, claimed to have "liberated" one-third of the country. Although both ZANU and ZAPU advocated socialism as well as national liberation, the former drew support from the Chinese and the latter from the Soviet bloc. ZAPU mounted sustained attacks with large regiments deploying heavy weapons from Eastern bloc countries, while ZANU pursued a classic hit-and-run guerrilla war.

The Rhodesian government responded to the growing strength of the independence forces by creating the pseudo-insurgent group Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) as well as the paramilitary Special Auxiliary Forces. But even as these groups pursued insurgents into neighboring states, the Rhodesian military grew weaker and more fragmented, and lost popular support. The Internal Settlement, in which the Rhodesian government convinced three prominent conservative opposition leaders to accept a transition government and limited constitutional reforms in 1978, failed to gain legitimacy among either African Zimbabweans or the international community. ZANU and ZAPU, now briefly joined as the Patriotic Front, boycotted the Internal Settlement and revived the war. By late 1979, at the cost of approximately 25,000 civilian lives most of them black the Rhodesian government agreed to negotiations with the Patriotic Front under British auspices.

On April 18, 1980, Zimbabwe became independent. In elections just prior to independence, Mugabe and ZANU captured 57 of the 80 African seats in parliament, with ZAPU winning 20 seats. Mugabe became prime minister and, in a gesture of reconciliation, made Joshua Nkomo minister of home affairs. At independence, Mugabe asked the country's whites to stay and contribute their wealth and skills to the construction of a prosperous Zimbabwe. Although the transition to independence was peaceful, it did not resolve many of the grievances that had originally sparked the war to overthrow white minority rule. In particular, the inequitable distribution of land remained a source of tension.

Mugabe initially upheld many of the unpopular policies and practices of the Smith regime. The government jailed political opponents, censored the press, and gave extensive powers to the security forces. He also fired Joshua Nkomo after large caches of arms were found on ZAPU-owned farms. This action confirmed what many believed to be the mistreatment of ZAPU soldiers in the Zimbabwean army and the party during the elections, leading ZAPU soldiers and party members to take up arms. In 1982 these "dissidents" initiated a series of terrorist and criminal attacks in Matabeleland, although their exact goal was unclear and ZAPU officially distanced itself from the dissidents' activities. After six years of a low-intensity war in Matabeleland that resulted in at least 2000 civilian deaths, ZANU and ZANU agreed to unite under the name ZANU-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF. The Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) also became heavily involved in the war in Mozambique, chiefly to protect the oil pipeline and transportation routes through Mozambique from RENAMO insurgents. As the war drained the Zimbabwean economy and became increasingly unpopular at home, the Zimbabwean government sponsored peace negotiations in the early 1990s, putting pressure on both Mozambique and RENAMO to end the war.

Since independence the Zimbabwean state has progressively become a centralized, de facto one-party regime, as president Mugabe has used patronage and parliamentary legislation to consolidate his own power. He has faced few serious challenges from the fragmented opposition. These are split between various personalities and interests, with parties such as the mainly white and agriculture-based Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe, the upstart Zimbabwe Unity Movement, and the historic United African National Congress, all vying for popular support and represented by discontented politicians.

Mugabe's authoritarianism has been spared domestic and international criticism largely because of his popular appeal, especially in the rural areas, and the prosperous economy. Mugabe has built upon his cult of personality, using visits to communal lands (the previous Tribal Trust Lands) as media events to lash out at white farm owners and triumph government development projects. As a symbolic gesture to promised land reform, in 1982 the government passed a law permitting women to own their own land. But most women in communal land are either not aware of the law or cannot afford to act upon it, and thus most land has remained in the hands of men. The government purchased additional lands, resettling approximately 70,000 families over the years. Despite the under-utilization of much of the land, by the late 1980s Zimbabwe had become self-sufficient in grain supplies, and many Zimbabweans saw real improvements in their standard of living. Conditions remained most difficult in the communal lands, which were often arid and barren, especially in the southern regions.

In the early 1990s, widespread drought, combined with economic Structural Adjustment austerity measures, subjected many Zimbabweans to severe hardships. The government's structural adjustment program aimed to reduce government spending, particularly on defense, and to relax controls on prices, imports, and investments. It also led to the privatization of many state-run industries. Zimbabwe's national economy has long been diversified by African standards, being evenly divided between agriculture (tobacco, maize, and cotton), mining (gold, nickel, and asbestos), manufacturing (food-processing and metals), and services. In the late 1990s the government sought to further diversify the agricultural export sector, especially into horticultural products, and build its wildlife tourism industry. It was one of the few African countries where elephants are abundant and it received official clearance to export ivory.

Meanwhile, in 1997 Mugabe announced that he would appropriate more than 4.8 million hectares (more than 12 million acres) of white-owned land and turn it over to landless blacks without compensation, despite the fact that these are the most prosperous farms and employ large numbers of people. With the publication of a list of farms to be nationalized in 1998, the mostly white owners of large farms have become apprehensive about their future. Mugabe agreed to seek compensation for these landowners from international donors, and began to hint that the land reform package might be reduced. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the promised land redistribution, thousands of poor blacks began camping out on white-owned farms throughout Zimbabwe. The uncertainty over land rights threatened to stall the country's economic development. Amid growing social unrest, in 1998 Zimbabwe undertook a controversial military intervention to defend the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo against an armed rebellion. The cost of this military operation, and the possibility that it might grow into a larger regional conflict further threatened Zimbabwe's economic prosperity.

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