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Some essential basics about Mthwakazi state

What to call the territory once ruled, as the song goes, by King Mambo and King Mzilikazi is a centre of political dispute; some population groups favour Mthwakazi while some opt for Matabeleland, but critically, most agree with the utility of the sovereignty of the territory. In this article we will use the names Matabeleland and Mthwakazi interchangeably in reference to the traditional state made of modern-day Matabeleland and parts of present day Midlands region; the Republic of Matabeleland covers territory to the southwest of present-day state of Zimbabwe. The territory is occupied by people of African ethnic background with a small population of people from non-African ethnic background, in particular Europe and Asia. Black people make the majority of the population with small communities of white and Asian people also calling the territory home.

Some local debate over the name Mthwakazi

One would have hoped naming our territory would be straightforward, but it is far from that, and we may have to live to explain ourselves to the next generations. Some Kalanga scholars view the name Mthwakazi in disdain. These academics have reconstructed history and politicised the name to portray its supposed toxicity. They argue the name Matabeleland is more reflective of our society and palatable as opposed to Mthwakazi which is somehow perceived as a perpetuation of Nguni supremacism and an attempt at assimilating other tribal groups within the territory. These individuals refute the historical existence of Mthwakazi as a viable state, they argue Mthwakazi is a region in Matabeleland and specifically a territory occupied by Nguni immigrants.

Origins of the name Mthwakazi

The origin of the name Mthwakazi is a matter of controversy among historians. One argument is that it was King Mzilikazi who named the territory Mthwakazi in recognition of the first group of people (AbaThwa) to occupy the land. The name is arguably a derivative of the name of Queen Mu-Thwa the first known ruler of the territory who ruled around 7,000 years ago. She was the matriarch of the AbaThwa (Figs. 1 and 2), the San people often referred to in the derogatory term ‘Bushmen’ by European scholars.


Fig. 1 Photo credit: The Chronicle (2014). In a rapidly changing Africa, AbaThwa people have retained their customs and traditions
Fig. 2 Photo credit: The Sunday News (2017). San (AbaThwa) women walking, Central Kalahari, Botswana

Why the name Mthwakazi ruffles feathers

After an investment in renaming Bulawayo streets and avenues in Shona political, cultural and historically significant symbols/ figures, it comes as no surprise that those in control of Zimbabwean political power will resist the rejuvenation of the name Mthwakazi hence the idea of Mthwakazi statehood. After all, place-names are not just names, they convey a message about geopolitical power and control.

The process of naming places involves a contested identity politics of people and place; place names are part of the social construction of space and the symbolic construction of meanings about place. The name Mthwakazi is essential in the construction of the symbolic and material orders that legitimise the territorial dominance of the Ndebele nation. Attempts by Mthwakazi nationals to rename (and in the process reclaim) Matabeleland and parts of the midland’s territory is disruptive to Harare’s standing goal of imposing one identity in the modern state called Zimbabwe.

Disquiet over the use of the name Mthwakazi is based on the perceived and real threat of its political connotations to the people of the region. In a desperate attempt to distract the public from reality, the unitary Zimbabwe proponents and the media have transformed and framed the name into what it is not – an anti-Shona and Ndebele supremacist symbol that it is not. The name Mthwakazi is not a threat to unity or coexistence of ethnic Ndebele and Shona people; discrimination and the resultant inequality is.

Zimbabwe State propaganda

The focus of Zimbabwean propaganda is not only to misinform or push a Mashonaland agenda, it is also to exhaust people’s critical thinking with the objective of annihilating the truth. We notice too that apart from the name Mthwakazi, calling for a change of Lobengula Street to its historically significant form King Lobengula Road and calls for the replacement of Leopold Takawira Avenue with King Mzilikazi Avenue cause unease within a largely Mashonaland biased Zimbabwe government.

Renaming calls have been deliberately given a negative connotation within the mainstream media that has conveniently turned such calls into some form of Ndebele nationalism and an anti-Zimbabwe pursuit, yet it is common knowledge that Mthwakazi is a formal and well-known geopolitical name for the traditional nation-state founded by King Mzilikazi in the 19th Century. And Lobengula was not just another man, he was the King.

Mthwakazi statehood

We are presenting the past in its rightful context. Matabeleland’s statehood is not in question, a fact reaffirmed in a 2007 letter to Britain Ambassador in Harare as a ‘Notice of intent to file an application for the review of the verdict of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the Land Case Matabeleland on the 19th of 1918’ by the late son and hero of Mthwakazi, former Governor and Resident Minister of Matabeleland North, the Honourable Welshman Mabhena, cited by Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2009):

Your excellence you may be surprised to hear that I usually get lost when…people…mix up my country Matabeleland with Zimbabwe, because Zimbabwe is a former British Colony which was colonised in 1890 and granted independence on 18 April 1980. While my homeland Matabeleland is a territory which was an independent Kingdom until it was invaded by the British South Africa Company (BSA Co) on 4 November 1893, in defiance of the authority of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Actually, in terms of the Moffat Treaty of Peace and Unity of 11 February 1888 between Queen Victoria and King Lobengula, Britain and Matabeleland were allies, and due to our respect to our late King we have not renounced his vow.

— Welshman Mabhena

The physical boundaries of the Mthwakazi state

Sir Leander Jameson determined the influence of Matabeleland Kingdom to Umnyati River (Fig. 3) to the east, thus the Jameson line; while the names and borders of proposed states (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5) may be a source of contention among different Mthwakazi population groups, that of itself does not begin to invalidate Mthwakazi statehood.

Fig. 3 Map adapted from Timewise Traveller. Matabeleland Territorial eastern boundary as understood by Sir Leander Starr Jameson a Scotland born colonial politician
Fig. 4 Photo credit: Unknown. Disclaimer: We DO NOT own image copyright. The geographical boundaries of the Mthwakazi state with proposed internal state boundaries
Fig. 5 Map Credit: African Congress of People (ACP) for Matabeleland and Midlands Independence. The map highlights international and provincial boundaries of the conceived state of Matabeleland complete with road network and major cities.

Mthwakazi demographics

A comprehensive discussion of Mthwakazi demographics is impossible without a detailed data of the Midlands region; however, we will focus on the population of modern-day Matabeleland divided into three provinces: Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and Bulawayo, the capital of the region. 

Population groups who inhabit Matabeleland include the Kalanga, Nguni, Sotho, Tonga, Venda among others. As pointed out in the introduction, there are non-Black citizens who include those of European and Asian descent.

The Matabeleland region makes at least 17 percent of the human population of Zimbabwe. As of August 2012, according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency or ZIMSTAT, the region had a combined population size of 2,086,247 in a surface of area of just over 130,000 km².

Matabeleland South’s population was 683 893 people, of whom 326 697 were males and 356 926 were females, and Matabeleland North province had a total population of 749 017 people. The sex ratio (proportion of male and female population) was 48 and 52 percent, respectively, within an area of just over 75,017 km². Last but not least, in the same census, Bulawayo province had a population of 653,337 in an area of 1,706.8 km².

Climate and economic activity

With significantly lower rains and frequent droughts (Fig. 6) thus, food and water scarcity, the region is naturally less hospitable to human habitation. Although the land is fertile, the dry climate makes large-scale crop production less viable for traditional farmers. In recognition of this, the colonial government formed large numbers of cattle ranches, and cattle ranching has proven to be more successful than growing crops in the province. The mighty Zambezi River provides perhaps the best hope for a long-term solution to water problems in Matabeleland.

Fig. 6 Source: The Sunday News| Call to declare Matabeleland South drought a disaster

However, Zimbabwe government plans to draw water from the Zambezi River to the region via the conveniently named project Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project have yet to materialise meaning crop farming and industrial growth have continued to falter since the 1980 ‘independence’.

Matabeleland North is also host to significant reserves of economically viable natural resources like gold, limestone, methane gas, coal, and timber. As evidenced in Hwange National Park (Figs. 7 and 9), a mammoth game reserve with a substantial wildlife population.

Hwange National Park | Hwange Ecotourism Safari | Matriarch Africa
Fig. 7 Source: Matriarch Africa. Hwange National Park. Hwange Ecotourism Safari

The most famous geographic feature of Matabeleland North is undoubtedly the Victoria Falls (Fig. 8), the world’s largest waterfalls, located on the Zambezi river on the northern border of the province.

Fig. 8 Video credit: National Geographic: The majestic Victoria Falls, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the greatest attractions in Africa and one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world; Victoria Falls is located on the Zambezi River, the fourth largest river in Africa
Fig. 9 Video credit: Mama Tembo Tours. Hwange National Park is the largest Park in Mthwakazi and modern-day Zimbabwe occupying roughly 14 650 square kilometers. It is located about one hour south of the Mighty Victoria Falls.
Fig. 10 Video credit: Mama Tembo Tours. Matobo or Matopos National Park is a designated UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. It occupies a total area of 44 500 hectares and is known for the Matopos hills – a range of balancing rock formations created by erosion of the granite plateau.
Fig. 11 Photo credit Gerhard Huber (2012) via Global Geography. The unique, delicately balancing rocks at Matopos Hills.
Fig. 12 Photo credit: Gerhard Huber (2012) via Global Geography. A stunning image of antelopes at the Matopos Hills

Established as a tourist resort in 1953 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, the Matobo Hills or Matopos lies 35 km south of the city of Bulawayo, the Matopos consist of a broken and ancient, rocky landscape with a unique natural and social heritage (Figs. 10 – 12). The Matopos area has one of the highest concentrations of prehistoric rock paintings (Figs. 13 and 14) in Southern Africa.

Fig. 13 Photo Credit: Roaming Fox. The magnificent Matobo caves, a major tourist attraction

There is demonstrable, almost uninterrupted, association between people and the environment over several centuries. Through this interaction, one of the most outstanding rock art (Fig. 14) collections in southern Africa has resulted; the same interaction has also fostered strong religious beliefs which still play a major role in contemporary local society.

Fig. 14 Photo credit: Timbuktu Travel. The amazing rock paintings serve as undisputable evidence of thousands of years of human habitation and interaction with nature at the location

Arguably, the Matopos has one of the highest concentrations of rock art in Southern Africa dating back at least 13,000 years. The paintings illustrate evolving artistic styles and also socio-religious beliefs. There is ample evidence from archaeology and from the rock paintings at Matopos that indicates the Matopos have been occupied over a period of at least 500,000 years.

Matopos is an important feature in the history of Zimbabwe; it is central to many fundamental historical events that are of immense value to the modern nation of Zimbabwe. Of note are battle sites, graves, ruins and relics that date back thousands of years through to recent events.

To the west of the city of Bulawayo, 22km lies the Khami ruins (Fig. 15), one of the major features of archaeological interest in Matabeleland South. It is a ruined city built of stones that dates back to the mid-16th Century following the abandonment of the capital of Great Zimbabwe.

Fig. 15 Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. The ancient City of Khami was accredited a UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1986 are a major tourist attraction in Matabeleland South

Khami ruins, a national monument accredited a UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1986, was once the capital of the Kalanga Kingdom of Butwa of the Tolwa dynasty. The discovery of objects from Europe and China on the site is evidence of Khami’s significant role as one of the major trade centres of its time.


Mthwakazi is an ethnically and culturally diverse historic state founded in the 19th Century by King Mzilikazi on the southwest of present day Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, it has struggled for equal recognition and development in a colonially forced merger with Mashonaland to create the modern state of Zimbabwe. The prevailing politics of Zimbabwe’s interest is the protection of ethnic Shona interest, and its focus is the management of Mthwakazi, not its empowerment. As a consequence of ZANU PF’s anti-Mthwakazi agenda and insatiable appetite for a centralised government system, the territory has failed to reach its full economic potential to the detriment of the local economy. 


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