JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, 84, managed to keep three members of the Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela to tackle intractable problems, out of Zimbabwe over the weekend. But the members gave Mr. Mugabe and leaders from across southern Africa an earful on Monday about Zimbabwe’s grave humanitarian crisis and their responsibility to act more assertively to resolve it.
Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, bluntly told the heads of state in the 15-nation regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, which is often accused of coddling Mr. Mugabe, “It’s obvious that S.A.D.C. could have and should have done more.”
Graça Machel, a women’s rights advocate who is married to Mr. Mandela, said after three days of listening to stories of heartbreak from Zimbabwe in conversations here with refugees and others, “Either the leadership doesn’t have a clear picture of the suffering of their own people, or they don’t care.”
Former President Jimmy Carter suggested that heads of state in the region had no clue about the extreme hardships in Zimbabwe, while Zimbabwe’s leaders were callous. He said the African Union and the United Nations should send teams to document the situation inside the country. “We all have the feeling leaders of S.A.D.C. do not know what is going on in Zimbabwe,” he said.
Their remarks are likely to sting Mr. Mugabe, in power for 28 years. Ms. Machel’s and Mr. Carter’s connections to him go back decades.
Ms. Machel’s first marriage was to Samora Machel, the Mozambican leader who fought Portuguese rule and led his newly independent nation until he died in a plane crash in 1986. She said in an interview that she had been close with Mr. Mugabe and his wife, Sally, until Mrs. Mugabe died in 1992.
The relationship “became even more aloof” after Ms. Machel married Mr. Mandela, she said. “Mugabe was the star of this region before South Africa became free,” Ms. Machel said. “By the time South Africa became free, the whole attention of the world turns to South Africa. That was an issue.”
Mr. Carter, 84, said in an interview that as president, he supported the end of white minority rule in Zimbabwe, called Rhodesia at the time. He recalled a White House event celebrating Mr. Mugabe’s rise to power before Mr. Carter left office in 1981.
Mr. Mugabe “held my hand up in front of the whole crowd and said, ‘This is the only man that might beat me in an election in Zimbabwe,’ ” Mr. Carter recalled.
Mr. Mugabe is sensitive to criticism, and these comments are likely to gall him. The Herald, his state-owned mouthpiece, quoted an anonymous source last week as saying that Mr. Annan had been openly critical of Mr. Mugabe. A Herald editorial on Monday accused Mr. Annan, as it has other African leaders who differed with Mr. Mugabe, of “putting himself at the beck and call of the white West.”
The three in the Elders contingent on Zimbabwe sounded an alarm on Monday about the rapidly deteriorating living conditions there. They spent the past few days meeting with Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders and South Africa’s president, Kgalema Motlanthe, as well as aid workers, Western diplomats, United Nations representatives and Zimbabweans who had fled their homeland.
At the start of their visit on Saturday, the three leaders said they were on a humanitarian mission. They ended the trip on Monday by saying that Zimbabwe’s collapsing public services — health, education, sanitation, water — could not be fixed until a power-sharing deal between Mr. Mugabe and the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, took effect and the country had a functioning government again.
Negotiators for Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai are expected to meet again on Tuesday as South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki, the mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis, seeks to persuade them to form a collaborative government more than two months after they signed an agreement to do so.
“S.A.D.C. must bring its full weight to bear to ensure the agreement is fully implemented,” Mr. Annan said.
Under the deal, Mr. Mugabe would remain president, while Mr. Tsvangirai would become prime minister. But they have been feuding over how to divide the most powerful ministries, and particularly over control of the police force, an engine of Mr. Mugabe’s repressive rule. The Southern African Development Community has directed them to share management of the ministry that oversees the police.
Mr. Tsvangirai won the March presidential election, but not by enough to avert a runoff, which he quit because of state-sponsored attacks on the opposition.
Mr. Mbeki has for years been criticized for his quiet diplomacy on Zimbabwe. South Africa’s new leaders were somewhat noisier on Monday. Jacob Zuma, Mr. Mbeki’s archrival and successor as president of the African National Congress, was evenhanded in his comments on the power-sharing negotiations, but after meeting Mr. Annan, Mr. Carter and Ms. Machel, he said the decision by Zimbabwean authorities not to grant them visas “does give an unfortunate picture.”
President Motlanthe of South Africa, chairman of the regional development group, said his government had tried to speak to Mr. Mugabe about letting the three visit Zimbabwe, and was told that Mr. Mugabe was out of town and would get back to them on his return. “He didn’t come back to us,” Mr. Motlanthe said.After meeting Mr. Annan, Mr. Carter and Ms. Machel, Mr. Motlanthe agreed that without a political settlement and the formation of a legitimate government, the situation in Zimbabwe “may implode or collapse altogether.”