History of the Basin People

Some of the rural communities that exist in the basin today are descended from kingdoms, societies and empires that were first established in the basin 2 000 years ago (Earle et al. 2006).

The San/Bushman hunter-gatherer clans were the first to occupy the Limpopo River basin. Settlements in the Limpopo basin are strongly linked with climatic conditions, and when the Bantu-speaking tribes first settled in the basin between AD 350 and AD 450, the climate was warm and wet. From AD 600 to 900 the climate was dry and there is no evidence of settlements in the basin during this period. The climate became wet again in about AD 900, when the Zhizo people established the city of Shroda near the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. The Zhizo maintained political control for about 100 years (AD 900 to 1000) and then disappeared from this region, and are believed to have shifted to Toutswe in eastern Botswana or Leokwe in the Shashe-Limpopo area.

There is evidence that the Zhizo people had ethnic interactions with another bantu-speaking groups in the region, known as Leopard's Kopje people (Calabrese 2007). Around the time the Zhizo abandoned Shroda, Leopard's Kopje people established the capital city K2, not far from Shroda city. There was an abrupt abandonment of K2 followed by a surge of people arriving at Mpungubwe Hill, less than a kilometer away (Huffman 2000). This shift in location corresponds with a shift in social, political and religious structure as cattle became less of a central component of the society (Huffman 2000 and Calabrese 2007).

Mpungubwe was inhabited from AD 1220 to 1290/1300 and was considered southern Africa’s first state due to the large area it occupied (30 000 km²) and its social complexity (Huffman 2000). The chiShona-speaking society that developed at Mpungubwe became known as the Zimbabwe culture.

The Zimbabwe Culture

Their main settlements were Mpungubwe (from AD 1220 to 1290), Great Zimbabwe (AD 1290 to 1450) and Khami, near present day Bulawayo (AD 1450 to 1820). Settlements of the Zimbabwe culture were also situated in present-day southern Mozambique, where the settlement of Manekweni was a centre for cattle raising, agriculture and the gold trade between the twelfth and the eighteenth century (IIASA 2001). Related sub-groups settled in the Venda region of South Africa.

Source: Earle et al. 2006

Great Zimbabwe-the city ruins. Source: Derk 1997


Mpungubwe was abandoned in 1290 when the Zimbabwe culture moved to Great Zimbabwe. Although there are several theories as to why Mpungubwe was abandoned, many believe that it was related to the end of the wet period in 1290. The drought that lasted from approximately 1200 AD to 1400 AD affected numerous groups in the basin. The Phofu dynasty in the Transvaal was greatly affected by the dry period and this forced brothers from the dynasty to move apart and form individual chiefdoms. These chiefdoms were known as the Central Sotho dynasties, or Batswana of Botswana (Earle et al. 2006).

Of particular relevance to the distribution of ethnic groups in the Limpopo basin is the history of conflict between the Ndebele and the Shona people. The Ndebele, having been forced from their land by the Zulu empire under Shaka, moved north into the basin, and pushed the Shona further north (Earle et al. 2006). The expansion of the Zulu empire had a significant impact on the history of southern Africa, and parts of the Limpopo basin. From 1834 to 1900 the forceful expansion of the Zulu under Shaka, known as Mfecane (Difaqane), created a period of social disruption, which the Europeans used to their advantage, establishing a foot-hold in the region.

Early Livelihoods

Livelihoods in the basin were initially based on cattle and cultivation agriculture, but once trade links were established with the east coast of Africa this became a primary source of wealth. Traded gold, copper and exotic beads have been excavated from the Mpungubwe site and other sites within the basin. The Limpopo valley was probably the first area in the interior of the African continent to develop a commercial network with the Indian Ocean (Huffman 2000 and Earle et al. 2006). This network included the slave trade, which had a significant impact on the social and economic fabric of the basin.

Colonial Days

The riparian states of the Limpopo River basin had very different colonial experiences. The borders defined during the colonial era are the country borders that we use today. South Africa's borders were defined by the Zuid-Afrikaans Republiek (ZAR) (1854 to 1910) and by the Union of South Africa (1910 to 1961). Zimbabwe’s borders were defined by the borders of the Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The Mozambican borders were defined under Portuguese colonial power (c. 1880 to 1975) and Botswana was never colonised, though it was a British Protectorate from 1885 to 1966 (Earle et al. 2006).

The borders established during the colonial era ignore historical ethnic and linguistic boundaries, resulting in considerable conflict throughout Africa.

Current ongoing initiatives.

LIMCOM's current ongoing interventions being undertaken