Zimbabwe crisis a problem for South Africa


    "It’s a major humanitarian crisis … here on this side of the border," Dr. Eric Goemaere, medical coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres in South Africa, told reporters.

    Goemaere said the group was speaking out now for fear Zimbabwe’s troubles and their impact on the region were being forgotten. Goemaere said there was a mistaken impression that the formation of a unity government in Zimbabwe in February meant the crisis was over.

    "The situation, it’s still not solved," he said.

    In a report Tuesday, MSF detailed Zimbabweans fleeing hunger, disease and political violence only to be raped by criminals at the border, harassed by South African police once they cross and denied medical care at South African hospitals.

    MSF said South Africa’s health system has been overwhelmed by an influx of Zimbabweans, and that South Africa was struggling to provide shelter and other services for Zimbabweans. One example of what foreign donors could do, Goemaere said, was pay for AIDS medication for Zimbabweans in South Africa. Zimbabwe and South Africa each have among the highest AIDS rates in the world.

    South Africa officially entered recession this month, and even before that a quarter of the labor force was unemployed. That has led to resentment among some South Africans at the influx of thousands of Zimbabweans – there are no reliable estimates of just how many were here.

    "You’re seeing increasing levels of resentment. People are saying, `Why aren’t you going home? Things are sorted now,’" said Richard Smith of Save Zimbabwe Now, an independent group campaigning to raise support among South Africans for Zimbabweans.

    Zimbabweans were among the victims of a wave of xenophobic violence by South Africans last year.

    MSF workers said Tuesday anti-foreigner sentiment may explain why some South African medical workers were turning away Zimbabweans, but that ignorance could also be the cause.

    Goemaere said South African health authorities should ensure nurses and doctors were aware Zimbabweans and other foreigners here were entitled to health care. He also said authorities should do more to make sure police were aware a moratorium on deporting Zimbabweans had been declared in April, and that in May visa restrictions were lifted to allow Zimbabweans to come to South Africa without visas for up to 90 days, and seek work while here.

    Nomvanela Kota, a spokeswoman for South Africa’s international relations department, said the changes making it easier for Zimbabweans to come and to stay made clear her government has "long been seized of this matter." 

    Kota said foreign help was welcome, but as part of a "coordinated effort" led by South Africa.

    International agencies have struggled to raise funds for Zimbabwe itself, raising questions about how much could be raised to help South Africa cope with the spillover.

    In a joint statement Monday, U.N. agencies appealed for $718 million for 2009 to provide food, clean water, AIDS medicines and other aid in Zimbabwe – up from an estimate of $550 million in November. They said donor response has been "below average," with just $246 million provided by May 26.

    Late last year, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies asked the international community for about $9 million to fight cholera in Zimbabwe. The Red Cross had to end its operation early when it received only 45 percent of the funds it needed.

    Smith, of Save Zimbabwe Now, said a major foreign aid campaign for Zimbabweans in South Africa might only increase resentment among South Africans.

    "I don’t think that South Africa should be calling for international help at the moment" he added. "Rather than calling for international help, we should be calling on the state … to get its act together."