The Elders’ delegation included three members — former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, former United States president Jimmy Carter and international advocate for women’s and children’s rights Graca Machel.
"We had to cancel our visit because the government made it very clear that it will not cooperate," Annan told a press conference in Johannesburg.
Carter said they had applied for visas "several weeks ago" but that Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Washington informed them that they would not be delivered "on time".
The government of President Robert Mugabe "will not permit us to come in and will not cooperate," Carter said.
"We need no red-carpet treatment from the government of Zimbabwe," said Annan. "We seek no permission other than permission to help the poor and the desperate.
"However, the refusal of the Zimbabwean government to facilitate our visit in any way has made it impossible for us to travel at this time."
Annan said millions of people are in need of help in Zimbabwe.
"We want to use our influence to increase the flow of assistance, immediately and in the longer term, to stop the terrible suffering. We are here to show solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe and to assure them that they are not alone," he said.
"We want to talk to the people and hear their stories directly. We want people to know that we care, and that we will do all we can to help them. People are dying from hunger every day in Zimbabwe and hospitals are unable to treat the sick."
"With schools struggling to stay open, children are missing out on an education. One in four children has lost one or both parents.
"The government’s attitude to our visit is deeply regrettable," she said.
Carter, who actively supported Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle while in office, said: "I am partisan. I make no apology for that.
"I supported Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and I oppose suffering and misery. But I am very sorry that we are unable to visit Zimbabwe."
"We will continue with our plans to learn as much as we can while we are here in the region, where millions of Zimbabweans inside and outside the country face a daily struggle for survival."
The Elders will remain in South Africa to brief themselves as fully as possible about the situation in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries.
They will speak to humanitarian agency representatives, civil society organisers, business people and officials from Zimbabwe, South Africa and the region.
"The ministry is battling to control unprecedented cholera outbreaks affecting the country," Health and Child Welfare Minister Dr David Parirenyatwa told the Herald.
The majority of outbreaks had been traced to the capital, Harare, he said.
Nearly 300 people had died as of November 18, the United Nations chief humanitarian agency said on Friday.
"The cholera outbreak has taken a national dimension. Newer outbreaks are reported from all provinces. The total number of suspected cholera cases in the country stands at 6 072 cases and 294 deaths," the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement.
The latest outbreaks were reported from Beitbridge in the Matabele South province, with 700 cases and 20 deaths. Health facilities in the area are reporting an admission rate of 200 patients per day, OCHA said.
"The spatial distribution of outbreaks will most likely continue to expand as well as the number of people infected" given the worsening water and sanitation situation in densely populated areas, it warned. — Sapa, AFP