Institutionalization of Ethnic Categories

Key Dates


Key Dates

  • 1880s: Arrival of British South Africa Company and granting of a royal charter
  • 1923: Southern Rhodesia becomes self-governing British colony
  • 1965: Unilateral Declaration of Independence
  • 1979: Lancaster House Agreement
  • 1980: State renamed Zimbabwe, and Robert Mugabe becomes president

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The institutionalization of race categories in Southern Rhodesia did not go quite as far as in South Africa, but in comparative perspective, it was still extremely deep until the 1980 political transition. During the 1980s and beyond race categories have continued to be used, but the white population has dwindled to a very tiny number.

A race question was asked on every census between 1901 and 2002. Prior to the 1970s, many censuses were conducted separately for Europeans (whites) and for Africans (blacks).

After 1896, the colonial administration mandated that blacks register with the colonial official resident in their district, and to carry on their person registration certifications bearing their name and address – a practice which was discontinued by 1980, but we have not yet identified the exact date of that repeal.

The state funded separate education for Africans under colonial rule, and under UDI in Rhodesia; a practice which ended in 1970s.

Several additional pieces of legislation further enshrined the institutionalization of race categories, including the 1903 Immorality Suppression Ordinance Act (Pape 1990: 703), and the 1929 Land apportionment act, which designated some parts of land for exclusive occupation by whites and others exclusively for blacks. The 1961 voting law was not explicitly racial, but one way to get on a roll was by being a chief or headman, which was a solely African designation (thus this is more ambiguously an instance of institutionalization of race categories.)

According to a 1973 news report, in 1972, the Rhodesian parliament passed laws that, “1) forbid Rhodesian blacks to travel outside the country unless each journey is approved by a white civil servant, 2) force all Africans over age 16 to carry an identity pass at all times, on pain of a $140 fine and six months in jail, 3) reinforce the segregation of public swimming pools, 4) bar blacks from moving to white urban areas unless they have jobs or special permits, 5) prevent Africans from being served food and drink in white areas after 7 p.m. on weekdays and all day Sunday, and 6) declare purely white areas “Europeanized” to prevent “infiltration” of Asians and coloreds.” (TIME 1973).

After the Lancaster House agreements, and the establishment of independent Zimbabwe in 1980, all institutions that discriminated against black Africans were rendered null and void.

Race categories would remain important after 1980 because they would be used in a new set of institutions – but the size of the white minority would shrink to less than 3 percent of the population, rendering the race cleavage a more symbolic and less substantive source of division in the political arena. After 1980, the state directed education and job preferences to blacks (Fobanjong 2001: 147-8). The Land Acquisition Act of 1992 allowed the government to seize white-owned land with little compensation and no right of appeal. On September 2007, Parliament passed the “Indigenization and Economic Empowerment Bill” which mandated that over 50 percent of all businesses in the country would be transferred into local Black hands.

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Language categories were substantially institutionalized in Rhodesia and independent Zimbabwe, but certainly never to the extent as race categories. However, as the number of whites became so small that they were rendered a largely foreign population (even the political rhetoric turned towards Britain and foreign powers rather than internal whites), the institutionalization of language categories would become more politically salient.

What became known as the Shona-speaking language group was a series of cultural groups that had migrated from Northeastern Africa since about 1000 A.D., whereas the Ndebele arrived in Southwestern Zimbabwe from South Africa, one of several Ngoni language groups, in the late 19th century (Burgess 1981). When the British arrived, they institutionalized a strong distinction, and recognized separate territories, Mashonaland and Matabeleland as ethnically distinctive lands for Shona and Ndebele respectively, first by identifying them as British protectorates in 1891, and in 1923, as provinces of Rhodesia.

Since the early 20th century, “Native” education policy included the institutionalization of Ndebele and Shona in respective majority areas. Beginning in 1920s, the colonial policy was to promote Ndebele and Shona language in African schools in addition to English (Hungwe 2007: 139).

Although we did not find that the census routinely asked questions about language, in the 1982 census, there was a relevant question on “father’s dialect.” Moreover, routine counting by district — Matabeleland and Mashonaland — reinforced the institutionalization of these ethnic categories. Counts of Ndebele and Shona are widely available in government reports.

The 1987 Education Act requires English and Shona in areas where “majority” speaks Shona; and English and Ndebele in areas where “majority” speaks Ndebele.

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The only instance of the institutionalization of religious categories was a question on the 1911 census.

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None found

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None found

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Other ethnic, including tribe

None found

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