Leading article: A state of degradation

First the famine; now the disease. Zimbabweans are being subject to afflictions of a truly biblical ferocity. An outbreak of cholera, as we report today, is likely to have already killed thousands. New cases are appearing daily.

Zimbabwe's health system was once the best on the African continent. But a decade of neglect has left it is unable to cope. Clinics and hospitals are under unbearable pressure. They lack the basic facilities to treat patients. Cholera sufferers are now spilling into South Africa in search of medical help.

It is, of course, little wonder that there has been an outbreak of the infectious disease. Sewage and draining systems across Zimbabwe have long been inadequately maintained. Garbage is not being cleared from streets. The proximate cause of the crisis is the onset of the rainy season. Raw sewage is seeping into drinking water supplies.

There is little sign of the Zimbabwean political system riding to the rescue. A power-sharing deal between Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change was reached two months ago. And a new round of talks, brokered by South Africa, began yesterday. But the two sides are deadlocked over the composition of the proposed unity government.

The African National Congress leader, Jacob Zuma, has warned that the delay on a political deal is costing lives. South Africa's caretaker president, Kgalema Motlanthe, who took over from Thabo Mbeki in September, warned that Zimbabwe could "implode and collapse" unless agreement is reached soon. But the sad truth is that Zimbabwe has already collapsed as a functioning state. That is why this disease has taken hold. South Africa must take a considerable burden of responsibility for allowing its neighbour to reach such a state of degradation. If the ANC had withheld economic supplies from Mugabe's regime before now, it might never have come to this.

The South African government needs to tell the Zimbabwean tyrant that enough is, finally, enough. He must agree to the MDC's demands for proper representation in the new government or be cut off for good. And the new administration's first responsibility is to address Zimbabwe's spiralling public health emergency.

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