The Origins of the “Zimbabwe Crisis”

The general impression of Zimbabwe in the English-speaking world is that of great tragedy and collapse. This is not unusual for Africa, where feelings of doom and disaster permeate the public perception of the entire continent. What is unusual, however, is the fixation on events leading up to Zimbabwe’s current state. Whether it’s questions about race, communism, colonialism, or authoritarianism, people build narratives around this conflict in a way they generally don’t around, say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This includes romanticism around the former white supremacist state of Rhodesia and the so-called “Bush War”, with the vaguely mythological characterization of a lost cause to boot.


Aerial view of Great Zimbabwe’s Great Enclosure and adjacent ruins looking southeast from the Hill Fort.

Like much of the rest of Africa, Zimbabwe has always been a diverse region. Zimbabwe holds the record for the country with the most official languages, consisting of a constellation of thirteen Bantu languages, “Khoisan”, a standardized version of multiple sign language dialects, and English. The original inhabitants of the area around Zimbabwe are the variously named San, “bushmen”, or Tshwa. These indigenous people have occupied the region for at least tens of thousands of years. Together with the Khoikhoi pastoralists who came later, this diverse grouping of people is collectively called Khoisan.

A group of Bantu speaking farmers arrived between the 7th and 9th centuries, perhaps earlier, broadly displacing the Khoisan. With their iron weapons, they may have been able to dominate the native peoples and push those who did not want to assimilate into inhospitable and inaccessible environments. It’s also possible that the Khoisan saw the advantages of Bantu technologies and integrated them into their own lifestyles. Both assimilation and replacement factored into the Bantu migration, but considering the extreme marginalization and diminished population currently experienced by modern Khoisan peoples, it’s hard to imagine violence was not a defining factor.

Zimbabwe is named after the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, believed to be built by members of a group of Bantu peoples now collectively called Shona. These ruins consist of the largest stone complex in pre-modern Africa outside of Egypt. Constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries, European travelers were astounded by the mortarless stone walls, and pushed for the idea that it could have only been built by a “white civilization”. Despite efforts to destroy evidence it was built by Africans, British archaeologists have concluded its unquestionable Shona origins since 1905. Archaeological evidence points towards Great Zimbabwe being part of a wealthy trade network reaching as far as China.


A guerrilla prisoner waits with a noose shortly before white cavalry troopers drag him behind their horses.

After the collapse of Great Zimbabwe in the mid 15th century, the Shona moved north and established the kingdom of Mutapa. Portuguese traders heard legends of the gold and wealth emanating from this fractional but prosperous kingdom as they facilitated trade between Africa and India through ports founded in the early 16th century in what is now Mozambique. By 1540, the traders had established a trade mission in the royal court and were paying regular tribute. The Portuguese became heavily involved in the politics of the region and were involved in a number of succession crises that weakened the kingdom. This culminated in 1693, when a rebel leader possibly originating from a rival kingdom in the south defeated the Mutapa and expelled the Portuguese.

Besides the Shona, the other Bantu faction critical for understanding modern Zimbabwe is the Ndebele. Originating in what is now South Africa, in the early 19th century the Ndebele were driven north by Dutch colonialists and internal troubles within the Zulu Empire (yes, those Zulus). This was part of a broader trend of warfare and instability that resulted in the displacement of peoples all across southern Africa. In many cases, the Ndebele subjected the Shona to brutal subjugation and raids.

The Ndebele lived in a highly stratified society based primarily on military power and extracting tribute from subjugated peoples like the Shona. This created tension with white colonialists, who wanted to use the Shona as a labor force to support their own economic ambitions. Cecil Rhodes in particular wanted to create a British railway that stretched “from Cairo to Cape Town”, part of his grander plan to bring the whole world under the control of the British “master race”. In 1888, the Ndebele king Lobengula signed a concession with Rhodes that traded mineral rights and control over his diamond mines in exchange for money, guns, and ammunition. As the Portuguese and Boers were also demanding concessions, and Lobengula understood the futility of waging war against Europeans, the deal may have been the most appealing given the large number of weapons on offer, as well as the promise not to lay claims to the land.

Rhodes sent a large party of settlers supported by heavily armed company police into the area, which broke oral promises made to Lobengula. Local Shona people took advantage of the British presence to protect themselves from Ndebele raiding parties, disrupting the system of extracting tribute that maintained the Ndebele. This led to massacres of the Shona and then war, which the British won handily due to their superior machine gun firepower and a lack of firearms training on the part of the Ndebele. A second revolt broke out in 1896 (here’s an account by the founder of the Boy Scouts) which involved both Ndebele and Shona rebel forces responding to drought, oppression, taxes, and coercive labor. Although this too would be crushed by the colonists, it has been immortalized in the minds of Zimbabweans as the First Chimurenga, or revolutionary struggle.


Rhodesian soldier interrogating villagers in late 1977

The area that is now Zimbabwe was administered by the British South African Company, founded by Cecil Rhodes, from 1889 until 1923, at which point private commercial control was handed over to the British government. The economic life of this corporate holding centered around farming and mining, which was based on the seizure of native property and lands as well as compulsory labor. Over time, settler agriculture became the dominant form of economic activity and native farmers were either exploited as tenants or pushed into marginal areas. By the time the Bush War had begun, farms were separated into large holdings operated by black wage laborers and owned by whites, and a smaller sector of independent black farmers with holdings “not much above the margins of subsistence”.

In 1965, the white government of Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes, declared independence from Britain. This was in response to the British policy of No Independence before Majority African Rule, which meant that Rhodesia would have to give political power to native Africans before legally declaring independence. In response, the United Nations declared an international embargo on 90% of Rhodesia’s exports, the first attempt to depose a regime through economic sanctions. These sanctions were not entirely effective as trade actually increased with South Africa, Portugal, France, West Germany, Iran, and Japan.

Early black nationalist resistance to the colonial regime started with trade unionism and general strikes in the 40s. Civil disobedience, including a bus boycott, preceded the formation of the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress in 1957, the first black nationalist political party. It was banned in 1959. Efforts to achieve freedom through legal means were consistently countered with brutal repression. To make a very long story short, violence was eventually met with violence and the militant ZANU and ZAPU parties were formed. ZANU, associated with the political prisoner Robert Mugabe, was backed by the People’s Republic of China and was based in the Shona countryside. ZAPU, associated with Joshua Nkomo, was backed by the Soviet Union and pulled support mostly from the Ndebele with Shona allies.

Called the Second Chimurenga by the Shona, armed struggle began soon after the white government declared independence from the United Kingdom. The conflict was brutal and global in scope. The Rhodesian government took advantage of deadly chemical weapons, foreign (including American) mercenaries, an impressive air force, and a majority black ground force. The guerillas, informed by Maoist doctrine, enjoyed favorable geography, support of the rural peasant population, training and weapons from communist nations, and sanctuary in other African nations. Despite a desperate last ditch effort to establish a biracial government, by 1980 a settlement had been reached that transferred power over to the revolutionaries.


Zimbabwe’s modern history is fraught to say the least. Elections ensued after the Lancaster Agreement was signed, a ceasefire agreement that established majority rule with 20 of 100 seats in parliament reserved for whites. The American Freedom House called the elections “essentially free but not entirely fair” due to rampant voter intimidation. Robert Mugabe ended up winning the election, surviving two assassination attempts, and his party won the majority of seats. For the first 37 years of its existence, the nation was ruled by Robert Mugabe, who over time concentrated the powers of the constitutional republic in the executive. Although the system was based on a competitive multi-party system, over time Mugabe consolidated power into the Shona-dominated ZANU party.

Within three years, ethnic and political tensions between the Shona ZANU and Ndebele ZAPU broke out in a massacre now known as the Gukurahundi: Shona for “the early rain that washes away the chaff”. Considered by many Zimbabweans to be an act of ethnic cleansing or genocide, unspeakable horror was inflicted upon tens of thousands of Ndebele former militants and civilians under the guise of quelling a dissident movement.

Zimbabwe is currently experiencing severe problems with poverty, hunger, health, and government oppression. Although Zimbabwe experienced high economic growth for Sub-Saharan Africa during the 80s thanks in part to an extensive program of public spending, a failed economic liberalization campaign followed by an utterly disastrous land reform program led to the downfall of Zimbabwe’s economy. Called the Third Chimurenga by Robert Mugabe, the land reform program involved violent seizures which essentially redistributed land from the white owning class to political cronies, shafting black farm workers in the process. Agricultural production plummeted and sanctions ensued, leading to a famine. In 2005, Operation Murambatsvina cost 700,000 Zimbabweans their homes as police bulldozed informal housing structures and torched “illegal” shantytowns. In 2008, inflation reached 231,000,000%. According to one estimate, at least 25% of the Zimbabwean population now live outside of the country.


I wrote this article to address a number of problems I have with the narratives surrounding the history of Zimbabwe. Most glaring of all is the monopolization of white colonialist narratives and a perspective on the country that implicitly treats it as no more than an offshoot of a supposedly successful white government. Besides this, there is a tendency to conceptualize the nation in terms of flat and unimaginative terms that fit into Western political understandings but fail to account for the complexities and particularities of Zimbabwe’s situation.

I started off the article with a heavy emphasis on pre-colonial history because I wanted to emphasize that Zimbabwe’s current situation has deep roots, no different from any other nation on the planet. Native Africans governed themselves for hundreds of years before they established contact with Europeans. With an absence of written documentation, we cannot possibly know this history with any sort of precision, but it is not difficult to imagine it was just as complex and intriguing as many a Medieval European state. Zimbabwe unambiguously disproves white supremacist lies that Africans are “incapable of ruling themselves”.

A simplistic dichotomy of communist failure and capitalist success also breaks down under the slightest bit of scrutiny. Economic liberalization was disastrous for Zimbabwe, whereas the initial period where government spending held primacy was stable and prosperous. A complex set of factors and decisions ultimately influenced the economic outcome of Zimbabwe, and although lessons may be learned from them, they cannot be fit neatly into uncomplicated little boxes. This crisis is incredibly complex, and this article does not begin to scratch the surface of it.

Although I certainly developed some strong opinions over the course of researching this article, most of what I learned had to be cut for the sake of brevity. There are paragraphs in here that could be stretched out into their own articles. In particular, I think the civil disobedience prior to the breakout of war in Rhodesia warrants greater study, although sources on the topic are scarce. This article was honestly very frustrating to research for. Most of the documentation focuses on military operations, to the point it felt like fetishization. Considering the history of colonialism and war crimes committed by the Rhodesian forces, this is more than a little disturbing.

Ultimately, we need to think more complexly about the world. Africa in particular demands much more thorough thought and understanding. For too long, the wide array of stories on this continent have been simplified into overly simplistic narratives that serve a simplified view of the history. We cannot possibly expect to understand our own histories without a deeper understanding of these stories and how they integrate into the broad story of humanity.

We owe to it the people who live in these nations to approach their world with a desire to genuinely understand and listen. In the case of this article on Zimbabwe, I had to simplify a great deal and it still demonstrates far more complexity than the narratives I have spent my life absorbing about the country. We can do better, and we should.

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Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

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