Relations between the United States and South Africa have been so rocky in recent years that former U.S. Ambassador Eric Bost used to complain that he couldn't get Cabinet ministers here to return his calls.
With South Africa pulling in the opposite direction under former President Thabo Mbeki on issues such as how to deal with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the move to arrest Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir on war crimes charges, the Bush administration found itself stymied.
On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took the first steps toward putting the relationship with sub-Saharan Africa's most powerful economy back on the rails, meeting with Zuma in the east coast city of Durban.
"In both countries there are two new administrations which are taking that relationship to a level higher. That is what we are trying to do," Zuma said after meeting Clinton.
The secretary of State pressed for the South African president to take a strong leadership role on Zimbabwe, where a power-sharing deal signed last year is being undermined by hard-liners in Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.
With a string of democratic setbacks in Africa from Nigeria to Kenya, she also urged South Africa to play a more active role in pressing for democracy, transparency and good governance across the continent.
Underscoring the leadership role the U.S. hopes Zuma will take in Africa, Clinton indicated that their talks covered the three major crises on the continent: Zimbabwe; Somalia, where a fragile government is fighting an Islamic insurgency; and Sudan, whose government is implicated in the large-scale killings and displacement of tribespeople in the Darfur region.
At a meeting with South African business leaders Friday, Clinton said that as the continent's economic powerhouse, South Africa was well placed to tout the benefits of democracy across Africa.
She's been critical of Kenyan leaders for widespread graft and corruption in the country, as well as for failing to prosecute those responsible for election violence last year that claimed at least 1,500 lives.
But her criticisms were dismissed by some analysts as America "lecturing" Africans -- hence the Obama administration's eagerness to see South Africa playing a more active role in advocating democracy and good governance in Africa.
Clinton's main theme during her seven-nation visit to Africa is increasing trade instead of aid. But analysts say U.S. strategic priorities in Africa remain as they were under the Bush administration: access to oil; competition for resources with China, which has aggressively wooed African leaders; and combating terrorist movements in northern Africa.
The main departure of the Obama administration, analysts say, is a global food initiative announced last month at the Group of 8 meeting of industrialized nations in Rome, designed to pump billions of dollars into developing agriculture in poor nations to reduce hunger, poverty and reliance on food aid.
Dan Glickman, an agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration and a strong proponent of the initiative, said the policy had the potential to lift millions of poor farmers, mainly women, out of poverty.
"The trick is always the follow-up," he said in a telephone interview. He said the G-8 made the greatest commitment in 40 years to rebuild agriculture in the developing world. "Now, the trick is, will the developed world, the U.S. and Europe and other parts of the world, put in the commitment of resources?"
Gerald LeMelle, executive director of the Washington-based analytical organization Africa Action, said the food initiative would be of limited assistance in reducing poverty in Africa unless Europe and the U.S. stopped propping up their own farmers and opened their markets to African produce.
"The G-8 countries subsidize their farmers to the tune of $785 billion a year," he said. "They can flood Africa with cheap agricultural products and completely undermine African farmers."