Zimbabwe Profile (A Brief History)
Updated: Oct 31, 2020
Zimbabwe, officially the Republic of Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, is a landlocked country located in Southern Africa, between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, bordered by South Africa to the south, Botswana to the west, Zambia to the north, and Mozambique to the east. The capital and largest city is Harare, the second largest city is Bulawayo. A country of roughly 14 million people, Zimbabwe has 16 official languages, with English, Shona, and Ndebele the most common.
Early History of Zimbabwe
Archeological evidence suggest that the earliest inhabitants of modern-day Zimbabwe settled in the area about 100,000 years ago. The hunter-gather San peoples also known as the Bushmen were the earliest inhabitants of central and southern Africa and their arrival to the area dates back as far as 500,000 years ago. One of the oldest cultures on earth, DNA studies have shown that they have the most divergent DNA structures, meaning they are probably the oldest humans on earth.
The Bantu expansion refers to the migrations of the original Bantu speaking group of migrants roughly about 3,500 years ago, from West Africa into Sub-Saharan Africa. In the process the Bantu speaking settlers displaced or absorbed the inhabitants of Central Africa. The primary evidence of expansion lies in the linguistic core of the Bantu languages, which comprises of languages originating from Cameroon and Nigeria, West Africa.
The expansion is believed to have taken place between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago into two main waves, the first proceeding directly east towards East-Africa, and the second and largest went south along the African coast towards Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and as far south as South Africa.
Kingdom of Mapungubwe
By the 11th century large scale powerful Bantu-speaking states began to emerge, one of the first was the Kingdom of Mapungubwe sometime between 1075 – 1220 AD. The kingdom was likely divided into a three-tiered hierarchy with commoners inhabiting low-lying sites, district leaders occupying small hilltops, and the capital at Mapungubwe hill as the supreme authority. Life in Mapungubwe was centered on family and farming.
Kingdom of Zimbabwe
There have been many civilizations in Zimbabwe as is shown by the ancient stone structures at Khami, Great Zimbabwe and Dhlo-Dhlo. The first major civilization to become established was the Mwene Mutapa (or Monomotapa), who were said to have built Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe is now a ruined city near Masvingo, in central Zimbabwe which was continuously inhabited between c. 1100 to c. 1550 CE, flourishing between c. 1300 and c. 1450 CE in the Late Iron Age of southern Africa. Capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, a state of the Bantu-speaking Shona people, the site is located on a natural citadel and includes many impressive monuments built using granite blocks without mortar. Clusters of stone buildings were called zimbabwe in Bantu, hence the site and the kingdom’s name.
The rulers of Great Zimbabwe brought stone masonry and other artistic traditions from the Mapungubwe Kingdom. This kingdom is significant in the history of ancient Zimbabwe since it is believed that most rulers in this area originated from Mapungubwe in the early thirteenth century. The leaders of Zimbabwe established their rule over wider areas such as Butua, Mutapa and Mapungubwe.
When ancient Zimbabwe began its military and economic decline, some elite of the city migrated two hundred miles to the north to the Zambezi River. As a result of their settlement, the Shona state of Monomotapa, commonly known as Mutapa, was established but it was short-lived. The ruler of this state was Mutota who was their first king. He gained control of the salt producing sites and a great portion of Zambezi Valley. He also established a capital at Zvongombe which is situated near the Zambezi River. At the height of power, Mwene Matope, son of Mutota included areas from Zambezi River Valley to the Indian Ocean.
Mwenemutapa was Metopes’ title that literally means the “Lord of plundered land”. He wore a costume which included a small hoe that was decorated and formed part of his belt. With its ivory handle, the hoe was a representation of peace. Other symbols of the kingships included animal horns, granaries, and spears. The kingdom relied on the divine leadership principle. Subjects of the monarchy believed their leader was god of the moon and sun, king of rivers and of the land, and a great conqueror of their enemies.
By the 1590s, Monomutapa had started a political, cultural, and military decline that was intensified by the increase in civil wars. The divided central government allowed the governors to gain more power. Political leaders from one province (Changamire) broke free and started building a successor. Moreover, the Portuguese colony gained more power along the coast, and in the 1630s, the Portuguese expelled Monomotapa and chose a new ruler, Mhande Felipe.
In 1917, the last leader, Mambo Chioko, was murdered in a war against the Portuguese. Great Zimbabwe declined around 1450 AD for reasons that are not yet known. However, it is believed that the creation of the northern kingdom and other states are some of the main reasons for this. There has been a lot of speculation about the decline from depletion of land resources, over-farming, a drop in the lucrative gold trade, and drastic weather change. There has not been much advancement in terms of technology and agriculture since then, but measures have been put to help in promoting agricultural practices and to encourage the use of modern technology to improve the standards of living.
The city of Great Zimbabwe has occasionally cropped up in references as one of the possible locales of the fabled gold mines of King Solomon (tenth century BC), the Israelite king who ruled a millennium before the site was first inhabited. It was probably a tale used to lure new European settlers to the region.
Arrival of the Europeans in Zimbabwe
Gold was indeed still plentiful, as were diamonds, and in the 1890s the British entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902) and his British South African Company established a hold on the area and its natural resources. Rhodes was the founder of the DeBeers diamond company, and the territory once controlled by Great Zimbabwe’s mambos and was later named Rhodesia in his honor.
Colonization of Zimbabwe
An influx of white settlers followed Rhodes and came to dominate the land, the resources, and the Shona. Over the next several decades historians posited that the ruins of Great Zimbabwe had been built either by ancient Phoenicians or Arab traders from the coast; the idea that Africans had established an organized civilization and political entity in the area seemed to conflict with the prevailing Eurocentric view that the continent had been little more than a collection of warring ethnic groups before the Europeans arrived. Rhodesia, along with its neighbor South Africa, remained one of the last white-majority-held areas of Africa, with white settlers, a minority of the population, held 70% of the land.
Independence of Zimbabwe
In 1964 Rhodesia whose government was fully controlled by white settlers declared independence from Great Britain following independence of former British colonies Zambia and Mali. The independence would cost Rhodesia as Britain would place global sanctions of Rhodesia. Ian Smith, a native-born white settler would become Prime Minister. For the next 20 years there would be insurrection from the black population in the form of guerrilla warfare against the white government. By 1979 a unity government would be formed with the goal of sharing power with the black majority, but the security forces would still be controlled by the white settlers. That same year Rhodesia would vote to revert to a colonial rule under Britain to lift all economic sanctions against Rhodesia.
A year later in 1980, Robert Mugabe leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union would win the election by landslide and would become Prime Minister, Britain would Grant Zimbabwe independence. In 1982 Prime Minister Mugabe would sacks ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo from the cabinet, accusing him of plotting to overthrow the government. North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade soldiers were deployed to crush the rebellion by Nkomo supporters in Midlands and Matabeleland provinces, and kill thousands of civilians over the next few years. Mr. Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo would later merge their parties to form Zanu-PF unity government, dominated by ZANU and Mugabe changed the constitution to become executive President.
Before the end of its long civil war and the declaration of Zimbabwe as an independent state with a democratically elected black leadership in 1980, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe came to symbolize the rights of Africans to their land. The baleur bird also became an icon in the struggle for self-rule and is featured prominently on the Zimbabwean national flag. In 1986 Great Zimbabwe was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
In 2000 Robert Mugabe would institute the Fast Track Land Reform, a policy that would redistribute white owned farms to black farmers. This policy would place international sanctions on Zimbabwe, led by the United States, the economy of Zimbabwe would completely collapse in 2003. In 2017 Robert Mugabe would be forced to resign by a military coup and was placed on house arrest.
Economy of Zimbabwe
Since 2003 when global economic sanctions were placed on Zimbabwe the economy has been on a free fall with hyper-inflation. The sanctions limited Zimbabwe’s access to foreign trade markets and access to crucial international banking sectors. By 2013 the EU would relax some of those sanctions, but the damage had already been done. With a GDP of 13 billion-dollars, Zimbabwe has not been able to recover from a decade of economic sanctions.
The Agriculture industry is the most critical to the nation representing 12% of GDP but employing almost 70% of the workforce. Zimbabwe produces tobacco, maize, cotton, wheat, coffee, sugarcane, peanuts, and livestock.
Abundantly rich in natural resources, the mining industry represents 32% of GDP and employs 7% of the workforce. Mining is the largest portion of the industry with exports of diamonds, gold, coal, iron ore, nickel, copper, lithium, tin, and platinum being the largest export products.
The sector contributes 45% to GDP and employs 25% of the workforce. The tourism industry is the main driver of this industry with global heritage sites bringing in massive foreign tourists to the country.