A Brief Guide to Matabeleland

Alex Mellon /
Alex Mellon / | © Culture Trip

The proposed nation of Matabeleland currently makes up part of Zimbabwe. It has a rich history and culture embodied by its Ndebele people.


Matabeleland forms the western part of Zimbabwe. It is made up of three provinces, Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and the town of Bulawayo, which is Zimbabwe’s second largest city. The region has the rest of Zimbabwe to the east, Namibia to the north and borders Botswana to the west. The region is named after its inhabitants, the Ndebele people, with the term “Matabeleland” a European corruption of the word “Ndebele”.


Ndebeles, who descend from Zulus, settled in what has become Matabeleland in the 1830s. European nations became increasingly prominent in the area surrounding Matabeleland with the discovery of gold in the region, with Matabeleland and neighbouring Mashonaland declared British protectorates in 1891. The British South Africa Company, promoting colonisation across large parts of Africa, battled with the Ndebele Kingdom in the First Matabele War (1893-94) and Second Matabele War (1896-97), with both Matabeleland and Mashonaland remaining part of Rhodesia at the end of the conflict.

Since the Matabele Wars, Matabeleland has been under the control of British Rhodesia, of sovereign Rhodesia after it declared its independence, and of Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe African National Union stated a campaign against the white Rhodesian government (sometimes referred to as the Bush War, or as the Second Chimurenga, by Rhodesians and “rebels” respectively) that lasted seven years until the Rhodesian government relented. Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, representing the Shona people (Zimbabwe’s ethnic majority), beat the Ndebele candidate, Joshua Nkomo, in resulting elections and an independent Zimbabwe was declared soon after.

Consistent conflict between the Shona and Ndebele took place in the new nation, with large numbers of Ndebele massacred in Matabeleland and Mashonaland and food supplies to the area restricted, which in turn lead to mass starvation. Mugabe’s controversial Land Acquisition Act (in which white-owned farms were redistributed to Africans) led to further problems, with squatting and land grabbing contributing to a huge drop in productivity in what had previously been fertile farming land.
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Political status:

The region, through the Matabeleland Freedom Party (MFP), is currently campaigning for independence from Zimbabwe. Underpinning their policies is the feeling of suppression by the Shona majority, but more specifically the oppression from Mugabe. The region has its own (proposed) flag, but very little in the way of political power or influence.


Although Matabeleland’s population is made up of predominantly Ndebele people, there are other, smaller ethnic groups that inhabit parts of the region, including the Venda, Kalanga and Tonga. As a result, Ndebele is also the most widely spoken language along with English. Shona is the most widely spoken language across Zimbabwe, with Ndebele second and English often used for business purposes. There are a further 13 minority languages across Zimbabwe as a whole.


Population: 140,000 approx.
Capital: Bulawayo
Major languages: English, Ndebele, Shona
Currency: US dollar, South African rand
Major religions: Protestant, Catholic

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