Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe did not obtain the financial relief he had hoped for during his recent visit to China, South African newspapers report.
Mr Mugabe went to China last week hoping for help repaying a $300m debt to the IMF, but Beijing granted him only $6m for grain imports, they say.
Observers say Zimbabwe will again be looking to South Africa for help.
South Africa is expected to make any assistance to Zimbabwe conditional on improvements in human rights.
Zimbabwe faces expulsion from the IMF if it cannot repay its debt.
The Sunday Independent and Business Day newspapers both reported that Mr Mugabe had returned from China "almost empty-handed".
During a week-long trip to China, Mr Mugabe signed a trade deal with President Hu Jintao but the details were not made public.
A BBC correspondent in Beijing says it was not a major deal.
One Zimbabwean observer told the BBC that the platinum concessions offered by Zimbabwe were not a sufficient incentive for China to grant funds on the scale requested by Mr Mugabe.
South African officials confirmed last month that South Africa and Zimbabwe had discussed a loan request from Zimbabwe.
Some reports said Mr Mugabe was seeking as much as $1bn from South Africa.
South Africa is likely to insist that as a condition of loans, the Zimbabwe government engage in dialogue with the political opposition, and halt the housing demolitions which, according to the UN, have left 700,000 without shelter in recent months.
On Monday, the South African Council of Churches launched an aid operation to Zimbabwe, as trucks carrying 220,000 rand ($37,000) worth of food and blankets left Johannesburg heading for the Zimbabwean border.
The churches are also trying to put political pressure on Mr Mugabe.
The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Njonkulu Ndungane said the operation had the support of the South African government and President Thabo Mbeki.
"I am confident we are engaging with the president in terms of a common strategy on Zimbabwe," the archbishop said.
"Zimbabwe has moved from one crisis to another and we are all interested in resolving the long-term political and economic problems in Zimbabwe."
Mr Mbeki has always been reluctant to publicly criticise Mr Mugabe's rule.
Following a failed harvest, Zimbabwe is suffering food shortages.
It has been short of foreign currency for imports such as fuel for several years.
Mr Mugabe's critics say his seizure of white-owned land have wrecked the country's agriculture-based economy.
He blames his problems on a western plot.