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A country faced with economic collapse and continuing political repression

Zimbabwe's dominant topographical feature is the High Veld, a broad ridge around 1,500 metres above sea level that runs from south-west to north-east, and covers around one-quarter of the territory. The land drops on either side of this to the plateau of the Middle Veld, and then to the Low Veld, which reaches the frontiers at the Zambezi River in the north-west and the Limpopo in the south-east. Though it is in the tropics, Zimbabwe's elevation ensures a fairly mild climate.

The main population group are the Shona, who settled in the north and west of Zimbabwe more than 1,000 years ago and have primarily been farmers. The smaller Ndebele group arrived in the 19th century and lived initially as pastoralists in the south and east. With different forms of livelihood, the two coexisted fairly peaceably. More disruptive was the arrival from South Africa at the end of the 19th century of a small number of whites. Disappointed by not finding much gold to mine, instead they took the best land—the ‘white highlands’—a seizure that rankles to this day.

When black majority rule was achieved in 1980, the government invested heavily in education and primary enrolment ratios soon shot up to 100%. There was similar progress in health with a steady rise in life expectancy. Since then, the country has been on a downward spiral. Economic collapse led to cuts in government expenditure, and fees were introduced for education and health services. Primary enrolment has fallen and clinics and hospitals are undermanned and badly equipped.

Health has also been badly affected by the AIDS epidemic. In 2007, 15% of adults were HIV-positive and life expectancy had fallen to 43 years.

By the standards of Sub-Saharan Africa, Zimbabwe has a fairly diverse economy. Sanctions imposed during the final years of white rule in the 1970s had forced the country to develop its own manufacturing industry, including steel production. Though output declined when price controls and protection were removed, even by 2004 manufacturing still made up 14% of employment. Zimbabwe also has an important mining industry, particularly for gold, which makes up 15% of exports.

Agriculture remains central to the economy, and accounts for 15% of employment. Before the current crisis, in years of good rainfall, Zimbabwe's farmers could even grow enough food to export, as well as producing cash crops such as sugar and cotton, and particularly tobacco, which is the major export earner.

Skewed patterns of landholding

Agriculture has always been overshadowed by questions of land distribution. After independence the government, nervous of provoking ‘white flight’, left many of the large landholdings intact. Whites made up less than 1% of the population but owned one-third of arable land—leaving black farmers to work the drier, lower-lying territory.

Both industry and agriculture are now in a desperate state mostly due to general mismanagement and corruption: over the period 1999–2006 the economy shrank by 5% per year. Since 2001, agricultural output has dropped by one-third. In 2008, before the economy switched to the US dollar, inflation was over 100,000%.


Subjects: History.

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