A cholera epidemic has killed hundreds of Zimbabweans and spilled across the border into South Africa. Officials say Zimbabwe's political and economic collapse caused the outbreak.
A humanitarian mission by President Carter, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and human rights advocate Graca Machel (the wife of Nelson Mandela) was blocked this weekend when the government of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe refused them entry.
The three are part of a group called The Elders that was formed by Mandela to help foster peace.
Instead, they met with charity, donor and civil leaders from Zimbabwe in neighboring South Africa.
Carter said the stories they heard on the collapse of education, health and agriculture "are all indications that the crisis in Zimbabwe is much worse than anything we ever imagined."
He said "the leadership in Harare don't want to admit there is a crisis."
Adding to the implied criticism of regional leaders, he said "I get the feeling that even the leaders of SADC (the Southern African Development Community) do not know what is going on" in Zimbabwe.
He called for the southern Africans as well as the African Union and the United Nations to send in teams to assess the situation in Zimbwabwe with regard to disease outbreaks, food shortages, and how the monetary system and other social institutions are being affected, "so the whole world would know what we have learnt the last three days."
Annan said they also met with Zimbabwe opposition leaders and stressed to them that "the most important thing is the people's lives." He said they would have given the same message to Mugabe, if they had had a chance.
Both the Elders and the South African leaders on Monday agreed that it is difficult to separate Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis from the political issues.
"These are two sides of the same coin and we need to deal with them simultaneously with the urgency they deserve," Motlanthe said.
South Africa Warns Situation In Zimbabwe May Implode
South Africa's president warned Monday that the situation in neighboring Zimbabwe "may implode and collapse" and announced a new round of talks to help resolve the crisis.
The comments, some of the strongest yet by South Africa, come as a cholera epidemic has killed hundreds of Zimbabweans and spilled across the border into South Africa.
South African President Kgalema Motlanthe and the leader of the country's ruling party, Jacob Zuma, expressed grave concern at Zimbabwe's deepening humanitarian crisis.
"Unless this root cause of the political absence of a legitimate government is solved, the situation will get worse and may implode and collapse," Motlanthe said.
Zimbabwe has been in political deadlock since opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the most votes in the March presidential election but not enough to avoid a runoff.
The two agreed in September to share power but the talks have stalled over the allocation of Cabinet posts, with the opposition accusing Mugabe of trying to hold onto key positions.
Mediation led by former President Thabo Mbeki will resume Tuesday in South Africa and center on a constitutional amendment to allow a power-sharing government, Motlanthe said.
Zuma, the African National Congress leader who is likely to be the country's next president, said that a team would be sent "soon" to Zimbabwe.
South Africa's harder stance against Mugabe was welcomed Monday by Carter, Annan and Machel.