Zimbabwe's most powerful woman or a pawn?
When Joyce Mujuru styles herself as "a very strong, courageous and determined woman", this is no self-help Geri Halliwell talk.
After all, how many would dare abandon family life and school at the age of 18 to join a ferocious liberation war and raise children in the bush while bringing down choppers and eluding enemy bullets?
A story doing the rounds in Harare further defines Mujuru's extraordinary human qualities.
According to the cryptic tale, when she hears that her husband, a former army commander and highly influential Zanu-PF politician Solomon Mujuru, has sired children out of wedlock, she goes out of her way to locate them to establish whether their mothers have the wherewithal to look after them.
If not, she takes the children into her own custody at one of the family farms in Ruwa, near Harare, without even consulting her husband. Many of the children in their household are not hers, those close to the family say.
"My war experiences changed my life," says Mujuru, who was born into a poor peasant family of 12 and left home as a teenager in 1973 - against the wishes of her parents - to join Zanu-PF guerrillas fighting the Ian Smith regime from Mozambique.
"I became very strong and learned to make decisions and not wait for men to decide," she adds. She is an affable character, yet ruthless when duty calls. On joining the war, Mujuru adopted the nom de guerre of "Teurai Ropa", or "Spill Blood" in English. She immediately lived up to that appellation.
On February 17, 1974, a group she was assigned to during an incursion into Zimbabwe encountered the Rhodesian security forces and was brutally dispersed, leaving Mujuru to face the enemy on her own. A wounded colleague threw her gun to Mujuru and implored her to flee. But she had other ideas. She took aim at a helicopter descending to kill her.
"Incredibly, I hit the machine and there was a lot of black smoke and it crashed. A big explosion followed," she was quoted as saying of the incident, in which all the white occupants of the helicopter died.
The incident marked a turning point in Mujuru's guerrilla reputation once news of it spread through the camps of Zanu's armed wing, Zanla, in Mozambique. She was soon to be elevated to being one of the camp commanders.
When President Robert Mugabe's campaign of confiscating white farms for redistribution to blacks began in earnest in February 2000, Mujuru ruthlessly endorsed it. She urged farm invaders to go and return with "blood-soaked T-shirts and shorts of white farmers and any of their black collaborators".
At independence in 1980, Mujuru, then semi-literate and aged 25, became the youngest cabinet minister in Mugabe's fledgling government, with the sports, youth and recreation portfolio.
Now Mujuru is - officially at least - firmly in line to succeed Mugabe when he retires as expected in 2008. This comes after her historic elevation to the post of vice-president of both party and country at the Zanu-PF congress last month.
Yet, despite her steely nerves and heroism, Mujuru was probably surprised by her sudden rise to prominence.
While the debate on Mugabe's possible successor gathered momentum in recent years, Mujuru's name never featured. In fact, if Mugabe's 53 ministers and deputies had been ranked in terms of their chances of being a Mugabe successor, Mujuru would have occupied one of the last three slots.
"No one ever contemplated her as obvious presidential material," says Lovemore Madhuku, a University of Zimbabwe analyst and chairperson of the National Constitutional Assembly.
"A good reputation in war does not necessarily translate into good leadership. To some, her long presence in cabinet has more to do with gender balance than competence. In 1980 she became a minister knowing nothing else but how to hold a gun."
So what is behind Mujuru's spectacular rise? Many analysts, including Eldred Masunungure, a University of Zimbabwe political scientist, believe Mujuru is merely a pawn in a dangerous political game.
Her influential husband, who probably gets more of Mugabe's ear than she does, has much to do with her rise. It was his determination to block Emmerson Mnangagwa, a rival and former cabinet minister and speaker of parliament, that resulted in Mujuru's elevation. But from where does Solomon Mujuru draw his power?
It is universally accepted in Zanu-PF that without his active support, Mugabe would have been a nobody. Mujuru and the late Josiah Tongogara led the Zanla forces while Mugabe languished in jail from 1964 for 10 years.
At the time of his going to jail, Mugabe was a mere secretary for information in Zanu, which was formed in 1963 and was under the leadership of the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole.
Mugabe seized control of Zanu in 1975 after his rival, Herbert Chitepo, who had been appointed by Sithole, to lead the party while both Mugabe and Sithole were in jail, was assassinated by a mysterious car bomb in Lusaka.
Mugabe had slipped into Mozambique after his release from jail, with the active support of Solomon Mujuru, who implored the guerrillas, most of whom had never met Mugabe, to accept him as their leader.
"As a result Mugabe owes Mujuru an eternal favour," said one Zanu-PF insider.
Mujuru took over the command of the army at independence in 1980, retiring 10 years later to go into business. However, he remained an influential member of Zanu-PF's politburo, where he clashed with Mnangagwa, long considered to be Mugabe's favoured heir.
This happened when Mnangagwa, then a powerful cabinet minister, thwarted Mujuru's bid to buy into the multibillion-dollar Zimasco, a chrome mining and smelting concern in Zimbabwe's Midlands province, in the mid-1990s.
Mujuru, who prefers to work behind the scenes and is not known to be power-hungry himself, is said to have declared that he would throw his name in the ring if Mugabe ever opened the way for Mnangagwa to rise to the top office.
Such a battle for control of the party would have been too ghastly even for Mugabe to contemplate.
When Mnangagwa became tainted by allegations of corruptions, including a United Natons report that linked him to the looting of resources in Congo, a perfect opportunity was provided to Mugabe to sideline him and opt for Mujuru's camp.
The cover for this manoeuvre was feminism - a requirement that one of the co-vice-presidential posts, to replace the late Simon Muzenda, be reserved for a woman.
This effectively blocked Mnangagwa, as the other vice-presidential position is held by Joseph Msika and must also be reserved for someone from Matabeleland, in line with a 1987 unity accord with Joshua Nkomo's Zapu.
The move to elevate Joyce Mujuru led to the infamous meeting at the rural home of Jonathan Moyo, the information minister, where an attempt was made to plot a strategy to sabotage Mujuru's rise. Mugabe got wind of the meeting, leading to the demise of several top officials who had been Mugabe's confidantes, including Moyo himself.
Daniel Molokela, a prominent Zimbabwean lawyer and human rights activist, says that after the Mugabe tragedy Zimbabweans must brace themselves to face something even worse: "A Mujuru presidency in Zimbabwe in 2008."
Mujuru has not particularly distinguished herself in any of the various cabinet portifolios she has held. She should have resigned in 1998 when she was named among senior officials who looted the War Victims' Compensation Fund.
Her admirers credit her for taking time to go back to secondary school in between her busy schedule after she was appointed minister in 1980. She earned six ordinary level passes in the process, a certificate below matric, and is now rumoured to be aiming for her first degree through correspondence.
To those who laughed at her broken English, she had one question: "How come it is acceptable when the Chinese, Germans and all other foreigners speak in broken English? English is not my first language."
Few observers see her as presidential material, and many believe that if she is elected to State House she will be a puppet of her husband and Mugabe. Yet the prospect of Joyce "Spill Blood" Mujuru becoming Africa's first woman president now seems to have become almost inevitable.