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< BACKHistory, Culture and Politics - Zimbabwe

The San were the first people to inhabit Southern Africa and around 30,000 fascinating rock art sites can be seen in present day Zimbabwe. Around 2,000 years ago it appears that San tribes began to keep small numbers of livestock and to plant grain so limiting their nomadic lifestyle. Pottery and iron smelting also began here at around this time. Between 200BC and AD1000, Bantu tribes migrated south into the area, largely displacing the San.

The 10th century saw the first signs of an embryonic Shona society developing on the central plateau region of modern Zimbabwe. These first foundations led to the growth of the first major Shona State. Historians are unsure whether the forefathers of the Shona had arrived in the Bantu tribe migration, or whether they originated from San tribes who settled into a less nomadic life. Cattle ownership increased, as did skills enabling the Shona to produce iron tools

Gold mining led to contact with Arab traders from the coast and steadily the wealth increased. This status enabled cattle barons to establish a complex settlement at Great Zimbabwe, at the crossroads of seasonal grazing areas. At its height, Great Zimbabwe was home to 40,000 people and an army was employed to guard the cattle. The site was only occupied for around 300 years, and by 1450 the area had been abandoned, probably due to drought, overpopulation and exhausted supplies of firewood. The Torwa & Rozvi were also strong states at the time of Great Zimbabwe, controlling large cattle herds and building settlements from stone.

The Mutapa dynasty in the north and east of the country was one of the next great powers. Originally based at Great Zimbabwe, this state broke away during the last years of the settlement. Tales of fantastic wealth and riches on the scale of 'King Solomon's Mines' made their way back to the coast from Swahili traders and prompted Portuguese explorer Antonio Fernandes, the first westerner, to enter this area in 1513. Explorers, traders & missionaries now began to venture inland to seek the Munhumutapa people.

Eventually, trading posts were established and in return for the ivory & gold shipped out of the country, maize was brought from the Americas (still the staple diet of Zimbabwe today) and lemons from India were brought to the Munhumutapa. In 1818 Shaka Zulu took over the leadership of the Zulu nation to the south and began a reign of violence that scattered clans and gave the Zulu their fierce reputation.

Three of the tribes forced northwards by the violence became known as the Ndebele and settled in the west of present day Zimbabwe, near what is now the city of Bulawayo, in 1837. The Ndebele now make up the second largest language group in Zimbabwe.

The missionary Robert Moffatt was the first British citizen to reach the country, in 1854. He was closely followed by his son-in-law, David Livingstone. News of the enormous natural and mineral wealth of the country soon reached England, and the British had occupied the area by 1890. By 1895 the country had been named Rhodesia, after the mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes' British South Africa Company was given the support of the crown to push for domination of the African continent from north to south, the idea of a Cape to Cairo railway was pursued and major sections of this were completed, although the end result was never accomplished.

Taxes, land appropriation and forced labour led to severe discontent among the colonised inhabitants, and a war of liberation began. The first uprising was soon quashed in 1893, after this the Shona and the Ndebele (traditional enemies) united against the British. Many settlers were killed, but the superior firepower of the British ensured that no serious threat to the colonial power was acknowledged. Britain ruled Rhodesia for the next 85 years, dominating the language, economy and infrastructure of the country. In 1957 Joshua Nkomo became the president of the newly formed Southern Rhodesia African National Congress which split into two factions in 1963; the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwean African People's Union (ZAPU). Furious rivalry between the two organisations followed. At the same time, white Rhodesians were pushing the British government for independence on their terms, and Prime Minister Ian Smith finally achieved this by pronouncing Unilateral Independence in 1965. UN sanctions followed and the Shona & Ndebele again took up arms.

The armed struggle was largely ineffectual until the 1970's when the rural guerrilla movement gained the logistical support of a newly independent Moçambique. The Rhodesian military intelligence responded by forming Renamo, a guerrilla movement aimed at destroying Moçambique's infrastructure and bringing down the Marxist government. By the mid 1970's outside influences from the USA and South Africa were pushing for a settlement to the on-going conflict, and in 1979 an all party conference in London saw the signing of a peace accord with the first free elections being held in February 1980. ZANU won with Robert Mugabe becoming the Zimbabwe's first (and only, so far) president.

27,000 people had died in the war of independence, and 150,000 more had become refugees. Despite this difficult starting point, the economy began to soar with the 1980's being hailed as a boom decade for the new country. Up to two thirds of Rhodesians left, but the white farmers stayed and continued to provide the backbone of the economy. Conflicts between ZANU & ZAPU continued, however, with violent bloodshed in Matabeleland, the home of the Ndebele. A resolution was reached in 1987 and ZAPU's leader, Joshua Nkomo, became Mugabe's vice president. ZANU became ZANU (PF), the PF standing for People's Front.

Land issues, which the liberation movement had promised to solve, re-emerged as the main issue for the ruling party around 1997. Despite majority rule and the existence of a "willing-buyer-willing-seller" land reform programme since the 1980s, whites made up less than 1% of the population but held about 70% of the most arable land. Mugabe began to redistribute land to blacks in 2000 with compulsory land redistribution.

Eventually a wide range of sanctions were imposed by the US government and European Union against the person of Mugabe and the government. The confiscation of the farmland was affected by continuous droughts and lack of inputs and finance led to a sharp decline in agricultural exports, which was traditionally the country's leading export producing sector.

As a result, Zimbabwe experienced a severe hard-currency shortage that led to hyperinflation and chronic shortages in imported fuel and consumer goods. In 2002, Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations.

Zimbabwe's current economic and food crisis, described by some observers as the country's worst humanitarian crisis since independence, has been attributed in varying degrees to the government's price controls and land confiscations, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and a drought affecting the entire region.

In late 2008, problems in Zimbabwe reached crisis proportions in the areas of living standards, public health (with a major cholera outbreak in December) and various public considerations.

In September 2008, a power-sharing agreement was reached between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, in which Mugabe remained president and Tsvangirai became prime minister. However, due to ministerial differences between their respective political parties, the agreement was not fully implemented until February 13, 2009, two days after the swearing in of Tsvangirai as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.

In November 2010, the IMF described the Zimbabwean economy as "completing its second year of buoyant economic growth after a decade of economic decline", mentioning "strengthening policies" and "favourable shocks" as main reasons for the economic growth.

In December 2010 President Mugabe threatened to further expropriate privately-owned companies unless "western sanctions" were lifted. He said: "Why should we continue having companies and organizations that are supported by Britain and America without hitting back? Time has come for us to [take] revenge. We can read the riot act and say this is 51% we are taking and if the sanctions persist we are taking over 100%."

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