A dispute between the ruling parties of south africa and zimbabwe is threatening the longstanding alliance between two former liberation movements that for decades helped shore up the regime of robert mugabe and his successor emmerson mnangagwa.

After repeated brutal crackdowns in zimbabwe, south africas ruling anc this month expressed interest in talking to the opposition in its crisis-hit neighbour. this is its biggest political intervention in zimbabwe since mr mnangagwa replaced mugabe, the longtime dictator, in a 2017 army coup. while mr mnangagwa promised to make political and economic reforms, his own rule has become even more repressive.

Zimbabwes ruling zanu-pf reacted angrily to the suggestion. it is unprecedented in the history of our fraternal relations as revolutionary parties for the anc to seek to verify our submissions through puppet movements, zanu-pf said last week, referring to zimbabwes biggest opposition party. it accused the anc of attention-seeking gimmicks.

As zanu-pf we will not take the offside direction of wining and dining with the ancs opposition, obert mpofu, a senior zanu-pf official, told the financial times.

South africas overtures follow rising unrest over corruption in zimbabwe and an economic meltdown. the worsening economic situation in both countries in part because of the coronavirus lockdown has prompted south africa to change its policy towards harare, analysts said. prior to the plan to meet the opposition, south african envoys held frank and constructive discussions with zanu-pf in harare.

Zimbabwe is rising up the ancs agenda because of reality checks accelerated by covid about the economic strain put on south africa by the crisis on its border, said piers pigou, a consultant with the international crisis group.

This is a longer-term pivot, he said, adding that the proposal to talk to the opposition and civil society was a massive shift. the anc did not respond to requests for comment.

The tough rhetoric from zanu-pf belies its strong economic dependence on south africa. from waiters in restaurants to chief executives, in recent years south africas society has been shaped by zimbabwean migrants who have fled decades of ruin to build new lives across the border. zimbabwe sources most of its power from south africa and many of the zimbabwean elite are believed to keep their money in south africa.

South africas pandemic lockdown underlined this dependence further as massive job losses restricted the flow of critical remittances from migrant workers to zimbabwe. the zimbabwe crisis is not a foreign policy issue for south africa, said tendai biti, a senior figure in zimbabwes main opposition movement for democratic change. you can choose friends you cant choose neighbours.

South africas dominant role in the region meant it was make or break for resolving the zimbabwean crisis, one diplomat in harare said.

South africa sought to mediate in zimbabwes politics over a decade ago when it was wracked by hyperinflation and the violent rigging of elections under mugabe. this resulted in brief power-sharing between zanu-pf and the opposition, including mr biti as finance minister.

But at that time, south africa had a mandate from the southern african development community, the main regional body, said oscar van heerden, an international relations scholar at south africas mapungubwe institute for strategic reflection. this time around, it was a unilateral decision, he said.

South africa had accepted the coup that overthrew mugabe and elections that were widely suspected to have been rigged to favour mr mnangagwa but the scale of the repression that followed had forced south africa to speak up, he said.

They have tried the now-famous quiet diplomacy...that strategy has simply not worked, mr van heerden said, referring to a longstanding policy by south africa to avoid any overt criticism. we now need to take a stronger, much harsher approach. financial sanctions on members of zimbabwes elite, already facing sanctions imposed by the us, could be one option, he said.

Analysts and even insiders say that zanu-pf is no longer recognisable to the anc which, unlike zanu-pf, faces robust opposition at home. we are talking about an alien political culture, mr pigou said. zanu-pf also relies heavily on zimbabwes security apparatus to keep its grip on power. zanu-pf is reacting like this because they can see the end is nigh. they can see that the repression is not going to hold, mr van heerden said.

We would love to have dialogue with the anc, mr biti said. but, he warned, mr mnangagwa was paranoid and now liable to see any pressure from outside, whether from south africa or others, as an attempt to unseat him. mr mnangagwa has also said that he intends to extradite former allies of mugabe, his enemies, from south africa where they were exiled after the coup.

We are dealing with an incorrigible regime that does not accept that there is a crisis in this country, mr biti said. any international engagement will expose them for what they are thugs, fascists. they are corrupt.