Zimbabwe’s new president is known as the crocodile by his supporters because of his reputation as a cunning and sometimes ruthless politician.
The soft spoken President Emmerson Mnangagwa took the reins of power from the world’s oldest leader Robert Mugabe on Friday after a fortnight of political drama orchestrated by an army takeover.
A protégé of the 93-year-old ruler blamed for Zimbabwe’s spectacular economic collapse and human rights violations, President Mnangagwa is being cast as a messiah by a weary nation.
Those celebrating the new dispensation had resigned to their fate in the belief that nobody could remove Mr Mugabe, a tyrant who isolated his country from the international community and trampled on its people’s freedoms.
Zimbabwe’s economy, once one of the strongest in Africa, collapsed under Mr Mugabe, making the country a laughing stock. But economic revival is not the only yardstick that will be used to judge President Mnangagwa’s performance in the next few months.
Fidelity to democracy and respect for human rights will be closely watched.
Why? The new leader has a dark past: He is associated by many with the worst atrocities committed under Mr Mugabe, and not everyone is ready to forgive and forget.
On his return from brief self-imposed exile in South Africa on November 21, President Mnangagwa promised to usher Zimbabwe into democracy, but there are many that doubt him.
Bhekimpilo Sibanda, a university professor in the second-largest city, Bulawayo, is among a sizeable number of Zimbabweans who have tempered their celebration with caution.
The survivor of the 1980s massacres in southern Zimbabwe, who still has emotional scars, says he is still confused by the rapid changes in a country that was under the firm grip of one of the world’s most brutal dictators until the November 15 army takeover, and is unsure about the future.
The former vice president was the head of the secret service when Mr Mugabe’s government massacred over 20,000 opposition supporters in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces.
According to reports by human rights groups, President Mnangagwa was one of the key players during the atrocities, but like his former boss he has refused to admit any wrongdoing.
Prof Sibanda’s homestead in Lupane district of Matabeleland North lies near a mass grave of victims of the army during that dark period.
He is only prepared to give the new leader a chance if he does something about the past.
“My home is one kilometre from an unrecognised mass grave, which is surrounded by three other graves,” he said on being asked about his expectations following the leadership change.
The academic says he can only judge the new president when he reveals his plans, especially on how he intends to atone for the ruling Zanu-PF government’s excesses.
“I believe that President Mnangagwa has some choice to help me heal,” he adds.
“I was with late Vice President Joshua Nkomo in the afternoon before he fled to Botswana. I truly sympathise with President Mnangagwa.”
Dr Nkomo, a leader of Zimbabwe’s liberation movement, was hounded into exile by the special brigade deployed in Matabeleland and Midlands at the height of the massacres.
Thirty years after the conflict ended, the victims still struggle to obtain national identity documents and calls for compensation have fallen on deaf ears.
Zenzele Ndebele, a Bulawayo-based activist, said for President Mnangagwa to win the trust of people from the region, he must first take responsibility for the atrocities, known locally as Gukurahundi.
“President Mnangagwa has an opportunity to unify Zimbabweans and revive the economy, but first he needs to take responsibility for the things he did under Mr Robert Mugabe, especially his role during Gukurahundi,” he said.
“There have also been allegations that the new leader is corrupt and the onus is on him to prove that he is not.”
Before the falling out with his boss of 52 years, the former Justice minister was viewed as one of the architects of Mr Mugabe’s long and brutal rule.
He was regarded as the brains behind the election rigging and extreme violence against opposition supporters.
But in the euphoria that followed the fall of Zimbabwe’s reviled leader, all his blemishes seemed to have been forgotten as the country pushed for a new beginning.
The tree and the apple
Veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was prevented from taking power by the military after beating Mr Mugabe in the 2008 elections attended President Mnangagwa’s inauguration at a giant stadium in Harare.
The 66,000 seater National Sports Stadium was packed to the rafters, an indication Zimbabweans were willing to give the Zanu-PF leader a second chance, but Mr Ndebele is still cautious.
“Mr Mugabe’s impeachment charge sheet will basically be President Mnangagwa’s performance indicator,” he added. “My biggest fear is that the apple does not fall far from the tree.
“Zanu-PF is still in power and we should not expect miracles.”
Former deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara said it was imperative for the new leadership to help Zimbabwe to move away from its difficult past.
“It is imperative that the current events in Zimbabwe foster a break with the past and lead to the Zimbabwe we want,” he said.
“This will not be easy. The Zimbabwe moment could be a missed opportunity.
“It is in the context that we make the following observations, and provide a critique of the unfolding events in Zimbabwe.
“The current struggles must be kept inclusive, beyond, and broader than Zanu-PF.”
Prof Mutambara, who was part of a unity government led by Mr Mugabe between 2009 and 2013, said only an inclusive government can extricate Zimbabwe from its multi-faceted problems.
“With the forced resignation of Mr Robert Mugabe, the citizens of Zimbabwe have a unique opportunity to break with the past and create a different country: A stable, peaceful, democratic, prosperous and globally competitive nation. Here are my thoughts,” he added.
“We need an inclusive, magnanimous, and national interest driven, definition of the content and direction of this Zimbabwe moment.”
Prof Mutambara said Zimbabweans were now weary after years fighting for freedom and it was not time to enjoy benefits from the struggle.
“For the students and workers, the struggle against the Mugabe regime is 30 years old, and for the opposition parties it is 18 years. The removal of Mr Mugabe has a long history,” he said.
“Let us understand very clearly that, in addition to fighting against Mr Mugabe, the dictator, we have also been fighting to dismantle the system, values and culture that he has bequeathed us - Mugabeism.”
Chester Samba, the director of the Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe, wasted no time in celebrating the dictator’s demise because he believes he was the author of most of the country’s problems.
No leader after Mr Mugabe can outdo the dictatorship, he said.
“Since 1995 GALZ has been on the receiving end of the brutality and hate of Robert Mugabe’s aversion to diversity,” he said as he reflected on the events of the last two weeks.
Mr Mugabe was infamous for his disdain for homosexuality and often described people in same sex relationships as worse than pigs and dogs.
GALZ operated more like an underground organisation and its members were constantly arrested under Mr Mugabe’s rule. However, Mr Samba believes a window has been opened for Zimbabwe to become a tolerant society.