There are a number of Iron Age sites in Zimbabwe, with artifacts dating from c.A.D. 180. These early cultures were supplanted by Bantu-speaking peoples, who migrated into the area after the 5th cent. The ruins at Zimbabwe date from the 12th to the 15th cent. In the early 16th cent., the Portuguese made contact with Shona-dominated states and developed a trade in gold and other items. During the 1830s, the Shona-speaking people were subjected to Ndebele invaders, who forced them to pay tribute. British and Boer traders and hunters moved into the area, and the London Missionary Society established a mission to the Ndebele in 1861.
In 1889 the British South Africa Company, organized by Cecil Rhodes, obtained a charter to promote commerce and colonization in the region. Leander Starr Jameson, an associate of Rhodes, led a column of South African and British pioneers deep into the interior, where they founded (1890) Fort Salisbury. Fighting in 1893 resulted in the defeat of the Ndebele and the takeover of their territory by Rhodes's company. Both the Ndebele and the Shona staged unsuccessful revolts against the British in 1896–97. The settlers pressed the company for political rights, and in 1914 the British government renewed the company's charter on the condition that self-government be granted to the settlers by 1924.
In late 1922, settlers voted in a referendum to reject proposals for incorporation into the Union of South Africa, electing instead to make Rhodesia a self-governing colony under the British Crown—a status that became effective on Sept. 12, 1923. In 1953, Southern Rhodesia became a member of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (see Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Federation of), despite African objections to a European-dominated federal structure.
In the early 1960s, a new constitution was adopted that provided for limited African political participation; however, the Africans remained unappeased. In 1963 the federation broke up as African majority governments assumed control in Northern Rhodesia and in Nyasaland (renamed Zambia and Malawi respectively). After the federation's demise, conservative trends hardened in Southern Rhodesia (which now became known simply as Rhodesia).
The government of staunch conservative Ian Smith, who had become Rhodesian prime minister in 1964, proclaimed a unilateral declaration of independence on Nov. 11, 1965. Britain called the proclamation an act of rebellion but refused to reestablish control by force. When negotiations in 1966 failed to produce an agreement, Britain requested UN economic sanctions against Rhodesia. In 1969, Rhodesia voted to become a republic as of Mar. 2, 1970. In 1971, Britain and Rhodesia reached an accord that provided for gradually increased African political participation, but without any guarantee of eventual black majority rule. However, after a British commission's hearings revealed widespread African opposition to the terms, Britain refused to recognize Rhodesian independence on the basis of the accord.
Two nationalist organizations, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo, operating from bases in Mozambique and Zambia, respectively, carried out guerrilla warfare campaigns against the white government throughout the 1970s. Smith appealed to right-wing politicians in the United States and Britain in a failed attempt to gain recognition for his government. In 1978, an "internal settlement" negotiated among Smith and three black leaders led to an interim coalition government. In 1979, a white-only referendum approved a new constitution and renamed the country Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa's coalition, the United African National Council, won the parliamentary elections. However, Muzorewa soon lost credibility as he sought aid from South Africa.
Later in 1979, under pressure from Britain, an agreement was reached to provide for a legally independent, democratically governed Zimbabwe. A new constitution was established, and a cease-fire was implemented; Britain agreed to finance a voluntary land-redistribution program. The country reverted to British colonial rule until the transition to self-rule was complete. In the elections of Apr., 1980, Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF (Patriotic Front) party won by a comfortable margin, and he became prime minister of the Republic of Zimbabwe when independence was achieved on Apr. 18, 1980. More than 25,000 people had been killed in the struggle for independence.
In 1982, Mugabe ousted Nkomo from his cabinet and launched a campaign against supposed dissidents in the Matabeleland region, which was a stronghold of ZAPU support. Political repression, human-rights abuses, mass murders, and property burnings followed during a five-year campaign. A peace accord was finally negotiated in 1987, resulting in ZAPU's merger (1988) into the ZANU-PF and Nkomo's return to the government.
Mugabe was elected president in 1987 and reelected in 1990 and 1996. Once committed to Marxist principles, the ZANU-PF officially abandoned Marxism and with it controversial plans for a one-party state in 1991. A 1992 Land Acquisition Act intended to facilitate the redistribution of farmland from whites, who owned 70% of the land, to black farmers provoked strong protest from the white-dominated Commercial Farmers Union; implementation was also impeded by lack of government funds. In the multiparty parliamentary elections of 1995, which were boycotted by some parties, ZANU-PF won nearly all the seats against a weak and fragmented opposition.
In the 1990s, Mugabe's government was faced with high rates of inflation and unemployment, which continued into the next century. In addition, by 1997 one quarter of the population of Zimbabwe had been infected by HIV, the AIDS virus. The government's dispatch of troops in support of the Kabila regime in the Congo (Kinshasa) placed an added burden on national finances beginning in 1998. By the end of the 1990s, some two thirds to three quarters of the population was living in poverty. In the June, 2000, parliamentary elections, a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), won 57 of the 120 elected seats with strong support from urban voters; ZANU-PF won 62 seats. The electoral setback ended the governing party's ability to unilaterally amend the constitution.
Land redistribution reemerged as a issue beginning in 1999. In 1998, Britain and other Western nations had agreed to help finance further land redistribution, but donors balked when Zimbabwe unilaterally announced an expansion of the land-reform program. A draft constitution that would have increased Mugabe's powers and permitted uncompensated seizure of white-owned farms was rejected in a Feb., 2000, referendum, but the government pressed forward with its land-redistribution agenda. The issue became increasingly divisive, as Mugabe exploited it for political gain and black squatters attacked white farmers. The constitution was amended to permit uncompensated seizure of farms, but the supreme court twice declared the government's land reform program illegal in part, rulings that Mugabe ignored. Mugabe supporters subsequently sought to intimidate the judiciary and succeeded in forcing the chief justice from office in Mar., 2001.
The government also pursued a policy of intimidating and harassing Mugabe's political opponents and the free press. The presidential election of Mar., 2002, in which Mugabe was reelected with 56% of the vote, was marred by violence and restrictions on the opposition and was widely criticized, although the Organization of African Unity termed the vote "free and fair." Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was accused, prior to the election, of the plotting to kill Mugabe, and following the election he was tried but ultimately (Oct., 2004) acquitted. The Commonwealth of Nations suspended Zimbabwe for a year after the 2002 election.
Food shortages due to drought and the agricultural disruption caused by the seizure of white-owned farms led Mugabe to proclaim a state of disaster in April. In August the government ordered 2,900 white farmers to leave their farms, but more than half did not comply, and the police began arresting those who did not. By 2002 some 600 white farmers remained (out of a pre-redistribution total of 4,500; only 200 commercial farmers remained in 2005), mainly on smaller holdings. Political conditions remained unsettled in 2003, as opposition leaders called strikes in protest against Mugabe's rule and the government and its allies responded with arrests and small-scale violence. The economic situation was also bleak, with the country experiencing ongoing contraction and inflation that reached 600% in 2003.
In Jan., 2004, a banking scandal that involved corruption charges against a senior ZANU-PF official precipitated a run on several banks, and the following month Mugabe announced the establishment of an anticorruption ministry. A rift emerged in the ruling party in Jan., 2005, when a number of younger ZANU-PF officials were suspended after they opposed Mugabe's choice for second vice president. The dissension over the post, which is seen as a stepping-stone to the presidency, was regarded as a power struggle over who might succeed the president in 2008.
In the Mar., 2005, parliamentary elections ZANU-PF secured 78 seats, enough (with the 30 appointed by the president) to give it a two-thirds majority and the ability to unilaterally amend the constitution. The opposition MDC denounced the results as fraudulent, and accused the government of ballot stuffing based on large discrepancies between initial and final counts in rural districts. Most international observers also regarded the elections as unfair, although the Southern African Development Community endorsed the results. The country's economic situation remained difficult, and in May, 2005, the currency was devalved by 45%; Zimbabwe subsequently suffered from pronounced fuel shortages. In 2006, a government survey revealed that Zimbabwean living standards had dropped 150% from 1996 to 2005.
In May–July, 2005, the government began demolished illegal shantytowns and markets in Harare and other areas, displacing hundreds of thousands and further disrupting the economy. The move appeared intended to disperse Zimbabwe's urban poor, a group that has strongly supported Mugabe's opponents, The action was widely denounced as a violation of human rights and even provoked defections from the governing party.
In Sept., 2005, Mugabe signed constitutional amendments that reinstituted a national senate (abolished in 1987) and that nationalized all land, converting any ownership rights into leases. The amendments also ended the right of landowners to challenge government expropriation of land in the courts. Elections for the senate in November resulted in a victory for the government, but the MDC, which split over whether to field candidates, partially boycotted the vote, and the turnout was very low. The split in the MDC hardened into factions, each of which claimed control of the party. The early months of 2006 were marked by food shortages, which led to hyperinflation throughout the year; in Aug., 2006, the inflation forced the government to revalue its currency. In Dec., 2006, ZANU-PF proposed the "harmonization" of the parliamentary and presidential election schedules in 2010; the move was seen by the opposition as an excuse to extend Mugabe's term as president until 2010.
Continuing economic problems led to a series of strikes in Zimbabwe in early 2007, but a nationwide general strike in April had a low level of participation. In March a number of opposition leaders, including MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, were severely beaten and arrested by the police. These acts provoked widespread international condemnation, but neighboring African leaders, meeting in Tanzania, did not publicly criticize Mugabe and called for removing international sanctions on Zimbabwe. At the same time, Mugabe's party chose him as its candidate for the 2008 presidential election.
Exploding hyperinflation led in June, 2007, to government-ordered price cuts on basic goods, which had the effect of making those goods scarce. In September, Mugabe banned price and pay increases in a further unsuccessful attempt to control hyperinflation. The government also enacted a law requiring majority indigenous Zimbabwean ownership of all businesses, and moved to force the last white farmers off their land. By the end of 2007, the official annual inflation rate exceeded 24,000%, but independent estimates ranged as high as 150,000%.
Despite government attempts to arrange the electoral process in its favor, the Mar., 2008, elections were a victory for the opposition, especially the main faction of the MDC, which won a plurality of the seats in the House of Assembly, narrowly edging ZANU-PF; the opposition also won half the elected seats in the Senate. The presidential results were not released, but Tsvangirai claimed victory; independent observers estimated that he had beaten Mugabe but failed to win the more than 50% required for outright victory. The MDC went to court to force the release of the presidential result, but the High Court refused to do so. The government, meantime, maneuvered to retain power, calling upon black Zimbabweans to oust the last remaining white farmers from their farms, challenging the results of a large number of parliamentary elections, and publicly describing Tsvangirai as treasonous.
Widespread violence against Tsvangirai's supporters and threats against Tsvangirai himself led the opposition leader to withdraw from the runoff and seek refuge in the Dutch embassy. In June Mugabe won his sixth term as president in a widely denounced election in which many voters were intimidated into casting ballots for Mugabe. Zimbabwe's economy, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate, with inflation officially at 231 million% in July. In Aug., 2008, the country again revalued its currency as a result. A power-sharing agreement was reached between Mugabe and Tsvangirai in September, under which Tsvangirai would be prime minister, but further talks and progress stalled over the division of cabinet posts.
A cholera epidemic began in Aug., 2008; it also affected other S African nations but was aggravated in Zimbabwe by the collapse of the health and sanitation services. By May, 2009, when it ended in Zimbabwe, some 4,300 people had died there from the disease; 90% of the reported deaths from the regional epidemic occurred in Zimbabwe. In Nov., 2008, the regional South African Development Community (SADC) tribunal ruled that Zimbabwe's seizures of land from white farmers had been discriminatory and that those farmers who had sued could retain their farms. The government indicated that it would ignore the SADC ruling, and subsequently accelerated the seizure of the remaining white-owned farms; in June, 2009, the tribunal held the government in breach and contempt, and ordered the matter be reported to the next SADC summit. The SADC ruling subsequently was used in South Africa to sue for seizure of Zimbabwe-owned commercial property there in compensation for the seizure of white-owned farmland. Seizures of foreign-owned farms led to compensation judgments against the government by the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes.
Meanwhile, the power-sharing government was finally established in Feb., 2009, but Mugabe's resistance to cooperating with the opposition led to recurring tensions. In March there were signs that Zimbabwe's runaway inflation had slowed, largely due to the government's having tied the currency to the dollar and rand; also the currency had again been revalued. The next month, however, the Zimbabwean dollar was in effect abandoned, and replaced by the rand, U.S. dollar, euro, Botswanan pula, and British pound. Tsvangirai subsequently secured some $500 million in aid from various countries, but Western nations avoided providing aid directly to the government because of ongoing farm seizures and arrests of opposition activists; promises of loans worth $950 million were also obtained from China.
In July, 2009, a Kimberly Process review cited the government for violations of diamond mining standards (including the illegal mining and selling of diamonds by the military) in the Marange district and called for the government to comply with the standards. A year later, after another review failed in June, 2010, to reach a consensus on approving the diamonds for sale, limited diamond sales were approved by the World Diamond Council. In Nov., 2011, the ban on sales was lifted despite objections from human rights groups. Mugabe's opponents also objected, saying that diamond sales were enriching Mugabe and his close supporters at the expense of Zimbabwe.
The ongoing tensions within the government increased significantly in Oct., 2009, after a prominent MDC official was arrested and Tsvangirai and the MDC boycotted the unity government in response. The MDC returned to the cabinet in Nov., 2009, after regional talks and the appointment of South Africa's President Zuma as mediator, but the parties essentially remained stalemated in subsequent months, with the MDC continuing to charge Mugabe with violations of the power-sharing agreement. Additional mediation failed to resolve the situation, and intimidation and arrests of opposition parties and activists worsened in 2011.
Progess toward a new constitution proceeded slowly, but early in 2013 the main parties agreed on a final draft, which was overwhelming approved in a referendum in March. Subsequently, the European Union eased the sanctions it had imposed on the country. In June, the constitutional court ordered that new elections be held before the end of July. In the subsequent elections, Mugabe was reelected and ZANU-PF won a two-thirds majority in parliament. Tsvangirai accused the government of rigging the vote. Western nations said that there were serious irregularities, but African nations generally supported the result.