By Jabu Shoko in Harare (ZCR No. 168, 19-Nov-08)
A team of three high-profile figures will visit Zimbabwe this weekend to assess the escalating humanitarian crisis amid claims that a recent cholera epidemic is far worse than the authorities are prepared to admit.
Former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, ex-United States president Jimmy Carter and international advocate for women and children's rights Graça Machel - members of a group known as The Elders - plan to visit Harare on November 22 and 23.
Annan said the mission is intended to focus the world's attention on the crisis in the country. "Relieving the suffering of millions of people must be the priority of Zimbabwe's leaders," he said.
Analysts hope the visit will highlight the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans battling starvation and disease. Many say that President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party is concealing the extent of the crisis in the country, where increasing numbers are going without food, cholera is rife in many areas and a critical shortage of water is affecting even Harare.
Zimbabwe has experienced a shortage of grain since Mugabe's land-grab policies began in 2000, when land was taken from white farmers and given to poor black people and the president's supporters.
The famine has since been aggravated by Mugabe's skewed economic policies as well as by his government's obstruction of aid distribution by international agencies, which it accuses of supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.
In rural areas, particularly in the south, villagers are reportedly competing with wild animals for fruits, berries and edible roots and several have reportedly died after eating poisonous roots and berries. Relief agencies estimate that more than half the country's 12 million population are in urgent need of food aid.
A recent cholera outbreak has compounded the problem. While Mugabe's spin doctors claim that 36 people have died of the disease since the epidemic began two months ago, the MDC and independent health experts put the figure at closer to 200.
The Combined Harare Residents Association, CHRA, an umbrella body for residents' associations in the capital, staged an anti-cholera demonstration last weekend in one of the hardest-hit suburbs, where more than 60 people have reportedly succumbed to the disease.
Fambai Ngirandi, a spokesperson for CHRA, told IWPR this week that his organisation has been inundated with calls from people seeking to register for food aid.
"We have a situation where people in towns, who, traditionally, do not register for food aid or social welfare, are coming forward," said Ngirandi.
He said he hoped The Elders' visit would help reverse the downward spiral in the country.
"As an organisation, we welcome such a visit and hope it will end the plight of the people who are on the verge of starvation," he said.
Ernest Mudzengi, a political analyst, also welcomed the news of the delegation. "We need more of these visits so people outside the country get first-hand information," he said.
"The public media in Zimbabwe cannot be trusted. Right now, they claim there is no humanitarian crisis, yet people are dying like flies in townships."
Katy Cronin, spokesperson for The Elders' delegation, said that the trio have been observing the decline in Zimbabwe's economic and humanitarian situation with concern for some time.
During their trip, she said, they plan to assess how to respond more effectively to Zimbabwean's humanitarian needs to prevent further deterioration of the situation and to stop it spilling over into neighbouring countries.
The visit comes as talks have stalled between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai over the allocation of cabinet posts, among other contentious issues. The political impasse has delayed the implementation of a power-sharing arrangement which was mediated by former South African president Thabo Mbeki and signed on September 15.
During their trip, The Elders will also visit South Africa, the current chair of the Southern African Development Community, SADC. Zimbabwe's opposition leaders have accused the grouping of having failed to put enough pressure on Mugabe to force him to share power with Tsvangirai.
While Annan said the delegation would not become involved in the current political negotiations, he said its members urged Zimbabwe's political leaders to move swiftly to fully implement the power-sharing deal - particularly those provisions on humanitarian and food assistance.
"Delays in forming a government are prolonging the suffering of the people," he said.
"We hope that our visit will also add momentum to the global response to longer-term issues of reform and development once an inclusive government is in place and operational."
Annan said it was crucial that the international community supported Zimbabwe's recovery.
Nelson Mandela announced the founding of The Elders on his 89th birthday in 2007. It is a group of a dozen world leaders who have convened in order to tackle the world's problems.
Jabu Shoko is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.