“I hope that these people will be freed as soon as possible,” Mr. Ban told a joint news conference with South African President Kgalema Motlanthe in Pretoria.Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in earlier this month as Prime Minister in a unity government with President Robert Mugabe, following months of political tensions after disputed presidential elections last March.Welcoming the recent inauguration of the new Government of National Unity, Mr. Ban noted that the partnership between the country’s parties will need to be nurtured. “Although the United Nations has no direct mandate to help implement the Agreement reached between the parties, we are ready to ensure that the enormous challenges confronting the Zimbabwean people are effectively addressed,” said Mr. Ban. The UN will do all it can, in particular, to support Zimbabwe tackle its worst-ever cholera epidemic, which has already claimed thousands of lives, he added. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 83,000 people have become sick and more than 3,800 have died since the outbreak began last August.A UN humanitarian mission to Zimbabwe, led by Deputy UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Catherine Bragg has just concluded its mission to the country and reports that the humanitarian needs there remain grave, a spokesperson for the world body said today. According to the mission, there are areas where concerted efforts have led to a declining number of new infections, but there are many places which have not been reached with the required services, and where cholera continues to spread.The team, which also included WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP), said that food security is also a major issue, with a growing number of households reducing the number of meals they have per day. There will be a need for continued food assistance throughout 2009, the scale of which will be determined by upcoming assessments. Farmers must obtain all the agriculture inputs they need for the next planting season, which begins in September and October. Otherwise, next year could be similar to this year, in which seven million people need food aid, the team added.Mr. Ban told reporters the international community, led by the UN, stands ready to provide the necessary assistance to support the people of Zimbabwe. “But all these efforts would be better mobilized, would get stronger and more support from the international community if we can see the promise in political and national reconciliation,” he added. “The releasing of political prisoners will be important and desirable not only on the humanitarian and human rights front, but also for the national reconciliation process.”Mr. Ban is on his first official visit to South Africa, where he met for almost two hours today with the President and other officials. In addition to Zimbabwe, they discussed a wide range of political issues including Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and South Africa’s role in peacekeeping operations. The Secretary-General also stressed the leading role played by South Africa in engaging non-industrialized countries on the global threat of climate change. Mr. Ban and his wife later had a private meeting with former President Nelson Mandela and his wife at the Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. He will also visit Tanzania, DRC, Rwanda and Egypt on his current tour. 25 February 2009Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called on the Government of Zimbabwe to free detained opposition activists and human rights defenders, while pledging the continued support of the United Nations as the country tackles the myriad of challenges it faces.