The Wars of Southern Africa

Colonies in southern Africa were among the last to win independence. Unlike the peaceful transition to independence in much of Africa, the road to freedom in southern Africa was marked by long, violent struggles.


During the colonial period, many whites had settled in British-ruled Southern Rhodesia. Whites made up only five percent of Rhodesia's population but owned half the land and controlled the government. White Rhodesians rejected any move to give up power to the black majority. When Britain supported demands for majority rule, whites led by Ian Smith declared independence in 1965.

Photo of an older African man in a suit, raising his hand with a strained smile.

By the year 2009, when this photo was taken, Robert Mugabe was being forced to share power, but Zimbabwe still faced terrible inflation, food shortages, and disease epidemics.

Guerrilla forces took up arms to win majority rule. They finally succeeded in 1980. Rhodesia became the independent nation of Zimbabwe. Liberation leader Robert Mugabe was elected president.

Although popular at first, Mugabe grew increasingly dictatorial. He cracked down on opponents and ended many basic freedoms. Despite international pressure and an economic crisis, the aging Mugabe held on to power.

Angola and Mozambique

Portugal clung fiercely to its profitable colonies of Angola and Mozambique. To achieve independence, nationalist groups had to wage a long guerrilla war. In 1975, Portugal finally agreed to withdraw.

Brutal civil wars, largely supported by foreign powers, soon developed in both countries. White-ruled South Africa feared the rise of strong, black-dominated governments on its borders. As a result, they funded rebel groups in both Mozambique and Angola. The Cold War also fueled tensions. In Angola, the Soviet Union financed Cuban troops who supported the left-wing government, while the United States backed insurgent anti-communist forces.

The fighting continued until 1992 in Mozambique and until 2002 in Angola. Decades of war had ravaged both countries, which slowly began to rebuild.

Ethnic Conflict and Genocide

After independence, ethnic conflicts plagued some African nations. The causes were complex. Often one group held political and economic power at the expense of other groups. Weak or unstable governments were unable to build national unity. Regional and cultural differences also fed rivalries that on occasion led to tragic violence. At times, ambitious leaders took advantage of rivalries to increase their own power.

Rwanda and Burundi

Power struggles between rival groups led to a deadly genocide in Rwanda, a small central African nation. The country is home to two main groups, the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. Though often considered separate ethnic groups, they speak the same language, share the same culture, follow the same Catholic religion and look alike. In colonial times, the Belgian government had favored Tutsis over the Hutus. After independence, the majority Hutu came into power and violence against Tutsis increased. Over the next 30 years, many Tutsis fled to neighboring countries.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments