NINE years ago in the wake of a heavily rigged presidential election in Zimbabwe, I found myself standing in a rundown cemetery on the outskirts of the capital, Harare.

I had come to find the graves of people who had died from a recent cholera outbreak that then President Robert Mugabe insisted had never happened.

According to Mugabe, there was “no cholera” in Zimbabwe even though that same day I spoke with many relatives of those who had died.

Among those that I met was Cecilia, a 70-year-old woman who had come for the first time to visit the grave of her 18-year-old granddaughter who had died slowly and painfully from the disease.

Cecilia’s family were poor, the sort that suffers most in a country with a crumbling healthcare system, economic collapse, hunger and political oppression.

In Zimbabwe at that time there was no shortage of painful, and often violent ways to die. Such were the Mugabe years.

Last week after a 37 year rule, Robert Mugabe finally relinquished power and Zimbabwe, surely one of the most naturally beautiful countries in Africa, looked out on what its long suffering people hope will be a new political dawn.

On Friday the country’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was inaugurated in a carnival atmosphere at a packed national football stadium in Harare, amid singing, dancing and an air force fly past. He is widely known as “the Crocodile”, a liberation war nickname that acknowledges his reputation for ruthless cunning.

“We dare not squander the moment,” Mnangagwa said as he pledged that elections would be held next year along with a drive to eradicate the chronic corruption, which has crippled the country.

“Acts of corruption must stop forthwith. Where these occur, swift justice must be served. The culture of government must change and change now,” Mnangagwa told the massive crowd in the stadium.

He would do his utmost, he added, to mend the political system which has “poisoned and polarised”, and strengthen democratic institutions.

In all Mnangagwa’s address would have been an uplifting experience were it not for the inescapable fact that many Zimbabweans still see him as part of the problem rather than the solution to the country’s political and economic ills.

“It’s difficult to see how going forward he can be respectful of human rights, given his history,” said Dewa Mahvinga, southern Africa analyst for Human Rights Watch as Mnangagwa was sworn into office on Friday.

“People may not see it now, or realise now, because of the relief of seeing the end of Mugabe’s political era, but Zimbabwe is in grave danger in terms of constitutional democracy.”

Mahvinga has a point. Mnangagwa after all is a former Mugabe henchman notorious himself for persecuting political opponents and for organising the rigging of elections. A man who rose through Mugabe's Zimbabwe rebellion from the time he was a teenager to become his bodyguard and then through the Zimbabwe regime as his intelligence chief and enforcer. A man who received his training in the dark arts of political repression in China in the era of Mao.

With Mugabe finally in power in Zimbabwe, it was Mnangagwa who in the 1980’s orchestrated a campaign known as Gukurahundi - this involved the massacre of 20,000 members of the Ndebele ethnic group in Matabeleland in order to destroy the power base of Mugabe’s main rival Joshua Nkomo. Nkomo was an Ndebele, while Mugabe and Mnangagwa are Shona.

The massacres of the Gukurahundi, which lasted years, were carried out by Zimbabwe’s North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade, notorious for its brutality, and overseen by Mnangagwa as head of the country’s spy and domestic security apparatus.

It’s said that during Gukurahundi, victims were reportedly made to dance over the corpses of their loved ones while singing songs of praise to Mugabe’s government.

For his part Mnangagwa, not surprisingly, has always played down his role in the Gukurahundi. But today even after his inauguration on Friday as president, he must be in little doubt as to how unpopular he is among many Zimbabweans, even if the military seem to like him.

“Mnangagwa isn’t exactly a fresh face. He’s been with Mugabe since 1976. He was the chief hatchet man for Mugabe on and off for 40 years. That’s a fact that hasn’t suddenly become irrelevant,” was how historian Stuart Doran summed up the new president’s questionable past.

According to Todd Moss a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs and currently senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, Mnangagwa and his Zanu-PF party, have long since built a well-oiled machine for dominating the country and stage-managing elections.

“Mnangagwa is one of the creators of that system of repression and control, which has enriched a small cabal at the top through a vast empire of corruption,” Moss believes. “He may entice one or two opposition leaders to play a ceremonial role, but he is unlikely to cede any real influence.”

If as Moss says, Mnangagwa’s new regime represents nothing more than a “junta with a fig leaf,” then Zimbabwe’s future might be far from rosy. For now the new president will need to balance reforming Zimbabwe’s utterly broken economic system with maintaining the patronage system that will underpin his rule.

The extent to which Mugabe, Mnangagwa and their ruling Zanu-PF have presided over a broken country is summed up in some staggering economic statistics.

Currency mismanagement and hyperinflation have bedevilled the country for years resulting at one point in the printing of Z$100 trillion notes to the extent that, in 2008, the Zimbabwean inflation rate was estimated at 76.8 billion per cent per month.

Right now while more than one-third of the population is between the ages of 15 and 35 years, a devastating 86 per cent of young people of working age are unemployed.

As for the corruption Mnangagwa talks tough about tackling, last month according to Transparency International it was estimated that Zimbabwe was losing at least $1bn a year to corruption.

While the police, local councils and the driving licence authorities were among the worst offenders, critics also pointed to high-level graft within an elite of which Mnangagwa is himself part.

His role in the removal of Mugabe will to some extent help Mnangagwa’s credibility, but ultimately his best hopes for political survival, remain inextricably connected to finding ways to revive Zimbabwe’s economy.

Few doubt this nation - once the ‘breadbasket of Africa’ given its generous endowment of natural resources as well as its existing skills base - has enormous economic potential. A conclusion endorsed by recent reports form both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

According to The Economist magazine, hopes that Mnangagwa will deliver rest on two pillars: the first is that he clearly realises that Zimbabwe desperately needs economic help from abroad.

No doubt in this regard he will be looking to China, a country with which Mnangagwa has long ties. He trained there as a guerrilla in the 1960s, sent his son to study at a Chinese university, and visited Beijing shortly before the coup, creating speculation that he had gone to seek the political endorsement of officials there.

But even with Beijing’s help he will have his economic work cut out. Right now the country’s fiscal deficit, according to analysts, sits at a staggering 12-15 per cent of GDP. Inflation is variously measured at 25-50 per cent. With the potential for foreign reserves running out in months, Zimbabwe’s infrastructure is effectively falling apart - or as one former minister quipped recently: “Harare is the pothole capital of the world.”

The other crucial pillar on which hopes rest that Mnangagwa can do some good is that he seems to accept that in order to receive help to clear Zimbabwe’s $9bn debts he will not only have to get the government’s spending under control, but also enact political reforms that culminate in proper elections.

Some hope that Mnangagwa, will form an inclusive transitional authority to manage the country until elections can be held. But doubts remain.

“To be credible, the transitional authority would need to include figures like veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, highly regarded former finance minister Tendai Biti, former vice president Joice Mujuru, and longtime politician Welshman Ncube, among others,” says Todd Moss of the Centre for Global Development.

No doubt too these figures would require assurances that the transitional authority will wield actual power, especially to reform the election system, before they agree to participate. Many were so badly damaged by power sharing before that they are immensely suspicious of entering a transitional administration.

Even should they participate, some in civil society fear they will negotiate harder for political positions than for commitments to the structural measures so desperately needed for free and fair elections.

Zimbabwe is seriously in need of an overhaul of its election commission and register of voters.

Right now he opposition to Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF is weak and divided, and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), in poor health as he battles cancer.

Powerful regional neighbours, especially South Africa, are watching closely how events in Zimbabwe will unfold.

Comparing recent events to a literary thriller, an op-ed in South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper says the sequel to “The fall of Robert Mugabe” will perhaps be a less racy read, without gunbattles and marches in Harare.

“If it authors, the leaders and people of Zimbabwe, want to see this drama retold countless times as the success story of a nation, they will have to make some hard decisions about leaders,” the paper concluded.

It reiterated too, the thoughts of many, that Zimbabwe’s new leaders will have to abandon the ways of the past, that saw cronyism and nepotism strip a rich country of its glory. And it warned that the people of Zimbabwe might have to be “ruthless” by excluding those who helped sink their country if the story is to have a happy ending.

Last Wednesday night as Mnangagwa concluded his speech at Zanu-PF headquarters the evening ended with the rousing well-known song that was a standard at Mugabe’s rallies. “The hero is coming, the hero is arriving,” sang the crowd.

Mnangagwa might for now be the man of the moment, but many Zimbabweans will be watching warily to see whether in the months ahead he reverts to type and becomes more villain than hero.

As for former president old “Bob” Mugabe himself now 93, for the time being he has been granted immunity from prosecution and assured that his safety will be protected in his home country under the deal that led to his resignation.

For a man that stripped his country for all it was worth he will still receive a retirement package that includes a pension, housing, holiday and transport allowance, health insurance, air travel and security. That for many Zimbabweans who have struggled for years under his rule to make ends meet, must seem like the old despot’s last laugh at their expense. For most though it will be a small price to pay for finally being rid of him.

Nine years ago while in Harare after Mugabe’s rigged presidential election, I also interviewed David Coltart, the highly respected Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and a founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change who today remains a senator.

Despite surviving an assassination attempt by armed assailants I well remember him being undaunted and insisting that he was something of a “pathological optimist” when it came to Zimbabwe’s political future.

“Perseverance along with gentleness are the best characteristics of the Zimbabwean people,” Coltart told me.

As a new future dawns here’s hoping Emmerson Mnangagwa does not once again put that perseverance and gentleness to the test.