By Peter Greste
BBC News, Polokwane
Mr Zuma won a resounding mandate in the election
When Jacob Zuma, the victor in the bruising African National Congress (ANC) battle for the party's presidency, hugged the outgoing incumbent in front of the entire conference of some 5,000, the message was clear and unequivocal - the time for division is over.
It is hard to overstate just how deeply divided the party became in this election.
They were voting not just for the presidency, but for the six most senior positions within the ANC.
Every one of Jacob Zuma's preferred candidates won over their rivals from Thabo Mbeki's camp, and with almost identical margins of victory - roughly 60%-40%.
This suggests that while the charismatic Jacob Zuma had plenty of support in the conference, his greatest asset was Thabo Mbeki himself.
'Out of touch'
Political analyst Adam Habib believes the result was more a rebellion against the aloof incumbent than it was a vote of support for his controversial challenger.
"Mbeki's leadership has been seen as out of touch with the rank and file," Mr Habib said.
Mr Zuma is set to challenge Mr Mbeki's hold on power
"The conference was reasserting its authority over the leaders, telling them 'now it's time for you to listen to us.'"
So, what happens next?
The public show of unity was a powerful signal to the rank and file that they needed to heal the rift and get on with the business of running the country.
It was also a clear message to the world, worried by Jacob Zuma's strong links to the far left of the party, that there would be no sharp shift in policy.
It was a message underscored when Mr Zuma's most hard-line leftist supporter, Zwelenzima Vavi, left the conference floor to tell the BBC that his Council of South African Trade Unions was full-square behind Mr Zuma's approach to the economy.
"Jacob Zuma has just finished a tour of Britain and the US where he met with the business leaders and told them that nothing would change, and we're happy with that," he said.
But the real question is whether Mr Zuma can deliver on that promise of unity and continuity.
Traditionally, the ANC has always subscribed to the idea that the leader of the party and the leader of the state should be one and the same - that there should be no division of power and authority.
That is why the party leader almost automatically becomes its candidate for the national presidency - a job that is almost guaranteed given the ANC's enormous electoral dominance in South Africa.
The last time the two jobs were split was in 1997 when Thabo Mbeki became party president while Nelson Mandela finished his term as national leader.
But that was a carefully managed transition, in which Mr Mbeki was prepared for the job by Mr Mandela.
Apart from the personal enmity that now divides Mr Mbeki and Mr Zuma, what makes this so challenging is the rank-and-file rebellion Mr Habib spoke of.
ANC orthodoxy has it that policy is decided by the party at conferences like this, and handed up to the leadership to implement.
The rebellion was driven very much by the view that Mr Mbeki had lost touch with his base, and that the national presidency had drifted too far from the party headquarters in Johannesburg.
Now that Jacob Zuma has such a resounding mandate, he is likely to test Mr Mbeki's grip on the nation's steering wheel, but Mr Mbeki is not given to taking orders, and unlikely to give way easily.
Of course, Mr Zuma has his own problems to contend with.
There is still the matter of an ongoing investigation into allegations of corruption, and the investigators have indicated that they could still press charges.
If they do, and Mr Zuma is convicted, he will be forced to step down and the party will have to look elsewhere for a presidential candidate.
But for now, that is an issue the rank and file of the party were happy to overlook in favour of their rebellion against the leadership.
It is hard to know who would prove victorious in such a situation, but it is likely to be a rocky road to the presidential elections in 2009.