People wait for the inauguration ceremony to swear in Zimbabwe's former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa as president in Harare. Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Harare - Thousands of supporters as well as dignitaries and foreign diplomats have packed the National Sports Stadium in Harare to witness the inauguration of Zimbabwe's new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa was set to be sworn in on Friday, marking the final chapter of a political drama that toppled his predecessor Robert Mugabe after a military takeover.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai is one of the guests of honour.

When Tsvangirai arrived, his face was shown on the big screen at the stadium, and the crowd erupted in loud cheers.

Mnangagwa's arrival was met with even louder cheers.

President elect Emmerson Mnangagwa (C,L) gestures as he arrives with his wife Auxilia (C,R) at the National Sport Stadium in Harare during the Inauguration ceremony. Picture: Marco Longari/AFP

Journalists rushed forward to get a glimpse, nearly falling as they pushed and shoved each other.

Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and Botswana president Ian Khama are also at the stadium.

Buses brought well-wishers to the 60 000-capacity stadium from the early hours of Friday.

"Come and be an eyewitness of history being made, the historic ushering in (of) a new era and better country," said a statement from the ruling Zanu-PF party calling on people to attend the inauguration.

Snipers took up positions around the stadium amid tight security as jubilant Mnangagwa supporters streamed in, with many dancing as music played.

"We are excited and expecting a lot from Mnangagwa. We have been under a dictatorship for a very long time," 23-year-old Sharon Mauyakufa said, referring to Mugabe.

"Mugabe is very old - we do not expect that he will be punished for his crimes. How do you punish a 93-year-old? But his wife and others must be charged if they committed crimes."

The former president, who ruled the southern African country for 37 autocratic years, was ousted from office when the military intervened after he had sacked Mnangagwa as vice president.

"We thank you our soldier," said one banner in the sports ground.

Mnangagwa, 75, said this week that Zimbabweans were witnessing "a new and unfolding full democracy", though critics say he is a Zanu-PF hardliner who gained power in a de facto military coup.

He is known as "The Crocodile" for his ruthlessness and is accused of overseeing ethnic massacres by the army in the 1980s and the 2008 election violence when Mugabe was at risk of losing the vote.

Ahead of the inauguration, the army warned that criminals had been impersonating soldiers since the crisis to extort money from the public and called on Zimbabweans to obey the law.

Britain, the former colonial power, said it was sending Africa Minister Rory Stewart to the ceremony.

President Jacob Zuma will not be present as he was hosting a visit by Angola's new head of state.

Zuma praised Mugabe, noting "his contribution to the liberation of the Southern African region and the decolonisation of the continent".

AFP and The Star