Harare — Zimbabwe's incoming leader Emmerson Mnangagwa met in South Africa with President Jacob Zuma Wednesday before taking a private jet to return to Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa, 75, is to be sworn in as Zimbabwe's new leader Friday, following Robert Mugabe's stunning resignation amid impeachment proceedings against him.
After meeting with Zuma in Pretoria, Mnangagwa went to Johannesburg's Lanseria airport where he boarded a jet that took off for Harare. Mnangagwa is expected to arrive at Manyame Air Base in the capital, Harare, where crowds have already gathered.
He is to be sworn in as Zimbabwe's new president Friday, said the speaker of parliament after the ruling ZANU-PF party notified him of its nomination of Mnangagwa to replace Mugabe until the end of the term next year.
Singing and cheering, several hundred people have gathered outside the air force base in anticipation of Mnangagwa's arrival.
Some carried printed signs with images of Mnangagwa, suggesting a significant level of organization behind the jubilant turnout. Signs read "Welcome back, our hero" and "True to your word, you're back. Welcome."
A man in the crowd, Godwin Nyarugwa, said he was "very ecstatic" and that "we need change in this country, change in everything."
Zimbabwe has been through "crisis after crisis" and Mnangagwa seems best suited to lead the country forward, said Nyarugwa, who has several university degrees but no job.
"We have to try him and see," he said. "If he doesn't come up with something, we need to change him as well."
The air force base where demonstrators are congregating is adjacent to Harare's international airport.
Zimbabweans are still reeling from Mugabe's resignation Tuesday. They cheered and danced in the streets of Harare late into the night, thrilled to be rid of a leader whose early promise after the end of white minority rule in 1980 was overtaken by economic collapse, government dysfunction and human rights violations.
Now the focus turns to Mnangagwa, Mugabe's longtime deputy who was pushed aside earlier this month as unpopular first lady Grace Mugabe positioned herself to replace him and succeed her husband. Mnangagwa fled the country, claiming threats against his life.
That led the military to step in a week ago, opening the door for the ruling party and the people to publicly turn against the president.
It was not clear what the 93-year-old Robert Mugabe and his wife would do next. Mugabe, who was the world's oldest head of state, said in his resignation letter that legal procedures should be followed to install a new president "no later than tomorrow."
The privately run Newsday newspaper reported that Mnangagwa would be met on arrival in Harare by army commander Constantino Chiwenga and ruling party officials and then was expected "to meet Mugabe for a briefing."
Zimbabweans woke up to the first day in 37 years without Mugabe in power. With some nursing hangovers, they looked over newspaper headlines such as "Adios Bob and Ta-ta President."
"I think this change of government is like a new breath of fresh air right across the country," said Patrick Musira on the streets of the capital. "Everyone was engulfed with excitement and they are looking for a better future, a brighter future with work."
Zimbabwe's new leaders are faced with a once-prosperous nation whose economy has collapsed, sending well-educated but frustrated young people into desperate work as street vendors. Many have left the country altogether.
Mnangagwa is a former justice and defense minister who served for decades as Mugabe's enforcer, a role that earned him the nickname "Crocodile." Many opposition supporters believe he was instrumental in the army killings of thousands of people when Mugabe moved against a political rival in the 1980s.
So far in the current political turmoil Mnangagwa has used inclusive language, saying in a statement hours before Mugabe's resignation that all Zimbabweans should work together to advance their nation.
"Never should the nation be held at ransom by one person ever again, whose desire is to die in office at whatever cost to the nation," Mnangagwa said.
In a new commentary, the state-run Zimbabwe Herald newspaper stressed the importance of presidential term limits, saying Zimbabweans will "never again go back into a box of silence."
It added: "We hope that when (Mnangagwa) finishes his stint in State House the cheers will be for a job well done ... He has the best wishes of most Zimbabweans, at least today."