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Zimbabwe has been populated since the Stone Age. Indeed, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, dating back to the ancient African kingdom of Munhumatapa, testify to the advanced level of civilization that existed before the Europeans even got there.
Zimbabwe has long been home to the Shona people who today make up about 80% of the population. In the 1830s however, the region was thrown into upheaval by the northward migration of Ndebele people, a Zulu clan, from South Africa who enslaved the indigenous Shona people until the end of the century. Then things really started to change: the British arrived in 1888, headed by coloniser-king Cecil Rhodes who controlled the British South Africa Company. He had it in mind that all the land from the Cape to Cairo should belong to the British. And while his great railroad through Africa failed, he did colonise this region, giving it the modest name of Rhodesia.
The country’s road to independence was a long and rocky one. It became Southern Rhodesia in 1923, and in 1953 it joined with Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi) to form the Central African Federation. A nationalist movement emerged to protest against the new federation - at the forefront was the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), mostly Ndebele, led by Joshua Nkomo. It was shortly joined by the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), mostly Shona, led by Ndabaningi Sithole.
After the collapse of the federation in 1963, both ZAPU and ZANU were banned, and the majority of their leaders imprisoned. Relations between the white minority government - led by Ian Smith - and Britain soured over the government’s treatment of black citizens. Under increasing pressure to change its ways, the white government declared independence from Britain in 1965 and UN sanctions against Rhodesia followed in 1968. Both ZAPU and ZANU began campaigns of guerrilla warfare from their bases in Zambia and Mozambique and by 1972 it had become a fully-fledged civil war. The coming of independence in Angola and Mozambique in 1975 put more pressure on Smith to accept majority rule. He eventually conceded and released the imprisoned nationalist leaders. Talks led to an agreement known as the Internal Settlement. Finally, in 1979 under the Lancaster House agreement, its legal status as the British colony of Southern Rhodesia was restored in preparation for free elections and independence as Zimbabwe. Elections were held with 53 out of the 80 seats going to ZANU, Robert Mugabe became president, and the capital Salisbury was renamed Harare. Zimbabwe formally became independent in 1980 in a ceremony attended by Britain’s Prince Charles and Bob Marley who wrote and performed a special song entitled ‘Zimbabwe’.
However, the post-colonial government has been far from successful. Almost immediately there was bitter rivalry between ZAPU and ZANU, and from 1982 to 1983 the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, composed mostly of Shona soldiers, was sent by the government to Matabeleland where they massacred between 2 000 and 8 000 Ndebele civilians. No one has ever been prosecuted for these massacres, and commanders who perpetrated them are now at high levels of the Zimbabwe armed forces. Nkomo (ZAPU) left for exile in Britain, but returned in 1988 when talks led to the merger of the two rival parties as ZANU-PF.
Matters worsened in the late-1990s. Mugabe moved to increase his grip on power and eliminate any political opposition, throwing political opponents or journalists who criticized him into prison. He has since tried to change the constitution so it protects his position, and insists that it is the British, by not fulfilling their independence promises, that are the root of all evil in Zimbabwe.
His government became a synonym for economic mismanagement and corruption. Along with all this there was the forced and often violent removal of white farmers in a land redistribution programme which led to the destruction of much of Zimbabwe’s agricultural base. Over 100 000 farmers, farm workers and their families lost their homes and jobs.
It was only a matter of time before organised opposition re-emerged. At the beginning of 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, which pitted itself against ZANU-PF in the 2002 elections. Surprisingly, ZANU-PF won the controversial election. However, it was considered far from free and fair and it is alleged that violence and intimidation were used in anti-Mugabe strongholds to prevent citizens from voting. In 2002, as a result of its claimed human rights abuses and election rigging, Zimbabwe was temporarily suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations. Mugabe retaliated by withdrawing his country from the Commonwealth altogether.
Well into his 80s, Mugabe has few years left and his demise is sure to be the catalyst for change in Zimbabwe. Predictably, the conflict caused economic havoc: fuel shortages, rampant inflation, and an increase in crime, especially around Harare, the capital. But these incidents are not directed towards tourists: quite the contrary - the ordinary people of Zimbabwe are desperate for the tourism industry to reignite, to fuel the economy and create jobs.
And now as the 21st Century enters its second decade, things have calmed down in Zimbabwe. The US dollar has replaced the worthless Zimbabwe dollar, political power is shared (albeit not very fairly) and tourists are returning to Zimbabwe ready to embrace the country once again.