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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Ndebele in Zimbabwe

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Zimbabwe Facts
Area:    390,580 sq. km.
Capital:    Harare
Total Population:    11,000,000 (source: unknown, 1995, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Several factors known to increase the likelihood of rebellion are present in the Ndebele case. There is cause for rebellion in terms of recent government repression and a history of past protest to build upon. Of note, there is also a strong basis from which to organize a rebellion. The Ndebele are territorially concentrated and have a strong group identity. In addition, there are organizations already in place to mobilize support. The fact that the regime is undemocratic and uninterested in improving the situation makes accommodation unlikely. While there is no transnational pressure for accommodation, there is violence in neighboring states that makes rebellion seem like a reasonable option for the Ndebele.


Analytic Summary

The Ndebele of Zimbabwe are concentrated in Western Zimbabwe in Matabeleland (GROUPCON = 3) and live apart from other ethnic groups. The Ndebele have their own language (LANG = 2) and distinct family names that identify them as Ndebele (CUSTOM = 1). Otherwise, they are not that different from the majority Shona ethnic group. In fact, Ndebele is an ethnic group that grew out of a military state encompassing peoples of different origin, including some Shona. The Ndebele of Zimbabwe are descendants of King Lobengula who fled from the Zulu warrior king Shaka in the 19th century. King Lobengula and a group of 500 followers went north and one faction settled in Matabeleland.

The British conquered the Ndebele and surrounding ethnic groups in the late 1800s to form Rhodesia. By 1960, the British were willing to give more equality to the blacks in Rhodesia, but white settlers resisted. In 1965, Ian Smith declared Rhodesia independent of Britain and fought to maintain the racist society that had developed. Both the Shona and the Ndebele formed opposition movements, ZANU and ZAPU respectively, and an armed struggle for black equality ensued. Independence for the renamed state of Zimbabwe was achieved in April 1980, and a black majority government took over. At that time, ethnic rivalries flared. The Ndebele minority resented the Shona-dominated government, and conflict broke out in the mid-1980s. The government massacred upwards of 10,000 people in Matabeleland until a power-sharing agreement was reached in 1988.

The Ndebele in Zimbabwe continue to encounter low-grade economic and political discrimination by the Shona majority (POLDIS06 = 2, ECDIS06 = 1). There is a diffuse sense that the needs of the Ndebele are ignored. For example, there have been chronic droughts and water shortages in the region since 1985 that have received little attention. The Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project is something the group has been pushing previously, but for decades it was dismissed as simply too expensive to fund. However, foreign investment now shows intentions of helping to fund it and so again, the issue is at the forefront. In general, Matabeleland lags behind in development, although, in 2005, the government has contributed development funds to the region. There is massive unemployment and general social destitution in the area. Furthermore, although there are no restrictions to high office, civil servants in Matabeleland are disproportionately Shona, and many do not even speak Ndebele. This contributes to the feeling of many Ndebele that they are second-class citizens to the Shona and that their own culture is at risk.

Subsequently, Ndebele in Zimbabwe have several grievances. Politically, most are seeking greater autonomy, though the ZAPU-Federal Party calls for a separate state of Matabeleland (POLGR06 = 4). In addition, they would like more equal civil rights and a change in the Shona civil servants who administer the area. Economically, they would like more public spending in Matabeleland and greater economic opportunity (ECGR06 = 2). Finally, culturally they would like greater promotion of their life ways and especially their language. In addition, they want a greater sense of group security. The massacres of the 1980s still haunt them, and they are seeking an apology as well as peace of mind about the future.

The Ndebele are organized to pursue redress for these grievances (GOJPA06 = 2). Technically, they are part of a coalition government with the ruling ZANU party. However, many still feel alienated from politics. There are approximately six conventional organizations representing Ndebele interests. Of note, ZAPU2000 was formed in 1999 and has been attracting support. However, active participation in Ndebele organizations is tempered by fear that there will be government reprisals (REPNVIOL04-06 = 2). The horrors of the 1980s cast a long shadow that still influences politics today. In 2003, the Ndebele tried to bring a lawsuit against Mugabe for the 1980 deaths, but so far he has refused to release pertinent records despite judicial orders to do so. As a "chosen trauma," they also help maintain a strong sense of group identity. There is little internal group conflict (INTRACON01-06 = 0).

Recently, there have been no reports of overt violence between the Ndebele minority and the Shona majority (INTERCON02-06 = 0). However, there has been conflict between the Ndebele and the government (REPGENCIV04-06 = 4). Matabeleland is an opposition stronghold. Ndebele resistance has been peaceful. Student protests took place throughout the 1990s, and Ndebele officials continue to voice their grievances to the government and against the Zanu-PF (PROT99-06 = 1).



Amnesty International. 1992. Zimbabwe: Drawing a Line through the Past.

Freedom House. 2008. "Freedom In the World 2008 - Zimbabwe."

International Crisis Group. 2004. "Zimbabwe: Another Election Chance." Africa Report No. 86.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 1989-2006.

Minority Rights Group. 2005. "Uganda: Overview." World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples., accessed 9/26/2008.

Nelson, H.D. 1982. Zimbabwe: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Foreign Area Studies, American University.

Rasmussen, R. Ken, ed. 1990. Historical Dictionary of Zimbabwe. Lanhan, MD: Scarecrow Press.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Zimbabwe. 1999-2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006