His release was remembered as a watershed event on Thursday, but the moment was uncertain and anxious for South Africa, and it is a testimony to Mandela's statesmanship that things went so well.
In a nod to Mandela's legacy of nation-building and inter-racial reconciliation, Zuma promised to pursue Mandela's vision of a unified, progressive Rainbow Nation.
"Let us commit ourselves to building a better future for all South Africans, black and white," he said.
But the bulk of Zuma's speech was devoted to the economy. He announced measures which the cabinet thinks are needed to help the South African economy recover.
The country emerged from its first recession in 17 years with annualised GDP growth of 0.9 per cent in the third quarter of 2009.
Zuma said the economy was now creating work after shedding 900,000 jobs last year.
"Economic indicators suggest that we are now turning the corner. Economic activity is rising in South Africa, and we expect growth going foward. It is too soon, though, to be certain of the pace of recovery," he said.
"Now is the time to lay the groundwork for stronger growth going foward, and for growth that gives rise to more jobs."
Zuma admitted there was an urgent need to create more jobs and to subsidise the cost of hiring younger workers.
Up to a quarter of the country's 50 million people are unemployed - a statistic condemned by the ruling ANC's trade union and communist allies.
Zuma said the government had nearly achieved its target of creating 500,000 new public-works jobs opportunities by the end of 2009, but acknowledged that these were not permanent jobs in the mainstream economy.
South Africa would invest 846 billion rands over the next three years on improving public infrastructure, including roads, railways and the expansion of the country's electricity-generating capacity.
Addressing the issue of power shortages, Zuma said the government will establish a new independent system operator, that will buy power from independent power producers and the ailing state utility Eskom.
A new measure will also see $130.5 million government-backed fund to broaden access to housing finance, with additional plans to also set aside 6,000 hectares of state land for low income and affordable housing.
Government departments would also be subjected to stricter oversight, Zuma said, in the wake of several corruption scandals in his administration.
Amid renewed violent protests over poor service delivery, Zuma said the government aimed to provide proper service and land tenure to half a million households by 2014.
He said his ministers will sign delivery agreements and tackle violence, which averages 50 murders a day, and increase the police force by 10 per cent over the next three years.
Zuma also called on South Africans to host a successful 2010 World Cup in honour of Mandela.
South Africa hosts the continent's first Fifa World Cup in June, marked by infrastructure upgrades and a beefed-up police force to prepare for the football world's biggest tournament.
Zuma made no mention in his speech of revelations that he has fathered a child out of wedlock
A survey conducted in November showed 77 per cent of the population were happy with his performance.