Main minorities and indigenous peoples: Ndebele and Kalanga (2.2 million), Tonga (around 140,000), Shangaan (Tsonga)(around 5,000), Venda (91,400) and whites less than (29,000). Indigenous groups in Zimbabwe include Tshwa San (2,600) and Doma (1,250).
Main languages: Shona, siNdebele, English
Main religions: syncretic Christianity, Christianity, indigenous beliefs, Islam
Shona-speaking people, who today form about 75 per cent of the population, have not historically seen themselves as a ‘tribe’, having been spread over great distances and lacking consciousness of a common cultural or political identity. ‘Shona-ness’ is a creation of the past hundred years. Colonial missionaries and administrators set about categorizing Shona into clusters or sub-tribes on the basis of largely spurious inferences. These artificial constructs took on life of their own, and sub-groupings and hierarchies emerged: Zezeru (central), Karanga (south-central) and Manyika (east) are the three largest blocs.
Ndebele are Zimbabwe’s largest minority, with the Ndebele-speaking community making up around 17 per cent of the total population. Their traditional lands (Matabeleland) are in the south-west of the country, around Bulawayo.
At the political and geographical margins outside the Shona–Ndebele polarity are three peoples together making up about 2 per cent of Zimbabwe’s population. Shangaan and Venda people live mainly in the far south of Zimbabwe, and Tonga were forced to abandon their ancestral homes on the shores of the Zambesi River in the north of the country in 1957–8 after construction of the hydroelectric dam at Kariba.
Socio-economic issues particularly affect the marginalized in Zimbabwean society, which includes migrant communities and minorities. Urban challenges such as inadequate access to water and sanitation, which in turn lead to health risks, affect those who have migrated to cities, particularly in large informal settlements. The government, however, has not only failed to address the problems of corruption and exclusion that have contributed to these issues, but has worsened the situation of many poor and vulnerable communities through aggressive policies of eviction and slum clearance. For many urban residents who have in past years been forcibly resettled in rural areas, such as in Matabeleland, this has contributed to increasing diasporisation. The Zimbabwean government has generally failed to provide alternative housing to those whom it has displaced. This is especially true of migrant communities and minorities who have migrated to cities. Against this backdrop, a government-supported initiative, Training for Rural Economic Development, was launched in 2014 with the aim of reducing rural-urban migration by providing more livelihood opportunities in local communities.
Recognition and promotion of minority – including indigenous – languages have in recent years remained an extant issue in Zimbabwe. Prior to a 2013 amendment to the Zimbabwean Constitution, all minority languages were officially unrecognised. While several minority languages now have official recognition, there has been little progress on the promotion of minority languages since former Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture, David Coltart, ended his term in office in August 2013. In May 2014, former Matabeleland South governor, Angeline Masuku, called for greater promotion of traditional Zimbabwean languages over English, arguing that knowledge of other languages spoken in their regions could help reduce tribalism. Her concern was particularly with regard to the lack of knowledge among some Matabeleland residents of Ndebele.
Minority and indigenous communities such as Tshwa San and Kalanga have also criticized the government for failing to support their culture and traditions, such as use of their languages. The country’s Constitution refers to the language spoken by Tshwa as Khoisan, whereas the specific name for the Khoe language spoken in Zimbabwe is Tjwao (also Tshwao). Tjwao is under particular risk of extinction, as some sources suggest that there are little more than a dozen people left who speak the language fluently. One of the issues highlighted by Tshwa leaders is the fact that the few Tshwa children who are able to attend school are taught in Ndebele, and as a result many are increasingly separated from their own culture. Kalanga also struggle for the promotion of their languages, arguing that SeTswana, the language they speak at home, should also be taught at their schools and be promoted in line with the Constitution. Both Tshwa and Kalanga, as well as other linguistic minorities in Zimbabwe, need government assistance to maintain their languages.
Minority and indigenous groups also lack political representation. Attempts by Tshwa elders and local human rights activists to support their own councillors, MPs and chiefs to represent them have led to allegations that the ruling Zanu-PF party has tried to intimidate Tshwa representatives. There is a tendency among government officials to blame those who came before them for the San’s situation – or, alternatively, to blame San themselves. There is little sign that the Zimbabwean government is taking any meaningful steps to improve the situation of Tshwa communities. At a much larger scale, the Ndebele minority continues to be marginalized with regard to political representation. The government has been accused of neglecting Matabeleland, a Ndebele-dominated region that is one of the most underdeveloped areas in the country. Companies have also reportedly been bringing in Shona workers from outside Matabeleland to work in the region, even though there are sufficient numbers of skilled workers already there.
The implications of November 2017’s surprise military coup against Robert Mugabe, ousting him from power after nearly four decades of uncontested rule, remain unclear and it remains to be seen to what extent the situation facing the country’s most marginalized populations, including its minorities, improves in the near future. His replacement by Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-term political ally who like Mugabe has been implicated in extensive human rights abuses, including the massacre of thousands of predominantly Ndebele civilians in the 1980s in Matabeleland in politically-motivated ethnic killings.
Zimbabwe lies in the heart of southern Africa, sharing a long eastern border with Mozambique, southern and western borders with South Africa and Botswana, and a north-western border with Zambia along the Zambezi River. In the north-west it also touches on Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. Much of the country consists of high plateau, climbing to mountains in the east. The country is rich in deposits of chromium ore and other minerals.
The first Bantu peoples arrived in today’s Zimbabwe around 2,000 years ago, displacing the original population of Khoisan hunter-gatherers. About 1,100 years ago, Shona-speaking Bantus began the establishment of various states, including that of Great Zimbabwe. In the following centuries Shona kingdoms developed thriving trade with Arab and Swahili merchants at the coast of the Indian Ocean. Portuguese invaders in the 16th century disrupted this trade, but their challenge encouraged the Shona (Mashona) kingdoms to band together into the prosperous Rozvi Empire, which drove away the Portuguese. In 1837, following clashes with the Zulu, Ndebele people invading from South Africa conquered the Shona and established themselves as a ruling class. However, just 40 years later British imperialist Cecil Rhodes arrived, seeking access to the area’s gold mines for his British South Africa Company. The Ndebele signed a concession agreement with Rhodes in 1888, but the company increased its demands. The Ndebele and the Shona revolted, but were defeated by company militia in the Matabele Wars of 1893-1897.
A new British territory called ‘Rhodesia’ was established and white immigration increased. In 1911 the territory split into Northern Rhodesia (today’s Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe). Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony in 1922, in which blacks were denied the vote and subsequently stripped of access to the best farmland. From 1953 to 1963 Southern Rhodesia was united with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today’s Malawi) in the ‘Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland’. In 1963, when anti-colonial protests led to the dissolution of the Federation, and with independence for Zambia and Malawi nearing, Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith resisted British pressure for the introduction of majority rule. In the state now renamed simply ‘Rhodesia’, Smith faced growing resistance movements: the predominantly Ndebele Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo, and the Shona splinter group, Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Ndabaningi Sithole and Robert Mugabe.
Smith declared Rhodesian independence from Britain in 1965 and jailed the ZAPU and ZANU leaders from 1964 to 1974. Nkomo and Mugabe then left the country and launched separate armed movements against the Smith regime. Pressure from the rebel movements and UN sanctions eventually forced the Smith regime to relent to majority rule in 1979. In the country’s first free elections of March 1980, the Shona-dominated ZANU overwhelmed the largely Ndebele ZAPU, with voting largely following ethnic lines. Robert Mugabe became president of Zimbabwe.
Shortly after his 1980 election, Mugabe summoned and exploited a sense of nationalism among the Shona people – comprising about 70 per cent of the population – to consolidate his power and sideline his greatest liberationist rival, the Ndebele tribesman and ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo. It is estimated that Mugabe’s ‘Gukurahundi’ violent campaign in the Ndebele heartlands of Matabeleland and the Midlands from 1983-1987 resulted in 10,000-20,000 deaths. In 1985 voting also largely followed ethnic lines, but at the end of the killings in 1987, ZAPU was absorbed into ZANU, and Zimbabwe became a de facto one-party state under Mugabe’s ZANU-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
President Mugabe made halting attempts to steer the country away from ZANU-PF’s embrace of Marxism and towards a market economy. A growing debt burden, the social squeeze of structural adjustment policies, and severe drought tipped the country into economic crisis in the early 1990s. Throughout the decade, discontent in Zimbabwe mounted, fuelled by the continued inequity in the distribution of land. Whites, who made up only one per cent of the population after independence in 1980, still owned around 70 per cent of Zimbabwe’s arable land.
Frightened by a national strike in 1997 and subsequent demonstrations, Mugabe made the issue of land redistribution his own. But instead of backing land reform, in 2000 he authorized a land grab, accompanied by fiery, anti-white rhetoric. Over the next few years, seized white farms were handed to blacks, and it became apparent that political loyalty to ZANU-PF was the most important determinant of re-distribution, trumping economic needs, agricultural skills or status as a bona fide veteran of the liberation war. The bottom fell out of Zimbabwe’s economy as the country followed a trajectory of dictatorship, despair and deepening international isolation.
Zimbabwe faces acute urban challenges, including inadequate water and sanitation, resulting in diarrhoea, typhoid and other health risks, particularly in its large informal settlements. The government, however, has not only failed to address the problems of corruption and exclusion that have contributed to these issues, but has worsened the situation of many poor and vulnerable communities through aggressive policies of eviction and slum clearance, such as the so-called Operation Murambatsvina – literally, ‘Drive Out Rubbish’ – in which approximately 700,000 residents were forcibly displaced in a ‘clean-up’ exercise a decade ago, with foreign nationals particularly targeted.
In the past, political affiliation was largely determined by ethnicity, as ZANU-PF, President Robert Mugabe’s political party historically represented the interests of the Shona majority ethnic group. Due to the gross mistreatment of Ndebele in the past by Mugabe and the ZANU-PF, the Ndebele minority group was represented by political parties like the now defunct ZAPU party. Although the relationship between political affiliation and ethnicity is no longer as overt, tensions between the two ethnic groups remain. It is difficult, though, to separate violence that occurs along ethnic lines from violence that occurs along political lines.
Like Botswana, Zimbabwe has a dual legal system, supporting both common and customary law. Although common law protects the rights of women in some respects, gender equality is undermined by customary law. Forced and early marriages under customary law are common, women are considered to be minors, widows are not allowed to inherit property from their husbands, and daughters are only allowed to inherit property from their fathers if there are no sons. Additionally, the custom of the bride price, also known as lobola or bogadi, is protected by common law and continues to stigmatize women. Political instability has had a negative impact on the well-being of women in Zimbabwe. Violence against women, particularly rape, is a common tool used to intimidate women who support political opposition groups. Women in rural areas are also particularly vulnerable.
The government does not officially recognize any indigenous peoples as such, nor does it keep official statistics on their populations. The Tshwa San and Doma are typically referred to as ‘marginalised persons, groups, and communities’. As a result of this lack of recognition, there is little information on the status of these groups within Zimbabwean society. In particular, current information on Doma is very limited. However, following the 2013 amendment to the Zimbabwean Constitution, several minority languages are now officially recognised. Zimbabwe has not ratified the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169.
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ)
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition
National Constitutional Assembly
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions
Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum
Updated April 2018
We stand up for minority and indigenous rights. Find out howLeart more about us
- Central Africa
- Land rights
Don’t miss out
- Updates to this country profile
- New publications and resources