He was also careful to take formulaic, consensus positions on foreign policy issues, and emphasised continuity with the policy of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.
Yet now, halfway through his first term, Mr Zuma has jettisoned continuity and appears to be using foreign policy as a distinguishing and defining feature of his presidency. In the past few weeks, SA has actually differed with its normal go- along partners in the Bric countries and supported a no-fly zone in Libya. In addition, SA has explicitly called on Cote d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo to lay down arms and hand over power to democratically elected president Alassane Ouattara. This is not contrary to the African Union’s (AU’s) position on the Cote d’Ivoire drama, but it is certainly a more explicit version of it.
And now he has developed the same distinguishing and assertive tone with SA’s errant neighbour, President Robert Mugabe, to the extent that the Zimbabwean press is now attacking him, something it scrupulously avoided doing up until now.
For all this, he has been attacked within the African National Congress (ANC) alliance but appears to be getting support from outside the country, He may even be responding to foreign pressure. But even if foreign pressure is being exerted, it is significant that he and the government in general have decided to react to it.
One of the many distinguishing factors between Mr Zuma’s approach to foreign policy and that of his predecessor is that, unlike Mr Mbeki, he does not appear to be trying to create a "Zuma doctrine". Mr Mbeki definitely was attempting to create a broader doctrine beyond SA’s national interests based on the conceptual notion of the African renaissance. In order to achieve this aim, he sought to rebuild the AU and to use the union to challenge and engage with the West for the benefit of Africa in general as much as for SA specifically.
Mr Zuma appears much more focused on SA’s requirements and the national interest, although it may turn out to be one of those odd situations, where focusing narrowly can actually result in better policy.
One of the advantages is that Mr Zuma’s approach appears to be much less ideological, which provides the facility of flexibility, a facility that the dogma involved in having a "doctrin e" does not allow.
Hence, Mr Mbeki may have personally felt Zimbabwe was making the wrong choices, but the notion of an African renaissance presupposes that a renaissance is actually taking place. If it is not taking place, then you are forced into either abandoning the doctrine, or sticking with it and pretending that it is actually happening.
From the opposite end of the spectrum, the ideologues are also having trouble with Mr Zuma’s approach, precisely because they want to put a "anti-western" gloss on all foreign policy, whatever its context.
For example, the ANC Youth League has been outspoken about its opposition to the Libyan no-fly zone, suspecting that it is a kind disguise for regime change.
Yet one of the problems for the league is that regime change is exactly what is happening.
Mr Zuma and the Department of International Relations and Co-operation may in fact be recognising the likely end game more clearly, using data gathered by its staff on the ground. If that is the case, the development is very welcome.
The position of the government on the three crisis issues of the day — the Arab awakening, Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe — may in fact be slightly ahead of events on the ground, which is precisely where foreign policy needs to be situated. Excellently done, President Zuma.