Nicknamed the "Crocodile" for his political shrewdness, Emmerson Mnangagwa portrays himself as a free-market enthusiast.
A week before military generals took over Zimbabwe, the 75-year old penned a strongly-worded critique of former President Robert Mugabe, and the clique around him, blaming it for the country's economic collapse.
Relations between the former allies have cooled significantly since their first encounter in a Zimbabwean prison cell in the 1970s.
Before falling out over a bitter succession battle within the ruling ZANU-PF party, Mnangagwa and Mugabe had forged close ties in their fight to liberate Zimbabwe from British colonial rule.
A former freedom-fighter, Mnangagwa was part of a gang called the Crocodiles -- which may be where his nickname comes from-- a freelance gang that eventually merged into the formal guerilla structure of Robert Mugabe.
He was captured when he and his gang blew up a train and sentenced to death in the 1960s.
He was only spared after it emerged he was too young to hang and spent ten years in jail instead, often rubbing shoulders with Mugabe.
"Because of his very close links with the Liberation Struggle he was held in very high regard both by the military and the war veterans," Stephen Chan, a professor of politics of southern Africa at SOAS University told RFI.
"They never lost that very high regard of him as a person who had fought and who had been under the sentence of death at one point."
That loyalty was witnessed in the military takeover of November 14, that was sparked by Robert Mugabe sacking Mnangagwa as Vice president.
There have been claims that China may have given the green light for the de facto coup, after army commander, General Constantino Chiwenga-- a close ally of Mnangagwa--was spotted in Beijing just beforehand.
Mnangagwa is a longtime collaborator with the Chinese, like most of Zimbabwe's former veterans, and received ideological and military training from Beijing.
But that doesn't mean they "in anyway sponsored or planned" the coup according to Chan.
"They made it very clear that they would turn a blind eye to it. They saw potential in Mnangagwa, in other words his stability, to be more responsible and technocratic," he says.
Beijing has been anxious about Mugabe's economic policies for a while and is hoping that the shift to Mnangagwa will put Zimbabwe back on the foreign investor radar.
"What the Chinese balked at underneath Robert Mugabe's policies were the indigenisation laws, that all foreign investments had to have 51 per cent indigenous shares. The Chinese lost a very great deal of investments in the mining industry, and I do see an early move to amend or cancel the indigenisation laws."
End of economic ruin
Mugabe’s often violent seizure of Zimbabwe’s white-owned farms has been blamed for the country's economic collapse, which is still having ripple effects today.
Earlier this month, Zimbabwe's finance ministry warned that this year's budget deficit was slated to hit €1.5 billion, or 11.2 percent of gross domestic product.
"I believe that Mnangagwa is a pragmatist and that he would be prepared to look at realistic ways of helping Zimbabwe out of its current economic crisis," Former British High Commissioner Peter Longworth told RFI.
"To do that he needs to come to terms with the international community and that means changing the habits of a lifetime."
Human rights record
That won't be easy, he reckons. Many Zimbabweans remain hostile to Mnangagwa because of his human rights record.
"He's complicit with what Mugabe has been doing for much of the time until his recent dismissal," continues Longworth. "That kind of collaboration has not been pretty, certainly the mistreatment of members of the opposition, and by mistreatment I mean torture and death."
Most controversially, Mnangagwa was in charge of internal security in the mid-1980s when Mugabe deployed a North Korean-trained brigade against rebels loyal to his rival Joshua Nkomo in the Gukurahundi massacre.
"It was meant to stamp out largely imagined dissidents sponsored by apartheid South Africa, but it turned out to be a gratuitous slaughter," says Chan, in reference to the 20,000 people who were killed. "Mnangagwa has blood on his hands."
A new man
Secretive and insular, Mnangagwa remains shrouded in mystery, and continues to cultivate an image of a ruthless operator.
He has been in every administration since independence, holding posts as varied as minister of state security, defense and finance, as well as speaker of parliament, and is largely regarded as a product of the ZANU-PF system.
Even so, Zimbabweans hope he'll be able to take them forward.
"We will try and see whether he was stifled during his 37 years in power, maybe he will come out as a new man," says Alex Magaisa, former adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's longtime Opposition leader.
"We are waiting to see whether he will fluorish on his own," he told RFI. " People are expecting him to demonstrate leadership, as the country comes out of what is a very difficult period."