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The borders of what is now the state of Zimbabwe were established in the 1890s after white (mainly British) settlers arrived from South Africa. The country was called ‘Rhodesia’ (or ‘Southern Rhodesia’) during the period of colonial rule. The black inhabitants consisted of many groups, with a majority speaking dialects of a language later named ‘chiShona’. Those groups are now commonly referred to as the ‘Shona’. The largest black minority, living in the south and west, were isiNdebele-speakers—or the ‘Ndebele’—a group that had migrated from South Africa in the 1830s.

Modern nationalism—that is, a sense of national identity and a demand for independence from white rule—developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s and gave rise to the formation of black political parties. By 1962, the movement was broadly represented by a party known by its acronym, Zapu, and led by a southerner, Joshua Nkomo. But there was a split among the nationalist leadership in 1963, resulting in the formation of a new party, Zanu. A young teacher, Robert Mugabe, was a prominent figure in Zanu, although he did not become the party’s president until the late 1970s.

Meanwhile, the white government had become more hard line with the election of the Rhodesian Front (RF) party in 1962. The RF cracked down on the nationalists, incarcerating Nkomo, Mugabe and many others in 1964. They were to remain in detention for a decade. The RF also became embroiled in a dispute with Britain over the terms of independence for Rhodesia. The British refused to grant independence without guarantees that the black population would receive the vote, a stance that prompted the RF to declare independence in 1965 without Britain’s consent. This step meant that Rhodesia was, legally, in rebellion against the Crown, and it was not recognised as an independent state by other countries. Economic sanctions were also imposed against it.

War against the white regime began in the second half of the 1960s, led by the armed wings of Zapu and Zanu. Zapu’s army was dubbed ‘Zipra’, and Zanu’s military machine was called ‘Zanla’. By the end of the 1970s, Zapu and Zipra were dominated by Ndebele speakers, were led by an Ndebele speaker (Nkomo), and received most of their support from the Ndebele-speaking parts of the country (the provinces of Matabeleland—the word ‘Matabele’ being an Anglicisation of ‘Ndebele’). On the other side of the nationalist divide, Zanu and Zanla consisted mainly of Shona speakers, were headed by a Shona (Mugabe), and garnered most of their support in Shona-speaking regions (Mashonaland and other provinces). The capital city, Harare, is in a Shona-speaking area, while the second city, Bulawayo, is in Matabeleland.

It is crucial to remember this configuration, given that it provides the basic context for the events of Zimbabwe’s early years (the 1980s).

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In 1979, Britain convened a peace conference at Lancaster House, a venue in London where independence had been negotiated with other former British colonies. After months of haggling, an agreement was signed on an end to the war, a transition process (including elections) and a constitution that would govern to the new state of Zimbabwe. Zanu and Zapu entered negotiations as ostensible allies, but were, in reality, bitter rivals, each of whom wanted to take power.

The election campaign of early 1980 was marred by widespread intimidation and violence on the part of Zanu and its Zanla forces. A combination of coercion and popular support among much of the majority Shona-speaking population enabled Zanu to win 57 of the 80 black seats and form the country’s first independent government. (The whites temporarily had 20 seats in parliament drawn from a separate voters’ roll.)  Mugabe, as Prime Minister, invited some members of the RF and Zapu (including Nkomo) to join his cabinet in a unity government. However, the longstanding rivalry between Zanu and Zapu meant political tensions were high from the outset, and the unity arrangement was short-lived.

Another source of friction was the integration of the three armies (Zanla, Zipra, and the forces of the white regime)—a lengthy process that was overseen by British military instructors. More than a year after independence, many soldiers were still living in temporary camps, and violence between the factions was frequent.

A by-product of this inter-factional conflict was the development of the so-called dissident problem. Some former members of Zipra, facing persecution in the integrated units of the new army, fled with their weapons and lived a life of armed banditry in the rural areas of Matabeleland. The Zanu leadership described them as ‘dissidents’ and alleged that they were controlled by Zapu as part of a plan to overthrow the government.

In 1983, the government claimed that the dissident problem was out of control and dispatched an army unit called the ‘Gukurahundi’ to Matabeleland. ‘Gukurahundi’ is a Shona word which, loosely translated, means ‘the storm that comes before the spring rains and washes away the chaff’. Thousands of civilians were killed by the Gukurahundi, and the term has since become synonymous with the massacres (and that period in Matabeleland).

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