Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe: 11th – 15th c. AD
The plateau between the rivers Zambezi and Limpopo, in southeast Africa, offers rich opportunities for human settlement. Its grasslands make excellent grazing for cattle. The tusks of dead elephants provide an easy basis for a trade in ivory. A seam of gold, running along the highest ridge, shows signs of having been worked in at least four places before 1000 AD.
The earliest important trading centre is at Mapungubwe, on the bank of the Limpopo. The settlement is established by a cattle-herding people, whose increasing prosperity leads to the emergence of a sophisticated court and ruling elite.
In 1075 the ruler of Mapungubwe separates his own dwelling from those of his people. He moves his court from the plain to the top of a sandstone hill, where he rules from a palace with imposing stone walls.
It is the first example of the zimbabwe of this region – a word in Shona, the local Bantu language, meaning literally ‘stone houses’. Zimbabwe become the characteristic dwellings of chieftains, and about 100 hilltop ruins of this kind survive. Easily the most impressive is the group known as Great Zimbabwe, which in the 13th century succeeds Mapungubwe as the dominant Shona power – with a kingdom stretching over the whole region between the Limpopo and the Zambezi.
Great Zimbabwe is not close to the local gold seam, but its power derives from controlling the trade in gold. By this period mine shafts are sunk to a depth of 100 feet. Miners (among them women and children) descend these shafts to bring up the precious metal. As much as a ton of gold is sometimes extracted in a year.
The buildings of Great Zimbabwe are evidence of equally great labour. Massive stone walls enclose a palace complex with a great conical tower, while impressive dry-stone granite masonry is used in a fortress or acropolis at the top of a nearby hill. The buildings date from the 13th and 14th centuries, the peak of Great Zimbabwe’s power.
In the 15th century Great Zimbabwe is eclipsed by two other kingdoms, one to the south at Khami (near modern Bulawayo) and one to the north, near Mount Darwin. This latter kingdom is established by a ruler who is known as the Munhumutapa – a title adopted by all his successors.
The Munhumutapa is the potentate of whom word is sent home to Europe by new arrivals on the African coast in the early 16th century. His court is first reached by a Portuguese traveller in about 1511.
The Ndebele kingdom: 19th century AD
Although Portuguese missionaries and traders occasionally make their way inland from the coast, they have little effect on the African tribes living in the region of modern Zimbabwe. It is Europeans from southern Africa who later exert a profound influence. In 1837 the Boers, pressing north, drive the Ndebele out of the Transvaal and across the Limpopo.
North of the river the Ndebele chief, Mzilikazi, establishes a powerful kingdom. As warriors and cattle-breeders the Ndebele easily subdue the agricultural Shona, long resident in the region. But in the 1880s the Ndebele are unable to resist a new onslaught from the south, this time led by the British community of south Africa.
Cecil Rhodes: AD 1871-1891
In the last quarter of the 19th century the driving force behind British colonial expansion in Africa is Cecil Rhodes. He arrives in Kimberley at the age of eighteen in 1871, the very year in which rich diamond-bearing lodes are discovered there. He makes his first successful career as an entrepreneur, buying out the claims of other prospectors in the region.
In the late 1880s he applies these same techniques to the gold fields discovered in the Transvaal. By the end of the decade his two companies, De Beers Consolidated Mines and Gold Fields of South Africa, dominate the already immensely valuable South African export of diamonds and gold.
Rhodes is now rich beyond the reach of everyday imagination, but he wants this wealth for a very specific purpose. It is needed to fulfil his dream of establishing British colonies north of the Transvaal, as the first step towards his ultimate grand vision – a continuous strip of British empire from the Cape to the mouth of the Nile.
The terms of incorporation of both Rhodes’s mining companies include clauses allowing them to invest in northern expansion, and in 1889 he forms the British South Africa Company to fulfil this precise purpose. Established with a royal charter, its brief is to extend British rule into central Africa without involving the British government in new responsibility or expense.
The first step north towards the Zambezi has considerable urgency in the late 1880s. It is known that the Boers of the Transvaal are interested in extending their territory in this direction. In the developing scramble for Africa the Portuguese could easily press west from Mozambique. So could the Germans, who by an agreement of 1886 have been allowed Tanganyika as a sphere of interest.
Rhodes has been preparing his campaign some years before the founding of the British South Africa Company in 1889. In 1885 he persuades the British government to secure Bechuanaland, which will be his springboard for the push north. And in 1888 he wins a valuable concession from Lobengula, whose kingdom is immediately north of the Transvaal.
Lobengula is the son of Mzilikazi, the leader of the Ndebele who established a new kingdom (in present-day Zimbabwe) after being driven north by the Boers in 1837. Fifty years later, in 1888, Lobengula grants Rhodes the mining rights in part of his territory (there are reports of gold) in return for 1000 rifles, an armed steamship for use on the Zambezi and a monthly rent of £100.
With these arrangements satisfactorily achieved, Rhodes sends the first party of colonists north from Bechuanaland in 1890. In September they settle on the site which today is Harare and begin prospecting for gold. In support of Rhodes’s scheme, the government declares the area a British protectorate in 1891.
The growth of the Rhodesias: AD 1890-1900
The population of settlers rapidly increases in the territory adminstered by Rhodes’s British South Africa Company. There are as many as 1500 Europeans in the region by 1892. More soon follow, thanks partly to developments in transport.
The railway from the Cape has reached Kimberley in 1885, at a fortuitous time just before the start of Rhodes’s ambitious venture (one of the stated aims of his company is to extend the line north to the Zambezi). Trains reach Bulawayo as early as 1896. Victoria Falls is the northern terminus by 1904. Meanwhile the territory has been given a name in honour of its colonial founder. From 1895 the region up to the Zambezi is known as Rhodesia.
During the early 1890s the company has considerable difficulty in maintaining its presence in these new territories. Lobengula himself tries to maintain peace with the British, but many of his tribe are eager to expel the intruders. The issue comes to a head when Leander Jameson, administering the region for Rhodes, finds a pretext in 1893 for war against Lobengula.
With five Maxim machine guns, Jameson easily fights his way into Lobengula’s kraal at Bulawayo. Lobengula flees, bringing to an end the Ndebele kingdom established by his father. There is a strong tribal uprising against the British in 1896-7, but thereafter Rhodes’s company brings the entire region up to the Zambezi under full control.
A settlers’ colony: AD 1890-1953
As with the founding fathers of early American colonies, the first European settlers in Rhodesia feel from the start that government should be in their hands. They insist on having a voice in the colony’s legislative assembly, which by 1903 consists of seven officials of the British South Africa Company and seven elected settlers.
Four years later they have a majority of the seats. And in 1914, when the company’s 25-year-charter is due to expire, it is their wishes which prevail. Self-government is their ambition. So their immediate concern is not to accept the embrace of their large neighbour, South Africa, which is eager to absorb this rich territory. They persuade the British government to extend the company’s charter for another ten years.
Eight years later, with the end of the new charter approaching, a referendum is held on the issue (limited to Rhodesia’s European population). Of the votes cast, 60% are for full internal self-government against 40% wishing to become the fifth province of the Union of South Africa.
On 12 September 1923 (thirty-three years to the day after the arrival of the first settlers at Harare) Rhodesia becomes a self-governing crown colony. It proves prosperous and successful, with the European population rising from 34,000 at the time of the referendum to 222,000 thirty years later.
By the 1950s the political future of all African colonies is under intense discussion. Among the European population of the two regions first settled by Rhodes’s company there is a general assumption that sooner or later Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia will merge to form a single independent nation.
But this is resisted by the Africans, now beginning to find a political voice. Black opposition is strongest in the northern colony, with its much smaller white minority. Here, from the African point of view, the danger of union seems all too evident. Northern Rhodesia will be overshadowed by the strong European culture of Rhodesia, postponing perhaps indefinitely the ideal of independence under black majority rule.
Federation: AD 1953-1963
Confronted with conflicting demands, and aware of its responsibilities for Nyasaland as well as the two Rhodesias, the British government imposes in 1953 an awkward compromise in the form of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This is to be a self-governing colony, with its own assembly and prime minister (first Lord Malvern, and from 1956 Roy Welensky).
The intention is to derive the greatest economic benefit from the larger unit while minimizing political tension between the three parts of the federation, each of which retains its existing local government.
The federated colonies are at differing stages in their political development. All they have in common is an almost complete absence of any African voice in the political process.
Rhodesia has been a self-governing colony for three decades, but with no African suffrage (a tiny ‘B roll’ of African voters is added to the electorate in 1957). Northern Rhodesia has a legislative council with, since 1948, two seats reserved for African members. At the time of federation there are no Africans on Nyasaland’s legislative council. Two years later, in 1955, places are found for five members.
The intended economic benefits materialize during the early years of the federation, helped by a world rise in copper prices, but this is not enough to stifle increasing political unrest – particularly as British colonies elsewhere in Africa win independence (beginning with Ghana in 1957).
In the early 1960s African politicians in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland win increasing power in their legislative councils. The pressure grows to break up the federation. In March 1963, by which time all three colonies are demanding independence, the British government finally concedes. The federation is formally dissolved on 31 December 1963.
Before and after UDI: AD 1957-1979
During the years of federation the parties are formed which will subsequently fight the bitter struggle for the future of an independent Rhodesia.
On the African side the first leader to emerge is Joshua Nkomo. In 1957 he is elected president of the local branch of the African National Congress. After this is banned in Rhodesia, he founds in 1960 the National Democratic Party. When this in turn is proscribed, in 1961, he replaces it with ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union). His colleagues in ZAPU include Ndabaningi Sithole and Robert Mugabe. Together they split from ZAPU in 1963 and form the rival ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union).
This political pressure from Rhodesia’s African majority, combined with support for their cause from the United Nations, causes the federal government in 1961 to introduce a new constitution, allowing for African representation in Rhodesia’s parliament.
But the proposal creates its own backlash, prompting Ian Smith to found a new party, the Rhodesian Front, committed to white supremacist policies and offering the promise of an independent Rhodesia governed by the European minority. In elections in 1962 the new party wins a surprise victory, replacing the more moderate United Federal Party. Winston Field becomes prime minister, with Ian Smith as his deputy.
On April 1964, four months after the end of the federation, Smith replaces Field as prime minister of Rhodesia, now once again a separate self-governing colony. His first act in office is to order the arrest of Nkomo and Mugabe. Each remains in detention until 1974 (Sithole joins them from November 1965).
Smith now tries to persuade the British government to grant the Rhodesian Front’s single overriding demand – independence on the basis of white minority rule. Meeting a flat refusal on this issue, he takes matters into his own hands. On 11 November 1965 he publishes a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).
The first response of the British government is patient diplomacy (including two meetings between Harold Wilson and Smith on warships off Gibraltar, the Tiger in 1966 and the Fearless in 1968), but this is met by intransigence on Smith’s part. The result is economic sanctions, imposed by the United Nations with British approval in 1968.
The sanctions take a long time to bite. Meanwhile guerrilla activity by separate ZAPU and ZANU forces from across the borders is having rather more unsettling effect – particularly after Nkomo and Mugabe settle their differences in 1976 and form a united Patriotic Front.
By 1978 Smith recognizes the need for concessions. He comes to an agreement with a moderate African leader, bishop Abel Muzorewa, leader of the UANC (United African National Council). In return for guarantees securing white political and economic interests, multi-racial elections will be held in 1979. With the Patriotic Front banned from participating, Muzorewa emerges as prime minister of a transitional government. But nothing is solved. The Patriotic Front continues its guerrilla campaign.
The situation is finally resolved at talks in London in December 1979, attended by all three African leaders. UDI is overturned and Rhodesia reverts briefly to the status of a British colony. Britain agrees to provide funds to purchase the land of British farmers willing to sell, for a much-needed land distribution programme. Elections are organized for February 1980.
Zimbabwe: from AD 1980
In the election Mugabe’s ZANU party wins a decisive victory over Nkomo and ZAPU. The newly independent nation takes the ancient name Zimbabwe. Mugabe rules at the start in a conciliatory manner. The provisions to protect European political rights are respected (Smith continues to serve as a member of parliament until 1987). And Nkomo is brought into the cabinet.
However there is an underlying conflict between ZANU and ZAPU. The former draws its support from the majority Shona people, while ZAPU is linked with the minority (but historically dominant) Ndebele. Tribal hostilities become a noticeable feature of Zimbabwe’s political life after Mugabe dismisses Nkomo from his cabinet in 1982, just two years after independence.
In 1987 the two leaders make a new attempt to resolve the nation’s divisions by merging their parties as ZANU-PF, making Zimbabwe effectively a one-party state. At the same time the constitution is changed to give Mugabe the role of executive president. Nkomo subsequently serves as a vice president (until his death in 1999).
During the 1980s Mugabe’s Marxist policies do harm to the economy, but in the changing fashion of the 1990s there is a move towards a market system. There is also a token gesture towards multiparty democracy, though this does nothing to prevent ZANU-PF winning 98% of the seats in parliament in 1995. In 1996 Mugabe is elected unopposed for a new six-year term as president.
Several factors cause widespread unease about Zimbabwe after twenty years of independence. Political opponents are persecuted. Sithole, for example, is evicted from his farm in 1994 and is arrested in 1995 for allegedly plotting to assassinate Mugabe. It is widely suspected that the underlying purpose in each case is to dissuade him from standing as a presidential candidate in 1996.
The white community is unsettled by frequently announced plans to appropriate many of their farms without compensation, for redistribution to Africans. And there are allegations of financial corruption in senior government circles.
The underlying tensions flare up in dramatic fashion during the first half of 2000. In February Mugabe is defeated in a referendum designed to increase his hold on power. His immediate response is to escalate his long-standing campaign to appropriate the larger commercial farms owned by white Rhodesians. Mugabe’s armed supporters, described as veterans of the war for independence, forcibly occupy some 500 farms (out of a total of 4500 owned by whites).
Meanwhile a new opposition party – the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), formed in January and led by a trade unionist, Morgan Tsvangirai – shows signs of being able to mount a very serious challenge to ZANU-PF in forthcoming elections.
The election campaign is marred by high levels of violence and intimidation from Mugabe supporters, resulting in thirty or more deaths. Even so, the result is close. ZANU-PF wins 62 seats in the new assembly, with MDC just short of victory with 57.
Immediately after the election, in June 2000, Mugabe publishes a list of 804 large commercial farms (most, but not all, white-owned) which are to be appropriated by the state for the resettlement of peasants. He insists that compensation is the responsibility of the British government.
This is something which in principle is agreed in London, since it is widely recognized that the ancestors of the British farmers claimed dubious ownership over these lands a mere hundred years ago. On independence in 1980 there was an agreed scheme for compensation. It was discontinued by Britain in 1988 on the grounds that the benefit was accruing not to Zimbabwe’s peasants but to the political elite (of 2000 farms acquired by the government in this way, 420 were transferred to the ownership of prominent ZANU-PF supporters).
The land problem is likely to remain on Zimbabwe’s political agenda rather longer than Mugabe himself, whose dictatorial behaviour and attempts to cling to power become increasingly extreme as the new millennium progresses.
In 2007, in the run up to the 2008 general and presidential elections, Tsvangirai is arrested on his way to a Harare prayer meeting and is severely beaten and tortured in prison. But with great courage he emerges from hospital to continue his political campaign against Mugabe, in a context in which the Zimbabwean economy has collapsed with inflation running at a level unheard of since Germany in the 1920s.
When the elections are held, at the end of March 2008, it is announced that in the parliamentary contest Tsvangirai’s party has defeated Mugabe’s (MDC 99 seats, ZANU-PF 97 seats in the assembly). And exit polls suggest that, in spite of intimidation of MDC supporters, Tsvangirai has defeated Mugabe in the presidential election. But in spite of mounting international pressure Mugabe refuses to release the presidential results, saying merely that he will be contesting a second round. Tsvangirai, convinced that he has won, says that he will refuse to participate in an illegal second round.