A cautious negotiator who cut his teeth in the trade union movement, he has enjoyed his financial status. He received considerable stick for his stake the wildlife industry and a $1.5m bid he made for a buffalo in 2012.
It was this – along with his role in the Marikana mine massacre – that lost him a great deal of support. Opponents were able to label him out of touch with the poor who make up the bedrock of the ANC.
If Ramaphosa has some questions to answer, Mnangagwa, 75, has an entire quiz to confront.
One of Mugabe’s longest serving lieutenants, he knows where all the bodies are buried – many of them literally.
Mnangagwa ran the security ministry in the 1980s when the notorious North Korean trained Fifth Brigade was unleashed on Matabeleland. Although he rebutted claims that he was the enforcer to the New Statesman, few believed his denials.
Subsequently Mnangagwa was involved in elections which were rigged in favour of the ruling party, although he has insisted the process was credible.
The November coup left the military in key positions of authority and they have been no fans of democracy. Questions are already being asked about the planned elections for later this year.
Why then the optimism? In part, because the situation is so dire that almost any change is to be welcomed.
Mnangagwa has promised that the elections will be free and fair and overseen by the international community; that commercial farmers (mostly white) will have their farms restored and that corruption will not be tolerated.
Similarly, Ramaphosa has offered a vision of South Africa with an economy that grows fast enough to erode unemployment, while providing the construction of the roads, hospitals and schools that the country so badly needs.
Such promises have been made repeatedly in the past; none have come to fruition. But the men who now make them have seen what rampant corruption can do to a society.
They are both rich enough not to need to add to their wealth. And they understand that their countrymen and women will give them little leeway if they fail to fulfil their pledges.
They do have another factor on their side: the expanding world economy will require the minerals that both countries are famous for. This should drive up prices and help pay for the desperately required social services.
At the same time, the optimism that came with independence and the end of apartheid has long since evaporated. Politicians in southern Africa – like those in the rest of the world – must be judged by results.
By Martin Plaut. This article was first published by the New Statesman