Early History of Zimbabwe

The country of Zimbabwe does not have one single history. It only became a single geographical entity with the colonial occupation by the British Empire. There were throughout history many different peoples, kingdoms and polities which inhabited the land.

The British begun their incursions into the area in the 1880s. In exchange for wealth and arms, Ndebele King Lobengula approved several franchises to the British. Englishman Cecil John Rhodes gained exclusive mineral rights. He used this concession to obtain a royal charter (a formal document issued by the British monarch granting him rights and power) to form the British South African Company.

Following the king’s death in 1894, the conquest of the Ndebele people was completed. The whole country of Zimbabwe had become a British colony named Rhodesia.

The Colony of Rhodesia

Rhodesia was established as a settler-colony in the style of Australia or Canada. This meant that land seizures, segregated colonial governance and attracting settlers through special white privileges, were central policies. The notion of “citizenship” civil rights and urban spaces were reserved for the white population. By 1922 64% of all African people were forced to live in reserves.

Settler violence against African people was common. The small-scale African farmers in Rhodesia were self sufficient and had no need for seeking wage labor in the white cities. Yet the settlers needed cheap labor to work in their mines, farms, and factories. Black people were forced into slave labor in the white economy.

Rhodesia and Zimbabwe: The Struggle for National Liberation

The late 1950s brought a rise in resistance to colonial rule in Southern Rhodesia. New political parties organized to fight for the liberation from white minority rule. They became increasingly militant.

In 1964 Ian Smith was elected Prime Minister and declared Rhodesia an independent country under white minority rule. Smith and his Patriotic Front increased the repression. In response, two liberation armies were founded: the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA). For the next 15 years these armies would fight the Rhodesian security forces.

By the mid-1970's, Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal and South Africa was withdrawing most of its military support. It became impossible for the Rhodesian forces to win. In March 1978 some of the so-called moderate black political leadership made “the Internal Settlement” with Ian Smith and the Rhodesian regime. The agreement promised national elections in which all white people and some black people could vote for a new national government. In March 1979 Abel Muzorewa and his United African National Council (UANC) won the elections and Muzorewa became Prime Minister. Rhodesia got a new flag and was now renamed Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. The new country was not recognized internationally.

Elections were held again in February 1980. Robert Mugabe became the first African Prime Minister of an independent Zimbabwe.

Source: Zimbabwe
By South African History Online, CC BY-SA 4.0

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