ISS Africa



Ethnic composition


The largest black ethnic group is collectively known as the Shona and consists of sub-groupings of the Manyika, Zezuru, Karanga, Korekore and Ndau. These groups together make up about seventy-six percent of the population. The second largest black ethnic group is the Ndebele, consisting of the Ndebele and Kalanga groups, which constitute about 18 percent. Mashonaland, where most of the Shona live, is a collective term for the north-eastern two-thirds of the country, and most Ndebele live in the south-western Matabeleland and Midlands provinces. Zimbabwe`s African population also consists of immigrants from the neighbouring countries of Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique and their descendants, estimated to be over two million and forming about 15 per cent of the national population. Most lcame to the country as migrant labourers in the early days of colonial rule when Rhodesia experienced an acute shortage of labour. Many of these Zimbabweans of foreign origin have lived in the country ever since then and no longer have links to their ancestral origin (Clarke, 1977; Rutherford, 2003;).


Zimbabwe`s other minority African ethnic groups include the Batonga (or Tonga) in the Zambezi Valley, the Shangaan or Hlengwe in the south-eastern lowveld, and the Venda on the border with South Africa. Zulus, Xhosas and Basothos from South Africa and Lesotho, many of whom came into the country in search of employment and better economic opportunities during the colonial period can also be found mostly in south-western Zimbabwe. Because of a shared Nguni linguistic culture with the Ndebele`, these groups have been largely assimilated into the local Ndebele ethnic group (Ranger, 1970). About 2 percent of the population is of non-African ethnic origin, mainly European, Coloured and Asian. Coloureds, a phenotypically diverse group of people descended from historically and culturally diverse backgrounds who held an intermediate status in the Rhodesian racial hierarchy that was distinct from the white and African populations, are currently estimated to be around 32,000 or 0.3 % of the total population. The first group of Coloureds to settle in the country consisted mainly of people descended from ‘mixed race` unions from Mozambique, as well as Griquas, Malays and Cape Coloureds who originally came from South Africa as wagon drivers for incoming white settlers. The bulk of the Coloured population today is locally born, and descended from unions between whites and Africans or between Indians and Africans (Muzondidya, 2002; Government of Zimbabwe, 2002).


Asians mainly consist of people of Indian origin from South Africa, India, Mozambique and Goa, many of whom came to Rhodesia either as indentured labourers working on the construction of the Beira railway line or in search of economic opportunities. Alongside Coloureds, they occupied a distinct social stratum. The population of Zimbabweans of this category today is estimated to be between ten and twelve thousand, or 0.1% of the total population. The composition of the Asian population is rapidly changing as more Chinese immigrants flow into Zimbabwe [JSH1] (Dotson & Dotson, 1968: Government of Zimbabwe, 2002).


Historically, Zimbabwe has had the largest white settler population outside South Africa and Kenya. More than half of white Zimbabweans are of English descent. The remaining fraction of the local white population is made up of Afrikaners from South Africa and other European minority groups such as Jews, Greeks and Portuguese. Before the outbreak of the Second Chimurenga (War of Liberation) in the early 1970s, the white population peaked between 250,000 and 300,000. Thereafter, i.e. from 1976 to 1985 a steady emigration reduced the population by more than 150,000, leaving about 100,000 in 1992. Renewed white emigration in the late 1990s and early 2000s reduced the white population to its estimated present level of less than 50,000 or 0.4% of the population [JSH2] (Mlambo, 2002; Godwin, 1984; Bowman, 1975; Government of Zimbabwe, 2002).


While English is the official means of communication in Zimbabwe, the other major languages spoken are Shona and Ndebele. Thus, the electronic and print media in Zimbabwe uses mainly Shona, Ndebele and English to communicate. The country`s four main dialects of Shona—Zezuru, Karanga, Manyika, and Ndau—have a common vocabulary and similar tonal and grammatical features. Languages such as Tonga, Nambya, Sena, Shangaan/Tsonga, and Venda are shared with other large groups across the borders such as the Tonga in Zambia and Shangaan and Venda in South Africa and parts of southern Mozambique, respectively (Hachipola, 1998: Ncube 2004).


Religious composition


Like most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Zimbabwe has different forms of spiritual practice. Almost half the population of Zimbabwe is Christian and this is explained by the country`s colonial history. Despite the dominance of Christianity, traditional or ancestral forms of worship are still widely practiced by different black ethnic groups. The largest western churches are the Roman Catholic, Methodist and Anglican, while the largest independent church groupings in Zimbabwe are the Apostolic Church and the Zion Christian Church. A tiny section of the population, mostly Asian, adheres to Hinduism and Islam, while the small Jewish population adheres to Judaism. A significant proportion of Zimbabweans of Malawian descent are Muslims (Bourdillon, 1982; Daneel, 1970 & 1989).


Social/ethnic relations


Unlike many other African countries, which have suffered from the destructive effects of ethnic tensions, Zimbabwe has experienced very little ethnic polarization among the various ethnic and racial groups that make up Zimbabwe. Ethnic tensions and fault lines do exist, especially between the Shona and Ndebele whose history of tension goes back to the pre-colonial period of raiding and counter-raiding between the two groups (Beach, 1994). Ndebele-Shona relations were exacerbated by the colonial state which tried to encourage hostility between the two groups as part of its divide and rule tactics. As a result of such colonial efforts, there have been occasional bouts of ethnic clashes between the two groups such as the Bulawayo Location fights of 1929.[JSH3]


At the workplace and job market, there have also been accusations and counteraccusations of ethnic favouritism and dominance not just between the Shona and the Ndebele but also among the various Shona groups. The Ndebeles, for instance, have complained about marginalisation in both the economy and politics by the dominant Shona groups, while minority groups like the Shangaan, Kalangas, Tonga and Vendas have also felt marginalised from society and dominated by both Shonas and Ndebeles. Among the Shona groups, the Karangas and the Manyikas have similarly complained about the dominance of the Zezurus in politics and society (Hachipola, 1998), notably both President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai are Zezuru.


Indeed, the government of Zimbabwe has tried to build a more unified and integrated nation since independence. It has adopted more inclusive policies and has tried to promote racial and ethnic integration through various ways, such as its reconciliation policy, which was internationally acclaimed in the first decades of independence. At the political and ideological levels, the government also dismantled colonial institutions and laws promoting racial and ethnic disharmony[JSH4] (De Waal, 2002). But notwithstanding the important breakthroughs made in achieving generally harmonious ethnic and racial relations among Zimbabweans, there have been certain areas of discordance. The colonial legacy of race has remained a powerful source of tensions between whites and Africans. Inequalities of economic class, gender, and social status have remained inextricably linked with sharply drawn lines of racial differences, and whites continue to be perceived as a privileged class, socially and culturally isolated, and unwilling to integrate with native Africans. Black Africans have also accused the small Asian population, which dominates the retail sectors of the economy and remains largely closed to the rest of the other groups in the country, of ethnic chauvinism (Huyse, 2003).


The charges of racial and ethnic prejudice, favouritism and marginalisation have often gained renewed potency during periods of economic and political turbulence, and have often been mobilised by politicians for political gain. For example, during the nationalist struggle for independence, ethnicity not only played an important role in the struggle for leadership in ZAPU but also partly led to the eventual break-up of the party and the subsequent founding of ZANU in 1963. All but one of those who left the Joshua Nkomo-led party were Shona-speaking. Ethnicity continued to be a problem in both ZANU and ZAPU throughout the liberation struggles, and leadership battles were sometimes fought along ethnic fault lines (Sithole, 1979).


To a certain extent, race and ethnicity have, therefore, continued to be salient in the social and political life of Zimbabwe before and after independence in 1980. Voting patterns in post-independent Zimbabwe have tended to reflect ethnic relations among the various groups in the country. In the 1980 elections, for instance, ZAPU which was perceived to be a ‘Ndebele party` won all 20 seats in Matabeleland, while ZANU which has always been seen as a ‘Shona party` got its majority seats in the Shona-speaking parts of the country. Whites overwhelmingly voted for the Rhodesia Front, which represented the political and economic interests of whites. Until the removal of the 20 reserved seats from the constitution in 1987, Zimbabwean whites continued to primarily vote for the RF. After the demise of the RF and the enactment of the constitutional amendment that abolished the separate voting roll for whites, most whites withdrew from electoral politics. They only resurfaced on the electoral scene in 2000 when their economic livelihoods were threatened by the government confiscation of white commercial farmers` land under the fast track land reform programme (Huyse, 2003).


While ethnic and racial relations among Zimbabwe`s population groups have sometimes not been harmonious, there has been no open conflict or ethnically inspired violence since the Gukurahundi days of 1982 to 1987. Even the land reform exercise, which targeted white commercial land, has not resulted in open and sustained racial conflict between blacks and whites.