Mr. Mugabe’s decision to forbid a humanitarian visit by Mr. Carter, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela’s wife, was a measure of the Zimbabwean leader’s disdain for international opinion at a time when deepening hunger, raging hyperinflation and the collapse of health, sanitation and education services have crippled Zimbabwe.
Mr. Carter, Mr. Annan and Ms. Machel said they had hoped to get a firsthand sense of the crisis and to assess the help the country needs.
Ms. Machel said both South Africa’s president, Kgalema Motlanthe, and his recently ousted predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating the Zimbabwe crisis, had sought permission from Zimbabwean authorities for them to enter the country. Mr. Carter said Mr. Mugabe himself said no.
“It seems obvious to me that leaders of the government are immune to reaching out for help for their own people,” Mr. Carter said at a news conference in Johannesburg.
Mr. Carter said Zimbabwe’s envoy in Washington had advised him that he would not be issued a visa after he applied for one several weeks ago, but Mr. Carter said the staff of the group sponsoring the trip, the Elders, thought visas would be issued at the airport. South African officials advised the humanitarian mission’s members on Friday evening that they would not be allowed to enter the country.
Zimbabwe’s information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, reached Saturday on his cellphone, said that he had been in an all-day meeting and was unable to comment. The state-owned newspaper, The Herald, reported on Thursday that the three had been told to come later because the government was busy with power-sharing negotiations and the planting season.
The article also anonymously quoted an official as saying that the prospective visitors — who belong to the Elders, a group of prominent people Mr. Mandela founded last year to take up global issues — was made up of “personalities deemed hostile to Zimbabwe.”
The source said that the group included those who had been openly critical of Mr. Mugabe. Mr. Mandela expressed his own regret in June, during one of his 90th birthday celebrations, at what he called Zimbabwe’s “tragic failure of leadership.” His wife, Ms. Machel, said that she had been denied a visa to Zimbabwe in July when she sought to lead a delegation of women there, making the government’s decision to bar her Saturday the second time she had ever been denied a visa.
Mr. Carter, Mr. Annan and Ms. Machel all expressed extreme disappointment that they were unable to talk to ordinary Zimbabweans about deteriorating conditions in their country.
“We want the people of Zimbabwe to know we care and we support them,” said Ms. Machel, an advocate for women and children.
Mr. Mugabe, a wily political survivor, has managed to fend off pressure from African heads of state to reach a power-sharing deal with Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, who despite winning more votes in March did not get enough to avert a runoff. He dropped out days before the final vote in June, citing brutality against his party workers and backers.
Mr. Mugabe’s critics had hoped that South Africa’s new leaders, Mr. Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma, president of the African National Congress, would take a harder line than Mr. Mbeki, but there is little evidence yet of a substantive change of policy.
After Mr. Mugabe, the aging liberation hero, and Mr. Tsvangirai, a former trade union leader, signed a power-sharing deal on Sept. 15, Mr. Mugabe unilaterally announced the division of cabinet ministries between their parties, a step the opposition denounced as unfair. Mr. Mugabe’s police force has beaten and arrested people demonstrating for a settlement. And his government has denied Mr. Tsvangirai a passport.
When leaders from the 15 countries that make up the Southern African Development Community, known as S.A.D.C., met in Johannesburg this month, they insisted Mr. Tsvangirai share control of the home ministry. That ministry oversees the police, which have long been part of the security forces enforcing Mr. Mugabe’s control. Mr. Mugabe, however, had already claimed the security forces and the intelligence agency for his party, ZANU-PF.
Mr. Motlanthe, in particular, has since faced sharp criticism at home for failing to stand up to Mr. Mugabe. The Star, a South African daily newspaper, said in a Nov. 12 editorial that it seemed Mr. Motlanthe “could no more stand up to the bully Mugabe than either Mbeki or S.A.D.C. members could.”
South Africa itself is increasingly feeling the fallout of Zimbabwe’s decline. The breakdown of Zimbabwe’s water and sanitation systems, which the government there no longer has the cash to maintain, has led to a cholera epidemic that is spilling over the border into South Africa. Zimbabwe’s Health Ministry itself acknowledged last week that cholera had spread to 9 of the country’s 10 provinces. And international health officials say the disease has sickened more than 6,000 people and killed almost 300.
Martin Meredith, author of “The Fate of Africa,” a modern political history of the continent, said the Zimbabwe crisis had laid bare the weakness of Mr. Mugabe’s neighbors.
“All these governments in southern Africa are fairly pusillanimous in dealing with Zimbabwe, except Botswana,” he said. “The real difficulty facing them is that they don’t have any options unless they’re willing to take action against Mugabe.”
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