Zimbabwe - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Zimbabwe: the Bradt Travel Guide

The struggle for independence

In 1964, with Southern Rhodesia doggedly pursuing its path towards becoming an independent white-ruled state, the Federation collapsed, with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland gaining independence as Zambia and Malawi, respectively. Winston Field was the next political casualty. In 1964, after failing to secure independence following the Federation’s dissolution, he was forced to resign in favour of the even more right-wing Ian Smith.

Smith wasted no time, knocking on British prime minister Harold Wilson’s door and seeking independence, but the latter made it clear this would only be a possibility if several important conditions were met, all based around Britain’s insistence that Rhodesia make significant progress towards racial equality in preparation for black majority rule. This was anathema to Smith, who was later famously quoted as saying, ‘...I don’t believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia, not in a thousand years...’. Clearly there would be no meeting of minds on this issue, so following the overwhelming mandate he received in the 1965 election, Smith in November defiantly issued his Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).

The National Democratic Party, banned after the labour unrest of 1959–60, resurfaced as the Zimbabwe Africa People’s Union (ZAPU), again led by the former ANC leader, Joshua Nkomo. Internal party strife led a faction to break away as the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), and for the first time, its Secretary, Robert Gabriel Mugabe (later to take over the leadership in 1975), stepped onto the world stage. ZAPU, it should be noted, was largely Ndebele in membership, while ZANU was predominantly Shona. This tribal split was later to have a massive influence on the shaping of Zimbabwe’s politics. One of Smith’s first acts as prime minister in 1964 was to ban both ZAPU and ZANU and imprison most of their leaders, an action that would have serious implications for the country’s future. The immediate result was to push both movements outside the country, where they began to set up guerrilla forces.

Diplomatic measures to persuade Smith to back down included two rounds of talks with Wilson in 1966 and 1968 aboard British warships, but Wilson was not up to the match and failed to dent Smith’s intransigence. Smith’s UDI was condemned throughout the international community and, led by Britain, the UN imposed economic sanctions on Rhodesia. Far from bringing the country to its knees, however, the sanctions only made Rhodesia more self-reliant, and what it couldn’t manufacture it merely imported from South Africa or Portuguese-run Mozambique (both unofficially supportive of Smith’s regime), or from many other ‘sanction busting’ countries. Some very prominent British companies also defied the sanctions and continued to do business with Rhodesia.

In 1970 Smith declared Rhodesia a republic and issued a new constitution that contained significant concessions to electoral equality – or so he and his parliament thought. Their offer of ‘equal partnership between black and white’ as an alternative to majority rule was at best disingenuous, and did not go nearly far enough to satisfy Britain. More importantly, ZANU and ZAPU dismissed the new constitution out of hand. A further round of talks in 1971 was scuppered at the last minute by the surprise intervention of Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s newly formed United African National Council – set up together with a cleric, the Revd Canaan Banana, to oppose Smith’s new constitution.

By now, although for Ian Smith the writing was on the wall in capital letters, he appeared blind to the obvious. Throughout Africa, colonial powers had been voluntarily conceding territories or having them forcibly reclaimed. Rhodesia’s own neighbours were gaining their independence and adopting majority rule (with the notable exceptions of Mozambique and South Africa) and the trend appeared unstoppable. Indeed, frustrated nationalists in his own country had already mounted isolated attacks, so the future, one would have thought, was there for all to see. It was only a matter of time before Rhodesia began its freedom struggle and descended into civil war, yet Smith refused to budge an inch, determined to cling to power.

The present day

The 2013 presidential elections did away with the by now discredited Government of National Unity, and Mugabe – now in his 92nd year – has been handed a parliamentary majority completely untroubled by any formal opposition. Yes there is a multiplicity of opposition parties but these are mostly very small cabals, none of which presented the slightest threat to the monolithic ZANU-PF. But, even if there is no external threat to the party, put simply, ZANU-PF is at war with itself. For years, rumours surrounding Mugabe’s medical condition, physical and mental, have been circulating and the party has already become a hotbed of hopeful rivals vying for the chance to step into the president’s shoes when the time comes.

Although the next general election is not due until 2018, the sheer amount of political infighting is giving the impression that the election campaign is already well underway. A direct and catastrophic result of this frantic and confusing battle for power and influence is that for several years, no-one appears to have been paying attention to running the country. By the end of 2015 the economic situation was at least as bad as anything in living memory.

So what happens now? It’s impossible to tell, made worse by the fact that most Zimbabweans I speak to are reluctant to talk politics mainly because everyone agrees with each other and political debate is largely futile. But there’s a general agreement that there will be little, if any change while this president remains in power and for many that’s surprisingly, not such a bad thing.  Everybody’s just carrying on as usual. Simply put, Zimbabweans of all races have been put through a particularly torrid time in recent years and now, since the GNU, the situation has improved greatly for many people. If President Mugabe had lost, this would undoubtedly brought  dramatic upheaval and uncertainty so you frequently pick-up a sense of ‘better the devil you know’.

In practical terms improvements are continuing although it’s true there is a large degree of stagnation while industry and investors, large and small, wait to see what effects the change of government may bring. But the tourism sector is seeing major investment and visitor figures are showing very healthy increases year on year. There’s been a massive increase in road building and renovation throughout the country and as mentioned earlier here, the aviation infrastructure is also receiving major investment.  The impact on tourists from the change of government back to ZANU-PF is absolutely zero – most aren’t even aware there have been elections.

Natural history



Lion cub Zimbabwe by Paul Murray© Paul Murray

The lion, Africa’s apex predator, seems to be something of a contradictory creature. Massively powerful – a large male weighs up to 230kg and is capable of killing buffalo and young elephants – it nonetheless spends much of its time asleep and appears to be fundamentally lazy. The truth is that, like many large carnivores, lions’ high-protein diet means they can satisfy their metabolic requirements with short bursts of hunting and thus spend the rest of their time conserving energy.


This is the second largest of Africa’s cats: half the size of a lion, with males weighing up to 90kg and the much smaller females up to 60kg. It is an elegant and impressive animal, whose shy, solitary and largely nocturnal nature makes it difficult to find. Nevertheless, the leopard’s broad diet and adaptability to different types of habitat make it by far the most successful of Africa’s big cats. Although lions may sometimes scramble up to a low branch, the leopard is the only big cat that feels truly at home in a tree; indeed it is even agile enough to catch monkeys in the branches.


Although around the same height, even a little taller than the leopard, the cheetah has a much slimmer, more elongated body and an appreciably smaller head. Its spots are small and solid black, not forming rosette patterns like a leopard’s, and its face displays unmistakeable black ‘teardrop’ lines below each eye. Cheetahs favour open spaces and seek out raised vantage points from which to spot prey. This is a hunter whose success depends on speed rather than strength. Its strong hind legs and extremely supple spine win it the accolade of the fastest animal on land, capable of reaching 100km/h in just three seconds – on a par with the acceleration of the fastest sports cars. But if it hasn’t brought down its prey within a few hundred metres – usually by means of a sharp swipe from behind – the cheetah gives up exhausted and must recoup its strength before the next attempt. The long tail acts as a balancing ‘rudder’ as the cat performs amazingly agile, high-speed direction changes. Its non-retractable claws, unique among cats, function like the spikes on running shoes.

African elephant

Canoe safari elephants Zimbabwe by Wild HorizonsA canoe safari is a popular way to spot elephants in Zimbabwe © Wild Horizons

Almost everything about this animal – which may reach 4m at the shoulder and weigh six tonnes – is extraordinary. Mature elephants require 150kg of food each day (large ones even more) to fuel that bulk and can drink 200 litres in one sitting. The trunk is much more than just an elongated nose: it is an amazingly strong multi-purpose tool that can pick up anything from a peanut to a fallen log. It is used for feeding, drinking (holding up to 20 litres of water), smelling, breathing (even as a snorkel in deep water) and fighting. The huge earflaps are extremely thin, criss-crossed with a dense network of blood vessels on the underside, and act like a car radiator to cool the animal’s blood by as much as 5˚C. The ivory tusks are enlarged incisor teeth that serve for fighting, digging for roots and stripping bark, and are frequently used in conjunction with the trunk to rip off branches.


The most common view you get of this enormous, two-tonne, amphibious animal is a small pair of ears and nostrils protruding just above the water’s surface, and that’s because it spends most of the daylight hours semi-submerged. A hippo’s skin is very sensitive to sunlight and it thus needs the cooling effect of water to regulate its body temperature. Totally submerged, hippos can hold their breath for about six minutes. They are remarkably agile underwater, with their huge bulk being supported by the buoyancy of the water. From dusk to dawn, however, they emerge and wander the land in search of grazing, covering up to 30km in one night.


White rhino Zimbabwe by Bernard Dupot, Wikimedia Commons© Bernard Dupot, Wikimedia Commons

Once widespread throughout southern Africa, both species of rhino have suffered heavy persecution. The white rhino was virtually wiped out at the end of the 19th century, disappearing from Zimbabwe entirely, but has since recovered through intense conservation programmes in South Africa and translocation elsewhere. The black rhino fared rather better until a poaching onslaught in the second half of the 20th century brought it to the verge of extinction across Africa, including in Zimbabwe, and its status today remains precarious. Rhinos have been hunted solely for their two horns, which comprise a compacted hair-like material. These are ground to powder and used as traditional medicine and aphrodisiac in the Far East, notably Vietnam. Poaching for this lucrative market remains an enormous ongoing problem, but a number of conservation programmes have succeeded in breeding and reintroducing rhinos to parts of their former ranges, and increasingly effective anti-poaching measures have been adopted in many regions.

People and culture

Zimbabwe’s population saw exceptional growth during the 20th century, rising from around 500,000–600,000 at the start of the century to just under 13 million in 2000, with a growth rate of around 3%. Following the economic meltdown that started around 2000, resulting in a steady out-migration of up to four million, perhaps a third of the black population is believed to have sought a better life outside Zimbabwe. A high proportion of whites also left.

Zimbabwe’s culture has a long oral tradition of folklore and storytelling which, far from being mere entertainment, maintained a sense of cultural identity by keeping each generation in touch with its historical and ancestral past. Storytelling ‘performances’ were often augmented with music, song and dance. Around the middle of the 20th century, aided by outside influence as well as encouragement from within the country, the various elements of oral tradition began to separate out to form what we now see as all the individual genres of modern performing arts, yet they continue to draw heavily on traditional themes often producing a fascinating blend of old and new.

Father and son with an mbira Gonarezhou National Park Zimbabwe by Paul MurrayZimbabwe’s key traditional musical instruments – drums, mbira and the marimba – are still very evident in some modern musical forms but are frequently augmented by electric guitars to produce a fusion style of old and new.

Sunguru music emerged as Zimbabwe’s home-grown, modern musical style in the early 1980s with notable recent performers like Alick Macheso and Tongai Moyo, while chimurenga (socially aware), jit (electric pop) and rumba (Zimbabwe style) all emerged towards the end of the last century bringing fame to Thomas Mapfumo, The Bhundu Boys and Leonard Zhakata respectively, among of course, many others. Gospel remains extremely popular while more recently the music scene has drawn heavily on Western influences producing a rap, R&B and hip hop-based variation called urban grooves.

Musical lyrics (in common with Zimbabwean poetry) frequently carry heavy political themes. Older songs reflect the trials of the independence struggle with an almost seamless follow through to today, picking up the social issues that have dominated the last 30 years. Interestingly for ‘protest’ lyrics, both sides of the political divide are represented.

(Photo: A father playing Mbira for his son in Gonarezhou National Park © Paul Murray)

Music and poetry are frequently combined: look out for a performance by Albert Nyathi, Zimbabwe’s foremost dub poet who combines social angst with humour and controversy, using blues and jazz music as backing, to scintillating effect.

As with the other art forms, dance is extremely popular in Zimbabwe but until very recently was almost invariably associated with ceremony and religion rather than entertainment. That is still the case though it’s a vibrant scene and change is constantly being incorporated. So while modern influences are gradually being introduced, altering the appearance and occasion for the dance, the traditional significance of the movements and the dances tends to remain as of old. So in many of today’s performances you will see modern sets and costumes utilised to stunning effect to bring ancient and traditional dances into the 21st century.

Zimbabwe’s literature post independence has seen an explosion of black writers, too prolific to detail. Many chronicle the immediate pre- and post-independence periods and bring a fascinating, hitherto unseen black insight into both rural and urban conditions during these periods of political turmoil. In typical Zimbabwe style, many writers use comedy to bring to life what would otherwise be a harrowing narrative. There’s a burgeoning selection of short-story anthologies but it can be frustrating trying to find examples as the country’s bookshops are woefully understocked (at the time of writing). Craft and curio shops in Harare, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls are often good sources for these books. Check the websites of Weaver Press (www.weaverpresszimbabwe.com) and ’amaBooks (www.amabooks.net) for titles and availability.

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