MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. A group of world leaders, including Jimmy Carter, is warning that the situation in Zimbabwe is much worse than they thought. This weekend, Zimbabwean authorities barred the group from entering the country. The group, called the Elders, remained in South Africa where they've been listening to accounts of suffering across the border. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has our story from Johannesburg.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: The Elders delegation - former President Jimmy Carter, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela's wife Graca Machel - briefed South Africa's top leaders on the situation in Zimbabwe. South African President Kgalema Motlanthe told the media that the outlook was bleak.
President KGALEMA MOTLANTHE (South Africa): The Elders painted a rather depressing picture. So, unless this root cause of the absence of a legitimate government is not solved, this situation will get worse and may implode or collapse altogether.
QUIST-ARCTON: Carter, Annan, and Machel were meant to travel to Zimbabwe Saturday to gauge for themselves the level of suffering there. But President Robert Mugabe's government would not cooperate, so the Elders have spent the last few days talking with Zimbabwean and other regional, civic, and humanitarian leaders here in South Africa. At a news conference today in Johannesburg, Carter said they were shocked by what they'd heard.
Former President JIMMY CARTER: The crisis in Zimbabwe is much greater, much worse than anything that we had ever imagined. And obviously, the absence of a functioning government is the main problem that we face.
QUIST-ARCTON: He detailed the collapse of public health care, education, social services, crop cultivation and virtually all other structures, as well as an outbreak of cholera. Rights activist Graca Machel said this was a clear indication Zimbabwe's government was not listening.
Dr. GRACA MACHEL (Member, The Elders): Either the leadership doesn't have a clear picture of how deep is the suffering of their own people, or they don't care. Because anyone sensible - with that scale and depth of suffering - would do, with no delay, everything possible to stop deaths, to stop suffering, and to protect people.
QUIST-ARCTON: Chronic food and fuel shortages, soaring hyperinflation and widespread unemployment have prompted millions of Zimbabweans to flee into South Africa and other neighboring countries. The crisis has been exacerbated by a power struggle between President Mugabe and his main political rival Morgan Tsvangirai. Despite a power sharing agreement in September, Mugabe has refused to relinquish control of several powerful ministries. In their comments today, the Elders avoided playing the blame game, but there was some criticism leveled at the regional trade bloc, the Southern African Development Community. Kofi Annan said leaders of the organization, known as SADC, could have played a more decisive role.
Mr. KOFI ANNAN (Former U.N. Secretary-General; Member, The Elders): I think it's obvious that SADC could have and perhaps should have done more. I think SADC has a capacity. What it needs is a determined political will to get it done.
QUIST-ARCTON: Graca Machel was less diplomatic. She pointed to South Africa's recent decision to withhold $28 million in food aid to Zimbabwe. She said more regional governments should follow South Africa's lead and suspend aid funds until a national unity government was installed.
Dr. MACHEL: SADC should be assertive. You see what I mean. Assertive - a radical change for the sake of the people in Zimbabwe. Yes, that is it.
QUIST-ARCTON: Zimbabwe's rival political leaders are scheduled to meet here in South Africa tomorrow in the latest bid to rescue September's decidedly shaky power-sharing deal. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg.