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The name “Zimbabwe” comes from the capital city of the Monomotapa Empire, whose heyday occurred between the fifth and 15th centuries in this part of Africa. By the late 19th century, the area was occupied by African tribes, including the Ndebele and the Shona, led by the powerful chief Lobengula. In 1890, a British column led by Cecil Rhodes marched from South Africa in search of precious minerals. They established Fort Salisbury (now Harare) and disbanded.
Through treaties and persuasion, Rhodes and his British South Africa Company acquired mineral rights in Lobengula's kingdom. Rhodes claimed the territory north of the Limpopo River for Great Britain and distributed it among his pioneers and the indigenous Africans--this country was known as Rhodesia for many years in his honor. The northern portion is now Zambia, while the former Southern Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe in 1980 in honor of its historical and cultural heritage.
The Ndebele took up arms in 1893 and again in 1896. European settlers, meanwhile, spread from the area around Fort Salisbury; by 1897 the railway had reached from South Africa to Bulawayo, the capital of Lobengula's former kingdom. A few years later the line was extended to reach the coalfields of Hwange, the Copper belt in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and Salisbury, which was already linked by rail to the port of Beira in Portuguese Mozambique.
Southern Rhodesia was granted independence by the British in 1923 as an autonomous member of the Commonwealth, but the passage of the Land Apportionment Act in 1931 solidified political power in the hands of the white minority. In 1953 Southern Rhodesia joined with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Malawi) into the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Vigorous opposition by nationalists in Zambia and Malawi led to the dissolution of the federation in 1963 and independence for Zambia and Malawi in 1964. In 1965, Rhodesia's prime minister, Ian Smith, announced a unilateral declaration of independence.
During the 1960s and '70s, nationalism was building in Rhodesia under parties led by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe. Both groups had to take refuge in neighboring independent countries. From there they waged a seven-year struggle for liberation from white minority rule. In 1980, an agreement was finally reached: A popular election would be held. Mugabe won a landslide victory to become Zimbabwe's first prime minister under majority rule—he continues to hold office today.
The 1992 Land Acquisition Bill, passed by Parliament, authorized the government to redistribute about half the land owned by white commercial farmers to black peasants. In his successful 1996 re-election campaign, Mugabe made a pledge that drew a large measure of concern from Zimbabwe's 100,000 remaining whites, promising to do more to speed up the resettlement of poor blacks on land acquired by the government.