Mthwakazi is the name given to the traditional nation-state made up of modern-day Matabeleland and parts of the modern-day Midlands regions within the modern-day state of Zimbabwe. The social and culturally diverse region is occupied by persons of African ethnic background with a tiny population of persons from non-African ethnic background.

Origins of the name Mthwakazi

The origin of the name Mthwakazi is a source of great debate within the region and in the broader Zimbabwe. One of the widely circulated idea is that the word Mthwakazi is derived from the name of Queen Mu-Thwa, the first ruler of the Mthwakazi territory who ruled around 7,000 years ago. She was the matriarch of the Aba-Thwa, the San people who were derogatively called the Bushmen by conquerors.  

Why the name Mthwakazi is ruffling 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. After all, place-names are not just names, they demonstrate much about geopolitics and power relations.

The process of naming places involves a contested identity politics of people and place. We are well aware that 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.

The consternation of 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.

Zimbabwean State propaganda

The focus of Zimbabwean propaganda is not only to misinform or push a Mashonaland agenda. It is 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 appropriate historically reflective form King Lobengula and calls for the replacement of Leopold Takawira Avenue with King Mzilikazi Avenue ruffle features within a largely Mashonaland biased State.

Renaming calls have been deliberately given a negative connotation within the mainstream Zimbabwean politics media outlets that have conveniently and deliberately 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. Lobengula was not just another man, he was the King.

Mthwakazi statehood

We are presenting the past in its rightful nature; Mthwakazi’s statehood is not in question. A fact openly reiterated in a 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 of the soil, the former Governor and Resident Minister of Matabeleland North, Welshman Mabhena in 2007; it reads:

“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.”

Proposed map of the Mthwakazi state

The map of the proposed states boundaries of Mthwakazi

We note that the determination of names and boundaries of the proposed states may raise questions for some Mthwakazi residents but this is a debate for another day, and a different platform.

Matabeleland demographics

Modern-day Matabeleland is divided into three provinces: Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and Bulawayo, the capital of the region. The three provinces are located in the west and south-west of modern-day Zimbabwe, between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers.

The region is named after its inhabitants who are collectively referred to as the Ndebele people. It has to be noted at this point that not all communities in the region appreciate being referred to as amaNdebele or Ndebeles. Demographic groups who inhabit Matabeleland include the Kalanga, Nguni, Sotho, Tonga, Venda among others. As pointed out in the introduction, it has to be noted too that Mthwakazi is also home to non-Black citizens who include those of European and Asian descent, among others.

The Matabeleland region makes just over 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 (described as just over the size of England, 130,279 km²).

Matabeleland South had 683 893 people, of whom 326 697 were males and 356 926 were females; Matabeleland North province had a total population of 749 017 people out of the population of Zimbabwe of 13 061 239. 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. The major city is Bulawayo, founded in 1894 by the British arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes; other towns of note in the region are Beitbridge, Gwanda, Lupane, Plumtree, Victoria Falls and Hwange.

Climate and economic activity

The Matabeleland region is generally less hospitable to human habitation; it has lower rain; the region is characterised by frequent droughts leading to food and water scarcity. 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.

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, Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, the region is also known for its substantial wildlife population.

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

Video Courtesy of 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
Video Courtesy of Mama Tembo Tours. Named after a local Nhanzwa chief, Hwange National Park is the largest Park in Zimbabwe occupying roughly 14 650 square kilometers. It is located in the northwest corner of the country about one hour south of the Mighty Victoria Falls.
Video courtesy of Mama Tembo Tours. Matobo National Park is a designated UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. It occupies a total area of 44 500 hectares and is known for the Matobo Hills, a range of balancing rock formations created by erosion of the granite plateau.
The unique and delicately balancing rocks.

Established 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.The Matopos area has one of the highest concentrations of prehistoric rock paintings in Southern Africa.

One of the magnificent Matopos tourist attractions

There is demonstrable, almost uninterrupted, association between people and the environment over several centuries. Through this interaction, one of the most outstanding rock art 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.

Excellent artwork, evidence of thousands of years of human interaction with nature

Arguably, the Matopos have 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 evidence that the Matopos have been occupied over a period of at least 500,000 years.

It is worth pointing out that the Matopos is a critical feature in the history of Zimbabwe; it is central to many fundamental historical events that are immensely critical to the modern nation of Zimbabwe. There are battle sites, graves, ruins and relics that date back thousands of years through to recent events.

Located 22 km to the west of the city of Bulawayo is Khami, 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.

Khami is a national monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 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 a culturally diverse traditional state which has struggled for equal recognition in a colonially forged merger with Mashonaland to create the modern state of Zimbabwe. The region has failed to reach its full economic potential due to central government political and economic system failures.