Connect with us

Support The NewsHawks


Bulawayo now an economic backwater



IN Ndebele language, the city’s mainly spoken Nguni dialect and lingua franca, locals call it KoNtuthu Ziyathunqa — meaning a place where plumes or clouds of smoke billow from running industries — a testimony to its thriving industrial activity at the height of its prosperity.


It was once the country’s economic and cultural hub. Its economy, anchored on its strategic location as a railway and manufacturing nerve centre, offered opportunities for people from across the whole country.

And its rich cultural heritage and diversity was an allure for those seeking greener pastures. However, a combination of economic structural changes and a protracted crisis, policy shifts and extended periods of marginalisation have now killed Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.

Things have changed. It is now an economic backwater, a pale shadow of its former self. The name KoNtuthu Ziyathunqa has become a misnomer.

The once-vibrant city only now comes alive during the annual Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF), as individuals and companies troop in for the event for just a few days. ZITF brings Bulawayo to life — its original self — by providing a platform for businesses to network, cut deals, grow and generate more revenues.

The event, which ran from 23-27 April (yesterday), brings together local and international investors, government leaders, and business executives, creating a hive of activity in the city. Bulawayo nightlife still rocks, although lack of disposable income mainly cripples the fun.

The ZITF Company, which runs the event, has announced plans to construct a smart city and huge conference centre in Bulawayo, which could transform the historic city into a tech hub and bring new business and economic opportunities.

During Trade Fair, which is like Christmas in Bulawayo which comes once a year, hotels, lodges and houses to rent would be full.

Prices go through the roof as hotels, bars and nightclubs, restaurants and entertainment places cash in and maximise profit. Yet at another level, that just serves to largely highlight how Bulawayo has declined, driven into the doldrums and badly marginalised by a government which has destroyed one of the continent’s best economies.

At independence in 1980, Zimbabwe was only second to South Africa in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of economic development, industrialisation and productivity, as well as sophistication. Bulawayo was once home to a thriving manufacturing sector, with many companies in the textiles, foodstuffs, furniture, engineering, transport and mining sectors, just to name a few.

From being the country’s industrial hub, Bulawayo is now reeling from effects of chronic de-industrialisation, with over 100 firms — mostly in the manufacturing, textile and clothing sectors — having closed down in the past decades, leaving thousands of workers jobless and the city’s industrial zone a ghost area, as quiet as a graveyard.

Some former industries have now been turned into churches or empty shells, showing the depth of decline, destruction and marginalisation of the city.

A combination of such factors as poor government policies, economic challenges, political instability, competition from cheaper imports, corruption and political marginalisation has led to a decline of the city. Main factors that contributed to Bulawayo’s de-industrialisation include:

Economic crisis: Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, which began in the late 1990s, led to a decline in industrial production and a shift towards importation of goods;
Political instability: prolonged political instability and policy inconsistencies discouraged investment and led to decline;

Competition from cheaper imports: The opening up of the economy to international trade led to an influx of cheaper imports, making it difficult for local industries to compete;

Infrastructure challenges: Bulawayo’s infrastructure, including roads, water, and electricity supply, has badly deteriorated, making it difficult for industries to operate efficiently;
Brain drain: Many skilled workers and entrepreneurs have left the city in search of better opportunities, leading to a brain drain and a loss of expertise.

Marginalisation: Since 1980, the government in Harare has systematically marginalised Bulawayo and Matabeleland region for political reasons, underlined by ethnicity and corruption. It is important to point out that while it is indisputable, the colonial model of development is also to blame as it focused on developing the capital or seat of political power, neglecting other parts of the country.

There are other parts of the country which have also been marginalised by government, for instance Manicaland with all its Marange diamonds looted and nothing to show for it.

Efforts are being made to revive Bulawayo’s industrial sector, including the establishment of special economic zones and initiatives to support small and medium-sized enterprises, but they are half-hearted and have thus not made any difference.


Origins of the name Bulawayo revisited: The city of Bulawayo was founded in 1840 by Ndebele State King Mzilikazi as a kraal and was initially known as Gibixhegu.

The name Bulawayo is derived from Zulu King Shaka’s old capital Bulawayo, formerly called Gibixhegu, in Zululand, South Africa. Some self-serving Ndebele historians have made futile attempts to delink the history of those names or nomenclature from their original source by coming up with false explanations of how the names Bulawayo and Gibixhegu came about.

They claim it was linked to the civil war which broke out after Mzilikazi’s death in 1868 as Lobengula battled his brother-in-law Mbiko kaMadlenya Masuku for the throne.

The false narrative is that Lobengula called the place Bulawayo, a place of killing, as he was under attack by those who wanted to prevent him from becoming new king as his mother MaTshabalala was not royal.

The same historians also lie about who Mzilikazi’s mother was. Mbiko, who was commander of the powerful Zwangendaba military regiment, was married to Mzilikazi’s daughter Princess Zinkabi.

Research shows those names in Zimbabwe originated from Zululand where Mzilikazi and the core of his nation came from. Chloe Rushovich for FHYA, 2021, for instance, using material provided by the KwaZulu-Natal Museum explained that KwaBulawayo, situated on a hill just north of the road P230 between Eshowe and Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal, about 43 kilometres from Eshowe, served as Shaka’s capital and was formerly known as Gibixhegu.

In the historical record, the site is first mentioned as Gibixhegu by Nathaniel Isaacs who arrived in Natal in 1825.

Isaacs, a British explorer who was one of the Natal province pioneers, reached Shaka’s kraal that year, spent sometime with him, hunted and traded with the Zulu monarchy. Shaka, founder of the Zulu Kingdom in 1816, was assassinated by his two half-brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana, in 1828 after his violent nation-building project turned into a brutality and bloodshed festival.

Isaacs’ diaries later noted the name change of Shaka’s capital from Gibixhegu to Bulawayo in his record in July 1826.

This cannot be a coincidence that Shaka’s capital was renamed Bulawayo from Gibixhegu and exactly the same happened with Mzilikazi and his son Lobengula with those names.

Mzilikazi’s last known capital before his death in 1868 was Mhlahlandlela, situated 22km from Bulawayo, along the Old Gwanda Road.

Bulawayo was specifically Lobengula’s capital which is situated where State House in Bulawayo is today. Historical records clearly show a logical link between Bulawayo (formerly Gibixhegu) in Zimbabwe and Bulawayo (also formerly Gibixhegu) in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In fact, many current names of places in Matabeleland region are also similar to names in Zululand.

For instance Mzinyathini in Matabeleland South (Mzingwane district) is similar to uMzinyathi in KwaZulu-Natal; Entumbane in Bulawayo is the same as Entumbane mountain in KwaZulu-Natal or Msane in Matabeleland South (Beitbridge district) is the same as Msane in KwaZulu-Natal.

All migrating groups in history replicate names back home in their new places of settlement or homes, for instance British colonial settlements better illustrate that. Bulawayo was occupied by Cecil John Rhodes’s invading colonial Pioneer Column on 4 November 1893 after the Anglo-Ndebele War, leading to Lobengula’s mysterious disappearance the following month that year.

 Lobengula’s disappearance on 4 December 1893 on the banks of the Shangani River in Lupane, Matabeleland North, after the Battle of Pupu or Wilson Patrol and subsequently his fate is still a subject of research, enquiry and heated debate to this day.

Bulawayo was declared a town by Rhodes’ ally Leander Starr Jameson on 1 June 1894. It then became a city under Proclamation 41 on 4 November 1943.

As a result, every year Bulawayo celebrates the declaration of city status during the month of November. Yet its decline into a backwater sticks out like a sore thumb; a symbol of national failure for Zimbabwe.

Soundtrack: “Halala Lozikeyi” pays fond tribute to one of Lobengula’s queens, the legendary Queen Lozikeyi Dlodlo, who led as Queen Regent after the King’s disappearance in 1894 fearlessly mobilising for the 1896 uMvukela/Chimurenga Uprisings.

It was done by Nomathamsanqa Mkhwananzi whose stage name is “Nkwali”, a multi-talented singer, composer, dancer and actress.