When the Dalai Lama asked for a visa to attend next week's first ever summit of Nobel laureates in Africa, Zuma's government demurred and the Tibetan cancelled his trip.
It's the third time Zuma's government dragged its feet on a visa for the bespectacled monk, so the president knew exactly what to expect: public opprobrium and a pat on the head from Beijing, which calls the Dalai Lama a terrorist.
But this time the backlash was tougher and more damaging.
Zuma's decision resulted in the embarrassing cancellation of the Cape Town Nobel event, which - as if to underscore the contrast of the ANC's idealistic past and its hard-nosed present - had been scheduled to mark the 20th anniversary of apartheid's collapse and the election of Nelson Mandela.
South Africans of all stripes who remember the pain of being the "polecat of the world" accused Zuma of rubbishing the image of Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation".
The party of Nobel prize-winner Mandela, of the anti-apartheid struggle and the moral high ground had become a party in hock to dictatorships and authoritarians in Beijing and Moscow.
It's true that Mandela also wanted better relations with China.
Beijing aided the ANC while it was fighting apartheid and they still enjoy close ties. Many leading members of the ANC are communists, including powerful secretary general Gwede Mantashe.
But since taking office in 2009 Zuma - a former communist who once received leadership and military training in the Soviet Union - has gone further than Mandela, who after all allowed the Dalai Lama to visit on numerous occasions.
'Hostility to western democracies'
Zuma has made relations with Brazil, Russia, India and China (the so-called BRICS) the bedrock of his foreign policy.
His policy is founded in a "hostility to western democracies", according to Frans Cronje, head of the South African Institute of Race Relations.
"Government is making a statement here that it stands with the China-Russia nexus."
ANC members frequently travel to Beijing for exchanges reportedly covering subjects such as how to build a political school and prevent party divisions.
Cronje also wonders "to what extent is China bankrolling ANC and individual ANC leaders? That gives it a grip over the party".
Some have argued Zuma may have pragmatic as well as ideological reasons for sucking up to China. Tens of millions of South Africans are out of work and Beijing holds a very large chequebook.
It is not a view shared by Iraj Abedian, chief executive officer of Pan-African Capital Holdings.
"The issue is not economic at all, it is all politics and related to the support China gave to ANC during the struggle years.
"From purely economic point of view, China needs South Africa more than South Africa needs China.
"China needs South Africa for its mineral and broader resources needs. Geopolitically, China uses South Africa for its African strategy."
But accepting China's embrace so readily may be a dangerous gambit for Zuma, one that could kick away the cornerstone of his domestic support.
Plagued by corruption scandals, he recently won a landslide election leaning heavily on the ANC's past glories.
The party's first election after Mandela's death doubled as a celebration of his life and of 20 years of democracy, helped handily by a government-funded programme.
Shedding Mandela's ethical mantle might take away the very thing that keeps the ANC in power.