In 1965, the far-right prime minister Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence after Britain refused to let Rhodesia decolonise as a white supremacist state.
Two major liberation organisations emerged. Zanu, under Robert Mugabe, and Zapu, under Joshua Nkomo. Black nationalist opposition began its armed resistance in 1966.
When international economic sanctions were imposed against Smith's regime, white commercial agriculture was heavily subsidised, making it even harder for African peasants to compete.
The "land question" was a major cause of the guerrilla war, which was fought with increasing ferocity during the 1970s with both sides intimidating and torturing recruits in rural areas.
In 1979, renewed negotiations in London led to the Lancaster House Agreement which paved the way for independence in April 1980. Mugabe, who won a landslide victory in the first free election, promised to resettle blacks on white land.
Independence saw the transfer of power from whites to blacks, but not land. Thousands of settlers opted for Zimbabwean nationality after independence.
Britain gave the new government £44m for resettlement projects. But the UK says much of the land ended up in the hands of Mr Mugabe's associates rather than the poor. Other international donors have stopped funding government land reform for similar reasons.
Under the Lancaster House constitution the Zimbabwe Government could only buy white land from "willing sellers". When this expired after 10 years the government passed a law empowering it to make compulsory purchases.
But there have been few transfers in the last decade, with the government failing to budget for serious reform.
In 1997 Mugabe announced a hit list of 1,500 farms set for compulsory acquisition. He said Britain should foot the bill for compensating the white farmers because Rhodesian colonists had stolen the land from blacks in the first place.
The Situation Today
Since March 2000, groups of government supporters led by war veterans have occupied many white-owned farms. In the ensuing violence, several white farmers and their black workers have been killed.
Agricultural production has plummeted. Donors say this is one reason why up to six million people could face starvation unless food aid arrives quickly.
Almost all of Zimbabwe's 4,000 white farmers have had their farms listed for acquisition. Under a new law, they must leave their land and homes before receiving compensation. Courts have ruled several times that the bureaucratic process of acquiring land has been breached but the government is determined to press ahead.
About 500 white farmers have decided not to lodge legal appeals and some of these have been paid by the state - albeit in devalued Zimbabwe dollars. Lists of those who will be allocated land have been widely publicised in the state media - but many have not taken up the offer.
Many rural Zimbabweans desperately want more land but they also need aid to buy seeds and fertiliser, which the state does not have the money to provide. Some farms have been allocated to ministers and senior officials in the ruling Zanu-PF party and the army. In urban areas, most people want jobs, rather than land
Total population: 12.5m
White population: 70,000 (about 0.6%)
Whites own majority of the best farming land
1m blacks owned 16m hectares - often in drought-prone regions (2000)
4,000 whites owned 11m hectares of prime land (2000)