History & Politics

The first peoples

By around AD300, Bantu-speaking iron-age farmers had spread into southern Africa and settled in the Zimbabwe region. In later centuries, they were joined by people from the north, such as the Karanga and Rozwi. These and other groups formed the early Shona kingdoms.Ruins of Great Zimbabwe, image taken by Jan Derk in 1997 in Zimbabwe. (en:Image:Great-Zimbabwe-2.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From the 11th–15th century, the Shona peoples thrived in a prosperous society, worshipping a supreme deity called Mwari. A huge city formed at the centre of the Shona empire. Now known as Great Zimbabwe, its remains can still be visited today (see photo). See the Map of Zimbabwe for its location.

Conflict was stirred up by Arab traders, as rival local leaders sought to take control of the gold and ivory being exchanged for cloth, beads and other luxuries. When the Portuguese arrived in the 1500s, they took sides in these disputes to gain the trade for themselves. The locals resented Portuguese interference and by the turn of the 17th century, these first Europeans had left the Zimbabwean plateau for good.

The British take-over

Taking the land

Cecil Rhodes arrived in South Africa in 1871. He was a mining man. But it wasn’t just about gold. Rhodes wanted to expand British interests through the region. He therefore tricked local African leaders into giving him concessions to their land. It wasn’t long before white settlers from South Africa were taking over farmland.

In the 18th century, the Ndebele people fled north (to escape the Zulu) and settled in the Bulawayo area of Zimbabwe. By the mid-18th century, the British were taking an interest in the region.

Initially, only a few missionaries, traders and explorers, such as David Livingstone, went north of the Limpopo. (See Malawi History & Politics for more about Livingstone.) But with reports of gold in the region, prospectors flooded in.

In 1891, the British annexed all land north of the Transvaal, between Portuguese-controlled Mozambique and German South-West Africa. Any opposition from local peoples, such as the Ndebele, was suppressed. Administered by Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa (BSA) Company, the region was named Rhodesia (after Cecil Rhodes) in 1894. BSA administration ended in 1922, leaving a white ruling class in control.

The birth of modern-day Zimbabwe

In 1953, Britain created a Central African Federation made up of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi). This broke up when Zambia and Malawi gained independence a decade later.

Creation of a party

Robert Mugabe became head of the ZANU party in 1970. This party later re-merged with Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU to form the ZANU-PF or "Patriotic Front".

In 1965, the white minority-rule government of the Rhodesian Front, under Ian Smith, broke away from Britain. Stripping black people of rights, this government sparked international outrage and economic sanctions were introduced.

Black Zimbabweans had been fighting for their rights for many decades. Opposition parties formed, such as the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) under Joshua Nkomo. In 1963, this party split and the more radical wing formed the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Guerrilla warfare broke out, turning into civil war in the 1970s.

Civil war was crippling the country. Britain helped negotiate a ceasefire and a new constitution in 1979. Elections were held the following year. The Republic of Zimbabwe became independent in April 1980 and Robert Mugabe became executive president.

Violence and unrest have continued to plague Zimbabwe over the last two decades, with Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party challenged by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tzvangirai. Robert Mugabe won another term of office in controversial elections held in 2013.