It’s not always appropriate or even advisable to look at the ancient history of a country in order to understand its current political affairs. (Naturally, my mind turns to all of the events of the 19th century that had direct bearing on today’s world, for example, the industrial revolution!) On the other hand, we don’t look to Queen Victoria’s rule in order to understand the increase of knife crime amongst teenagers in London. My point is that you have to look towards relevant history when making a socio-political inquiry and it is important that you not get distracted by less pertinent historical events, no matter how colourful or tragic they were.
With this in mind, I do believe that any analysis of the current political situation in Zimbabwe needs to begin in 1888 because discourse on the events at that time have coloured political agendas and propaganda ever since and have strengthened divisions within the country.
The Key Players
For two thousand years, the Shona cluster of tribes lived in the part of Africa now known as Zimbabwe and part of Mozambique. Great civilisations existed as is evidenced by ruins at Great Zimbabwe and other sites and at various times, the area played an important role in trade with the Phoenicians and later the Arabs. War with Portuguese settlers left the area in near ruin by the early 17th century. In 1834, the Ndebele people (pronounced Matabele by the English), a tribe of Zulu origin, arrived in the area fleeing from Shaka Zulu. They made the area their new empire and it became known as Matabeleland [Wikipedia].
The 19th Century
In 1888, the Ndebele King Lobengula agreed the Rudd Concession which granted mining rights of Matabeleland to Cecil John Rhodes. Lobengula was deceived during these negotiations in that he was promised that no more than ten white men would mine at any one time but this was left out of the actual written agreement. In 1889, Rhodes used this concession to obtain a royal charter from Queen Victoria to form the British South Africa Company (BSAC) to administer, govern and police Matabeleland and its subject state Mashonaland.
This is highly significant today. The 2006 book House of Stone featured interviews with a Mashona woman, Aqui. Aqui revealed the extreme bitterness that the Shona people feel to this day against Ndebele people as they recall that Lobengula gave away their country. They blame this on his stupidity and greed. I was interested in this recurring theme that ran through the book. This antagonism has also been used repeatedly by Robert Mugabe over the years, as I will discuss in a later post.
On realising that the British had really intended to colonise the area, the Ndebele warriors entered into war with the British and the First Matabele War began. The British were equipped with the Maxim gun and this led to the devastating losses amongst the Ndebele ranks. Lobengula died in January 1894 and it is unsure whether he died of small pox or dysentry or whether he in fact committed suicide. In House of Stone it is noted that Shona people often like to believe the latter as evidence of his cowardice and weak character.
The second significant event occurred shortly before the end of the 19th century. The First Chimurenga or Second Matabele War was the Ndebele-Shona rebellion against the white settlers. “Chimurenga” is the Shona word for “struggle”. The rebellions were not exactly coordinated and the Ndebele were led by their hero, Mlimo. In House of Stone, Aqui made repeated reference to Nehanda Nyakasikana, the spirit medium who provided inspiration for the Shona rebellion. Nehanda became synonymous with the idea of a Shona struggle during the liberation struggle of the 1960s and 1970s.
It is clear therefore, that while these events occurred over 100 years ago, they are events that have been taught to generations of Zimbabweans and which remain significant to them to this day.