JOHANNESBURG — Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s 84-year-old president, clinging to power after 28 years in office, barred another famed 84-year-old — former President Jimmy Carter — from entering the country Saturday. The globe-trotting, Nobel Prize-winning Mr. Carter said it was a novel experience for him. He had never before been denied a visa.
Mr. Mugabe’s decision to forbid a humanitarian visit by Mr. Carter, former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela’s wife Graca Machel 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.
He refused to let them fly into the country, they said, despite the intervention of both South Africa’s current president, Kgalema Motlanthe, and his recently ousted predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating power-sharing talks between Mr. Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader who bested him in the March general election.
“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 press conference in Johannesburg.
Mr. Carter said Zimbabwe's ambassador in Washington had advised him he would not be issued a visa after he applied for one several weeks ago, but he said the staff of the group sponsoring the trip, The Elders, thought the three of them would be get visas to enter the country on landing at the airport. A very senior official advised them Friday evening that they would not be allowed to enter the country.
Zimbabwe’s information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, reached Saturday on his cell phone, 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 threesome had been told to come later because the government was busy with power-sharing negotiations and the planting season.
But the story also quoted an anonymous official saying that the prospective visitors — who belong to the Elders, a group Mr. Mandela founded last year to take up global issues — was made up of “personalities deemed hostile to Zimbabwe.”
The threesome included some, the source said, who had been openly critical of Mr. Mugabe, a practice that has landed many Zimbabweans in jail in recent months, typically on charges of insulting the country’s head of state or publishing false statements about the government.
Mr. Mandela, Africa’s most revered man, 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 visit 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 that have spawned hunger, a widening cholera epidemic and the closing of schools and hospitals.
“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 thus far managed to fend off pressure from African heads of state to reach a power-sharing deal with Mr. Tsvangirai. 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 they have been disappointed.
Since 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 southern African leaders from the 15 countries that make up the Southern African Development Community, known as SADC, met in Johannesburg earlier this month, they insisted Mr. Tsvangirai share control of the home ministry, which oversees the police, though Mr. Mugabe had already had 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, said in a Nov. 12 editorial that it seemed Mr. Motlanthe “could no more stand up to the bully Mugabe than either Mbeki or SADC members could.”
And The Sunday Times wrote in a Nov. 16 editorial, “This mollycoddling approach to the ageing dictator is not just disappointing, but a gross betrayal of the Zimbabwean electorate who voted for a change of government.”
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 admitted this week that cholera has spread to nine of the country’s 10 provinces. And international health officials say the illness 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 has 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.”
Jimmy Carter Barred from Zimbabwe
New York Times