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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Zimbabwe

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date March 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Zimbabwe, March 2009, available at: [accessed 24 November 2017]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Zimbabwe lies in the heart of southern Africa, sharing a long eastern border with Mozambique, southern and western borders with South Africa and Botswana, and a north-western border with Zambia along the Zambezi River. In the north-west it also touches on Namibia's Caprivi Strip. Much of the country consists of high plateau, climbing to mountains in the east. The country is rich in deposits of chromium ore and other minerals.


The first Bantu peoples arrived in today's Zimbabwe around 2,000 years ago, displacing the original population of Khoisan hunter- gatherers. About 1,100 years ago, Shona-speaking Bantus began establishment of various states, including that of Great Zimbabwe. In the following centuries Shona kingdoms developed thriving trade with Arab and Swahili merchants at the coast of the Indian Ocean. Portuguese invaders in the 16th century disrupted this trade, but their challenge encouraged the Shona (Mashona) kingdoms to band together into the prosperous Rozvi Empire, which drove away the Portuguese. In 1837, following clashes with the Zulu, Ndebele people invading from South Africa conquered the Shona and established themselves as a ruling class. However, just 40 years later British businessman Cecil Rhodes arrived, seeking access to the area's gold mines for his British South Africa Company. The Ndebele signed a concession agreement with Rhodes in 1888, but the company increased its demands. The Ndebele and the Shona revolted, but were defeated by company militia in the Matabele Wars of 1893-1897.

A new British territory called 'Rhodesia' was established and white immigration increased. In 1911 the territory split into Northern Rhodesia (today's Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (today's Zimbabwe). Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony in 1922, in which blacks were denied a vote, and blacks were subsequently stripped of access to the best farmland. From 1953 to 1963 Southern Rhodesia was united with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today's Malawi) in the 'Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland'. In 1963, when anti-colonial protests led to the dissolution of the Federation, and with independence for Zambia and Malawi nearing, Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith resisted British pressure for the introduction of majority rule. In the state now renamed simply 'Rhodesia', Smith faced growing resistance movements: the predominantly Ndebele Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo, and the Shona splinter group, Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Ndabaningi Sithole and Robert Mugabe.

Smith declared Rhodesian independence from Britain in 1965 and jailed the ZAPU and ZANU leaders from 1964 to 1974. Nkomo and Mugabe then left the country and launched separate armed movements against the Smith regime. Pressure from the rebel movements and UN sanctions eventually forced the Smith regime to relent to majority rule in 1979. In the country's first free elections of March 1980, the Shona-dominated ZANU overwhelmed the largely Ndebele ZAPU, with voting largely following ethnic lines and Robert Mugabe became president of Zimbabwe.

Shortly after his 1980 election, Mugabe summoned nationalism among the Shona people - comprising about 70 per cent of the population - to consolidate his power and sideline his greatest liberation rival, the Ndebele tribesman and ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo. It is estimated that Mugabe's 'Gukurahundi' pogrom in the Ndebele heartlands of Matabeleland and the Midlands from 1983-1987 resulted in 10,000-20,000 killings. In 1985 voting had also largely followed ethnic lines, but at the end of the killing in 1987, ZAPU was absorbed into ZANU, and Zimbabwe became a de facto one-party state under Mugabe's ZANU-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

President Mugabe made halting attempts to steer the country away from ZANU-PF's embrace of Marxism and towards a market economy. A growing debt burden, the social pinch of structural adjustment policies, and severe drought tipped the country into economic crisis in the early 1990s. Throughout the decade, discontent in Zimbabwe mounted, fuelled by the continued inequity in the distribution of land. Whites, who made up only one per cent of the population after independence in 1980, still owned around 70 per cent of Zimbabwe's arable land.

Frightened by a national strike in 1997 and subsequent demonstrations, Mugabe made the issue of land redistribution his own. But instead of backing land reform, in 2000 he authorized a land grab, accompanied by fiery, anti-white rhetoric. Over the next few years, seized white farms were handed to blacks, and it became apparent that political loyalty to ZANU-PF was the most important determinant of re-distribution, trumping need, skill, or status as a bona fide veteran of the liberation war. The bottom fell out of Zimbabwe's economy as the country followed a trajectory of dictatorship, despair and deepening international isolation.


Main languages: Shona, SiNdebele, English

Main religions: syncretic Christianity, Christianity, indigenous beliefs, Islam

Minority groups include Ndebele and Kalanga 2.2 million, (Ethnologue 2001/2000), Tonga 140,000, (Ethnologue 2001) Shangaan (Tsonga), Venda 84,000 (Ethnologue 1989) and whites 47,000 (2002 census).

The Shona-speaking people, who today form about 77 per cent of the population, did not originally see themselves as a 'tribe'. Shona-speakers were spread over great distances and lacked consciousness of a common cultural or political identity. 'Shona-ness' is thus a creation of the past hundred years. Colonial missionaries and administrators set about categorizing Shona into clusters or sub-tribes on the basis of largely spurious inferences. These artificial constructs took on lives of their own, and sub-groupings and hierarchies emerged: Zezeru (central), Karanga (south-central) and Manyika (east) are the three largest blocs.

With about 14 per cent of the population (16 per cent if the affiliated Kalanga are included), Ndebele are Zimbabwe's largest minority and their traditional lands (Matabeleland) are in the south-west of the country, around Bulawayo.

At the political and geographical margins outside the Shona-Ndebele polarity are three peoples together making up about 2 per cent of Zimbabwe's population. Shangaan and Venda people live mainly in the far south of Zimbabwe, and Tonga were forced to abandon their ancestral homes on the shores of the Zambesi River in the north of the country in 1957-8 after construction of the hydro-electric dam at Kariba.


From 1998 to 2002, President Mugabe involved Zimbabwe in the wars of the Democratic Republic of Congo, fighting on the side of the Kinshasa regime and gaining spoils from that country's rich natural resources for ZANU-PF insiders. The unpopular military adventure burdened an already faltering economy, and helped to prompt the formation in 1999 of an opposition group called the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

In 2000, Mugabe attempted to amend the constitution to allow himself two more terms as president, and the power to dissolve parliament, but these moves were rejected in a referendum broadly perceived by Zimbabweans as a vote of no-confidence in his government. Later in 2000, the MDC nearly defeated ZANU-PF in parliamentary elections. Following his bitter defeat in the referendum, and newly vulnerable to an organized opposition, Mugabe launched his program of farm confiscation from whites - accompanied by demagogic rhetoric.

Ahead of presidential elections in 2002, Mugabe pushed through a law limiting freedom of the press. ZANU-PF also introduced more restrictive citizenship laws in a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise whites born in Zimbabwe. The wording of the new law also affected Zimbabweans with roots elsewhere in Africa.

Mugabe won re-election in March 2002 following the expulsion of the head of the EU election monitoring mission and that mission's withdrawal. Commonwealth and other observers condemned the electoral process as deeply flawed, prompting the EU to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe, and the Commonwealth to suspend its membership. Drought compounded the chaos in Zimbabwe's traditionally strong agricultural sector, sown by ill- conceived land re-distribution, and later in 2002 brought the country to the brink of famine.

With discontent once again mounting, the Mugabe regime launched a brutal crackdown on the MDC following a general strike in March 2003. MDC leader (and fellow Shona tribesman) Morgan Tsvangirai was arrested and charged with treason over an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe. Zimbabwe's courts, which still retain vestiges of independence despite several years of overt political manipulation by the ZANU-PF government, have subsequently dismissed all charges against Tsvangirai.

In March 2005 voting for parliament, ZANU-PF regained the two-thirds majority it had lost in 2000. Domestic opponents and most international observers regarded the elections as deeply flawed. During the campaign, ZANU-PF turned the economic crisis to its advantage by withholding food aid from disproportionately Ndebele MDC supporters, while directing increased distribution to disproportionately Shona ZANU-PF supporters.

Its two-thirds parliamentary majority restored, Mugabe and ZANU-PF set about immediately to further amend the constitution to their own ends. The executive gained more authority over electoral processes, the attorney general gained new powers, the government could now seize the passports of those deemed threats to national security, and a series of changes removed the possibility for white farmers to appeal through the courts the confiscation of their lands.

The leadership of the MDC has been Shona, in the shape of veteran leader, Morgan Tsvangirai and now the breakaway leader, Arthur Mutambara. But there has always been a strong contingent of Ndebele in the senior ranks of the MDC. The 2006 split within the MDC further emphasized the opposition's ethnic dimensions, with the Ndebele led by Secretary-General, Welshman Ncube, generally siding with the Mutambara faction.

Despite rigging the system in his favour and employing a range of intimidation tactics, Mugabe and ZANU-PF fared poorly in March 2008 parliamentary and presidential elections. The government election commission was slow to release results, some of which were subject to partial 'recounts'. Nonetheless, ZANU-PF lost its majority in parliament. Publication of the results in the presidential race took about a month - well beyond the legal deadline. When they were finally released, they showed the leader of the main MDC faction, Morgan Tsvangirai, with a slight lead over Mugabe. The MDC claimed that Tsvangirai received over half of the vote, and the US State Department agreed with the assessment. However, in the delayed official count, Tsvangirai's total came to less than 50 per cent of the vote, necessitating a second-round run-off against Mugabe. The government continued its campaign of violence and intimidation ahead of the scheduled June run-off. Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the election the week before the scheduled vote, citing extensive violence against his supporters. His claims were supported by African and other international observers, as well as governments around the world. Some African leaders called on Mugabe to step down in the wake of 'sham' elections, but South African President Thabo Mbeki - leading the government with the most international sway over Zimbabwe - remained set on his long-standing strategy of quiet persuasion. Former South African President Nelson Mandela, however, condemned Mugabe's 'tragic failure of leadership'.

The efforts of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) finally resulted in a settlement between Mugabe and the two fractions of the MDC and in September 2008 Mugabe agreed on a power-sharing deal. However, Mugabe's rejection to hand over key ministerial posts ended in a political deadlock that could only be resolved in January 2009 after Tsvangirai threatened to quit negotiations until authorities release MDC supporters and activists. In February 2009 Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister.



Minority based and advocacy organisations

Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ)
Tel: +263-4-791-053, 792-380

Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition
Tel: +263-91-419-445 (mobile)

National Constitutional Assembly
Tel: +263-4-736-338, 730-431/2

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions
Tel: +263-4-794-702, 794-742, 702-517

Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights)
Tel: +263-4-707-278, 705-898

Sources and further reading

Amnesty International, Zimbabwe: No Justice for the Victims of Forced Eviction, September 2006.

Hitchens, C. et al., Inequalities in Zimbabwe, London, MRG report, 1981.

Human Rights Watch, 'You Will Be Thoroughly Beaten': The Brutal Suppression of Dissent in Zimbabwe, November 2006.

International Crisis Group, Blood and Soil: Land, Politics and Conflict Prevention in Zimbabwe and South Africa, September 2004.

International Crisis Group, Zimbabwe's Operation Murambatsvina: The Tipping Point?, August 2005.

International Crisis Group, Zimbabwe's Continuing Self-Destruction, June 2006.

International Crisis Group, Zimbabwe: An Opposition Strategy, August 2006.

Ranger, T., 'Missionaries, migrants and the Manyika', in L. Vail (ed.), The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, London, James Currey, 1989.

Legal Resources Foundation and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980-1989, 1997.

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