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Pulling Aid, Pretoria Signals Impatience With Political Gridlock In Zimbabwe

Signaling its mounting impatience with the stalled power-sharing process in Zimbabwe, the South African government said Thursday that it will withhold 300 million rand (US$29 million) in promised agricultural assistance until there is a representative government in Harare.

Pretoria said it was "extremely concerned" about the impasse, which it said has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe where some five million people are likely to need food aid by January and a cholera epidemic has claimed nearly 300 lives in recent days.

The cabinet statement said Pretoria was disappointed that "political interests have taken priority at the expense of the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans.”

It said the agricultural aid would be set aside for Zimbabwe, but would not be provided until next year when the 2009 planting season is under preparation. Many agricultural experts have written off the 2008-2009 crop season due to widespread seed and fertilizer shortages.

The statement on Zimbabwe, one of the bluntest to date from Pretoria, said the widening cholera epidemic "is a clear indication that ordinary Zimbabweans are the true victims of their leaders' lack of political will and failure to demonstrate seriousness to resolve the political impasse.” The statement did not assign blame to for the political impasse.

The long-ruling ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change, which claimed a majority in parliament in March general elections, signed a power-sharing agreement on Sept. 15. But the formation of a national unity government has been delayed by disagreements over cabinet assignments.

Pretoria called on the Zimbabwean leadership to “take urgent steps to finalize the amendments to their constitution, the allocation of the remaining cabinet posts and the formation of a representative government without any further delay and before the situation of ordinary Zimbabweans degenerates any further.”

It said “no amount of political disagreement can ever justify the suffering that ordinary Zimbabweans are being subjected to at the moment.” While withholding the agricultural aid package, the cabinet “decided that South Africa should immediately assist the people of Zimbabwe to address the cholera outbreak” and other health issues.

It said an interdepartmental task team will be set up to take measures to ensure that the mounting cholera crisis in Zimbabwe does not lead to increased border crossing and strain on the health care facilities of Limpopo province. Residents of the Zimbabwean border town of Beitbridge have been streaming to Musina, South Africa, seeking treatment.

For perspective on the South African cabinet action and statement, reporter Carole Gombakomba of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe turned to independent political analyst Hermann Hanekom of Cape Town who said the tough stance indicates Pretoria’s policy on Zimbabwe is shifting under its new president, Kgalema Motlanthe.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...