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History of Zimbabwe - Colonialism

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From the 1880s to the early 20th century, a coalescence of Christianity, mercantilism, colonialism and capitalism gradually displaced the pre-colonial socio-political and economic formations discussed above, bringing about a colonial transformation marked by the emergence of new identities, new commodities, new languages, new ideologies, new relationships, new political and economic outlooks and new tastes.


The myth of a Second Rand lying in Zimbabwe precipitated the launch of the Pioneer Column that established the colonisation of Zimbabwe. While they introduced some positive developments like western medicine, a stop to persecutions for alleged witchcraft and such practices as forced marriages and child-pledging, missionaries were the earliest representatives of the imperial world that eventually violently conquered the Shona and the Ndebele. They aimed as reconstructing the African world in name of God and Europe civilisation, but in the process facilitating the colonisation of Zimbabwe. Christian teaching stressed individual accountability to God above, thus undermining African religions ideologies that guided Africa political, judicial and religions powers. Missionaries were consistent and persistent in denigrating and castigating African cultural and religions beliefs/practices as pagan, demonic and evil. It is not surprising that some missionaries like John Moffat abused Lobengula’s trust and confidence by conniving with concession seekers. In the face of such ambiguities, African response to Christianity remained ambivalent.

Missionaries tricked Lobengula into signing treaties like the Moffat Treaty and the Rudd Concession without fully understanding them. The treaties ceded land and mineral rights to Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes used the Rudd Concession to obtain a Royal Charter from the British government. Thus, due to extreme pressures from different groups all sent on extracting concessions from him, coupled with internal pressures from pacifists (who wanted negotiations and peace) and conservatives (who wanted war) among his own people, Lobengula succumbed to the chicanery and deception of the colonialists.


In 1890, Rhodes unleashed the Pioneer Column to invade Mashonaland, marking the beginning of white settler occupation of Zimbabwe. The Shona were not quick to respond to the invasion as they wrongly assumed the column was merely a uniquely large trade and gold-seeking party that would soon vacate. Soon Rhodes’ invading British South Africa Company (BSAC) established a Native Department that authorised labour and tax raids on the Shona. Henceforth, constant skirmishes between Shona communities and tax collectors and labour raiders ensued as the Shona, who had not been conquered at all, saw no premise upon which the company could demand tax and labour from them. More significantly, however, the company started appropriating and granting land to the settler pioneers.


By 1893, the invading settlers had failed to find rich gold deposits in Mashonaland. They therefore decided to extend the frontiers of their new acquisition to Matabeleland. The colonial forces were bent on the complete annahilation of the Ndebele state and thus attacked the Ndebele in 1893. Despite spirited resistance at the Battles of Mbembezi River, Shangani River and at Pupu across the Shangani River, the Ndebele were defeated in October 1893, leading Lobengula to set fire to his capital and flee to the north, never to be seen again, dead or alive. Superior weapons were the decisive determinant of the outcome of this Anglo-Ndebele war.


The Ndebele forces were, however, not completely defeated and rose violently again in March 1896 against the excesses of the BSAC. These excesses, which also affected the Shona, included forced labour (chibaro/isibalo), taxation, raping of local womenand ooting of African resources, notably cattle. The Shona joined the uprising in June. The heroic Ndebele-Shona Uprisings of 1896, termed the First Chimurenga, formed the basis of later mass nationalism. An important feature of this uprising was the purported role of traditional Africa religious authorities that were said to have provided unity and co-ordination across Ndebele-Shona ethnic divides with two religious figures, Mkwati of the Mwari cult and Kaguvi of the Shona Mhondoro religions system, prominent. Mbuya Nehanda is another religious figure who played a pivotal role in propping up the rising in and around the Mazoe area. Other prominent heroes of the First Chimurenga included Mashayamombe, Makoni, Mlugulu, Siginyamatshe, Mpotshwan, and Kunzvi-Nyandoro, among others. Stories of the heroic exploits of these early heroes and the united approach by the Shona and Ndebele became a great source of inspiration during the Second Chimurenga from the mid-1960s.


In 1898, the Brits officially recognised the name Rhodesia for the colony after promulgating the Rhodesia Order in Council. The Order in Council was the governing instrument of Rhodesia until 1923 when the settlers were accorded Responsible Government. The main characteristics of the new settler establishment were land segregation, segregated governance and political and economic privileges for the white settler community. Thus, separation of races in the economy, political system and law became the order of the day. Racial difference was completely institutionalised in all facets of the colonial state’s institutions. An early challenge for the colonial state was how to rule the Shona and Ndebele in an exploitative way, but without provoking another uprising. This became what has been termed “the native question”.


In the early years of colonial rule, urban settlements developed and soon became ‘sites of struggles’ as they were characterised by the colonial politics of domination, control, segregation and exploitation. The rural-urban influx also provided early challenges. Besides racial divisions, urban areas were also marked along class, gender and ethnic lines, hence the problems of miscegenation and inter-racial sexualities. Notwithstanding that in Bulawayo in 1897, white male settlers outnumbered their female counterparts 6 to 1, inter-racial sexualities were criminalised with the passing of the Immorality Suppression Ordinance in 1903 which made intercourse between a black man and a white woman illegal; the punishment was five years for the black man and two years for the white woman. However, there was no corresponding punishment for a white man who had a sexual relationship with a black woman. Such laws as the Southern Rhodesia Native Regulations (1910) and Native Affairs Act (1927), inter alia, empowered colonial officials to enforce what was deemed the colonial sense of civility, racial boundaries and settler prestige perceived to be under threat from the Africans.


Yet another significant characteristic of early colonial rule in Zimbabwe was land dispossession and forcible proletarianisation of the African. Two key aims of settler production were maximum output premised on minimum cost. These had to be achieved through the following; restricting African access to land, thus undercutting African peasant agricultural production, increasing taxation and hence forcing Africans to sell their labour cheaply to white mine owners and farmers. Paying the African starvation wages augmented all these exploitative measures. These machinations were legally supported by such oppressive and exploitative legislation as the Masters and Servants Ordinance, the Rhodesia Native Labour Bureau, the Pass Laws, the Native Regulations Ordinance and the compound system which gave mine owners semi-‘feudal’ powers akin to those of slave owners of the 19th century. We therefore note that in the 1920s and 1930s, the state increasingly intervened on behalf of the settlers against the interests of the Africans. White commercial production was promoted on the back of the destruction of African peasant production. This wanton undercutting of African peasant production marked the beginning of the underdevelopment of African reserves in Rhodesia and the forcible proletarianisation of the African.


From the above, it is clesr that in colonial Zimbabwe, land dispossession immediately followed colonisation. As early as 1894, a Land Commission was appointed while the first two reserves, the arid Gwai and Shangani, were set aside for the Ndebele. By 1905, sixty reserves had been established, covering only 22% of the colony. Land had become the settlers’ most valued commodity after failing in mining. Measures were put in place to support/finance white agriculture, with an Agriculture Research station being established near Salisbury. Land segregation was then concretised in 1930 with the introduction of the Land Apportionment Act which divided land into White Areas, Native Areas, Native Purchase Areas and Forest Areas. Within the Native Areas, no one held title to land; land was under ‘communal tenure’, but in the White Areas, land was a private property secured by title deeds. And when the Great Depression hit the fledgling settler economy, the settler government intervened by introducing a raft of legislation like the Maize Control Act, Cattle Levy Act, Reserve Pool Act, Market Stabilisation Act, among others, all of which had the effect of restricting African peasant production and forcing Africans to partake in the wage labour market. This inevitably resulted in a drop in African agricultural production which the settler government, however, blamed on poor African farming methods rather than land shortage and restrictive policies.


African responses to these early forms of exploitation and oppression ranged from outright resistance and acquiescence to adopting and adapting Christian ideologies and use of petitions for the return of Ndebele land alienated by the settlers. However, by 1923, African politics had assumed more complex forms with the formation of a relatively national organisation, the Southern Rhodesia Bantu Voters Association, although this was largely an elitist organisation, but with a vibrant Women’s league that organised a successful boycott of the beer hall in 1934. Then there was the South Africa African Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) that catered for workers’ interests. A significant phenomenon was also the formation of African churches that broke away from the orthodox Christian churches to ameliorate the impact of colonialism.