South Africa will send emergency food and medical shipments to Zimbabwe, joining the growing international response to the current cholera crisis. The announcement comes as the epidemic is spreading into South African territory along Zimbabwe's border.
A South African team will visit Zimbabwe over the weekend to assess how to provide food, water, health care and other emergency assistance. Government spokesman Themba Maseko says the delegation will look for ways to ensure the supplies actually reach those who need them.
"We do not want this aid to be used for political objectives, for instance, government officials who support one party who will use this aid to give food only to their supporters," he said. "We don't want that to happen."
Two weeks ago, South Africa announced it would withhold $30 million of agricultural aid for Zimbabwe until a power-sharing government is in place. Maseko says that decision still stands. But he says the deteriorating humanitarian situation requires South Africa to help in other ways.
"The fact that people are already dying of hunger, cholera, is devastating families and communities, there's lack of clean drinking water," he said. "This situation, in our view, required that we act with immediate effect to save lives of ordinary Zimbabweans who are not involved in this political impasse."
Analysts say Zimbabwe's neighbors have good reason to help.
"This crisis in terms of the cholera outbreak does have the potential to spread across the borders into South Africa, across the border into Botswana, and maybe even into Mozambique and Zambia," said Tiseke Kasambala, who is with Human Rights Watch in Johannesburg. "So that is a problem for regional leaders and it's something that they need to be addressing."
Up to 500 Zimbabweans seek asylum in South Africa every day and many are already sick. The Pretoria government has reported more than 450 cholera cases so far, and at least eight deaths. Kasambala praised the South African response.
"The response of the South African government has been commendable in terms of they have made it clear that they will not be sending any Zimbabweans back across the border if they are found to be with cholera, and that they have opened clinics to deal with the crisis and to address it," said Kasambala.
But Human Rights Watch says many asylum seekers are living in makeshift shelters without adequate sanitation, which could cause the outbreak to spread. South African scientists say the Limpopo River, which forms the border with Zimbabwe, has been contaminated with cholera. They are now testing all rivers in the region to determine if the disease has spread.