Zimbabwe Gains Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On March 4, 1980, supporters of Robert Mugabe won a clear majority of parliamentary seats. This enabled their leader to become the prime minister of the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia, which was soon renamed Zimbabwe. Mugabe was the first prime minister to enjoy a democratic mandate from the majority of the citizenry. The country had previously been ruled by a white minority government.

Summary of Event

On March 4, 1980, after years of guerrilla warfare, voters went to the polls in the African state once known as Southern Rhodesia in the first elections open to the majority black population. Robert Mugabe, who had spent the better part of the previous decade in exile, assumed the office of prime minister, and his party won the largest number of seats in parliament. Zimbabwe;independence Prime ministers;Zimbabwe [kw]Zimbabwe Gains Independence (Mar. 4, 1980) [kw]Independence, Zimbabwe Gains (Mar. 4, 1980) Zimbabwe;independence Prime ministers;Zimbabwe [g]Africa;Mar. 4, 1980: Zimbabwe Gains Independence[04080] [g]Zimbabwe;Mar. 4, 1980: Zimbabwe Gains Independence[04080] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 4, 1980: Zimbabwe Gains Independence[04080] Mugabe, Robert Smith, Ian Nkomo, Joshua Carrington, Lord Muzorewa, Abel Sithole, Ndabaningi Soames, Baron

Southern Rhodesia, one of two colonies named after the nineteenth century diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, had split from the United Kingdom in 1965. This move was led by Prime Minister Ian Smith, whose government issued the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) on November 11, 1965. The separation was precipitated by Britain’s refusal to support independence on the basis of white-minority rule. British intransigence prevented any continued relationship between the United Kingdom and its colony; eventually, Smith was forced to declare his state to be the Republic of Rhodesia in 1970. Given the disenfranchisement of its 95 percent black population, Rhodesia was a republic in name only, however.

The international community refused to recognize this state as legitimate, imposing boycotts and various other sanctions. Several African nationalist movements sought actively to overthrow the government. The Marxist-Leninist Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) had been led by Joshua Nkomo since 1962, and its Soviet-aligned militant faction, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), conducted operations against Smith’s government out of neighboring Zambia. Early tension in ZAPU’s leadership resulted in the departure of Ndabaningi Sithole and Mugabe, who formed a rival organization called the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). ZANU adopted a Maoist orientation and its armed forces, known as the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA), received support from China. ZANLA followed Maoist military doctrines, which emphasized close cooperation with the peasantry, and won the support of Samora Machal of Mozambique who provided a crucial external area of operation. Ironically, from 1964 to 1974, while the Rhodesian Bush War, or Second Chimurenga, grew in the countryside, Nkomo, Sithole, and Mugabe were all serving time in Rhodesian prison.

In 1975, ZANU was reorganized, perhaps prompted by the assassination of Herbert Chitepo, Chitepo, Herbert a key ZANU leader. It is possible that Chitepo was killed by Rhodesian intelligence operatives, but evidence pointed to ZANU infighting. Mugabe restored order by taking over ZANU after the party’s central committee ousted Sithole for renouncing violence.

It was not guerrilla activity alone that drove Smith to the bargaining table; international pressure also played a major role. In particular, Rhodesia’s only nominal ally, South Africa, tried to improve its position with other African states by pushing Smith to accept majority rule. This influence led the prime minister to release the ZANU and ZAPU leadership from prison in 1974, and drove him to agree to support an American prototype plan for peace in 1976. While the program was never implemented, it signaled that a change was in the air.

ZANU and ZAPU decided to put aside their differences and unite together under the new Popular Front (PF). Its missions included the downing of two Rhodesian civilian passenger planes and the destruction of the country’s primary oil depot in the capital. In the meanwhile, Smith tried to create an internal solution by renaming the country Zimbabwe Rhodesia and holding elections in 1978 for a one-hundred-seat house of assembly with twenty-eight seats reserved for whites. As a result of this election, Bishop Abel Muzorewa of the United African National Council (UANC) became the new prime minister, although it was widely suspected that Smith was in power behind the scenes. The PF saw this move as an attempt to make a black, puppet government. The PF urged its supporters to boycott the election and continued to wage an insurgency.

Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe speaks on the volatile subject of land resettlement at a conference in Mutari in December, 1997.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1979, Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, initiated a new peace conference among the major parties. Britain used its diplomatic influence with other African states to pressure the PF to come to the table. The result was the Lancaster House Conference attended by Muzarewa, Smith, and Sithole—who represented the Zimbabwe Rhodesia government—and Mugabe and Nkomo—who represented the PF. One major sticking point was the issue of land reform; whites held 88.5 acres of land to every 1 acre of black-owned land. The PF backed down on this issue after Britain promised to help purchase land for redistribution from whites intending to emigrate after the peace settlement.

This summit paved the way for the key 1980 multiparty elections under interim governor Baron Soames. Both factions of the PF wanted to run under that particular name, but British officials registered them as ZANU PF and PF ZAPU to avoid confusion. In the end ZANU PF picked up fifty-seven of the eighty seats reserved for black representatives, ensuring that Mugabe, not Nkomo, would become prime minister of the new, independent nation of Zimbabwe.

Mugabe had potential to be a remarkable ruler. In an effort to head off the financial repercussions of a mass European exodus, the prime minister worked diligently to assure white landowners that their rights and property would be respected. He certainly had reason to resent the West, but, in 1986, as host of the Eighth Summit of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), Mugabe adamantly rejected Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s call to join an anti-American bloc.

Unfortunately, others of Mugabe’s actions were nefarious. In 1982, he ousted Nkomo from his cabinet and dispatched the notorious, North Korean-trained Fifth Army brigade to Matabeleland in a brutal anti-ZAPU campaign. He eventually brought Nkomo back into the government, but only after the expansion of his own powers as the new executive president in 1987. Elections held in 1990, and 1996, were marked by widespread reports of voting irregularities. In 1995, Mugabe passed a series of antihomosexual laws. Furthermore, he aggressively curtailed freedom of the press, allowed inflation to reach levels of 2,000 percent, encouraged mobs to seize white-owned land, questionably dispatched troops into the Congo, and cleared slums in a program known as Operation Murambatsvina Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out Trash) or Operation Restore Order. Operation Restore Order


The 1980 election and the creation of Zimbabwe helped destroy a final stronghold of white neo-imperialism in Africa. The change was the result of several decades of difficult guerrilla fighting and international pressure on a nonconstitutional, racialist, and authoritarian government. Subsequent events were disappointing, however, as Mugabe proved to be less of a heroic liberator and more of a dictatorial thug hiding behind a thin, anti-imperialist mask. Zimbabwe;independence Prime ministers;Zimbabwe

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Du Toit, Pierre. State Building and Democracy in Southern Africa. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1995. Considers events in Zimbabwe as part of broader changes affecting several developing nations in Southern Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gann, Lewis, and Thomas H. Henrikson. The Struggle for Zimbabwe: Battle in the Bush. New York: Praeger, 1981. Thematic analysis of the Bush War. Considers events in the conflict from the perspectives of the various parties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munro, William. The Moral Economy of the State: Conservation, Community Development, and State Making in Zimbabwe. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1998. Studies the independence movement and the guerrilla war from the perspective of the agrarian peasantry. Emphasizes rural groups’ interactions and struggles with government authority.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, Harold D., ed. Zimbabwe: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: American University, 1983. Provides an overview of Zimbabwe for the general reader. Reviews history, geography, politics, economics, and national security. Includes numerous photographs, maps, and charts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owomoyela, Oyekan. Culture and Customs of Zimbabwe. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. A good overview of Zimbabwe’s culture. Includes a basic summary of Zimbabwe’s history including the struggle for independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sithole, Masipula. “State Power and Consolidation in Zimbabwe: Party and Ideological Development.” In Afro-Marxist Regimes; Ideology and Public Policy, edited by Edmund Keller and Donald Rothchild. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1987. Explores the consolidation of state power in Zimbabwe from the revolutionary movement through the mid-1980’s. Author was one of Zimbabwe’s most respected scholars and the brother of one of its revolutionary leaders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tamarkin, M. The Making of Zimbabwe: Decolonization in Regional and International Politics. London: Frank Cass, 1990. Provides a review of the political and diplomatic activities of the key individuals and groups in Zimbabwe in the second half of the 1970’s.

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Categories: History