A partnership of 110 for the fifth wicket between J-P. Duminy (52) and debutant Francois du Plessis (60) stymied India in the third ODI here at Newlands.
Asked to bowl, India reduced South Africa to 90 for four in the 24th over before Duminy and du Plessis provided a side that was hurting much-needed succour.
But India struck back to restrict South Africa to 220, capping a bowling and fielding performance that oscillated between the excellent and the mediocre.
Harbhajan Singh (two for 23) was the pick of India's bowlers, marginally ahead of Zaheer (three for 43), who, with Munaf (two for 42), had given India the start it wanted.
Graeme Smith's was a tortured stay, his runs scavenged from edges and mistimed strokes. Zaheer appeared to toy with Smith, getting the ball to move off the seam to beat either side of the left-hander's bat.
Hashim Amla threatened briefly. But a change in angle from Zaheer paid immediate dividends. A fine delivery it was too, angled into the right-hander, beating the expansive arc of Amla's drive and detonating off-peg.
Colin Ingram hasn't looked like he belongs at this level, certainly not at No.3. He did nothing on Tuesday to alter this perception, edging Harbhajan to slip, where Virat Kohli took an astounding one-handed catch, diving low to his right.
Smith played his first authoritative stroke in the 16th over, a cover-drive off Ashish Nehra, as South Africa enjoyed a five-over period of risk-free runs.
After the end of the Bowling Power Play, Smith and de Villiers exploited a dispersed field to take 24 runs without doing anything remotely dangerous. This after 39 had come in the first ten and 18 between overs 11 and 15.
Against the run of play, de Villiers fell. He didn't hit a long-hop from Yusuf Pathan as well as he would have liked. Few expected what followed: Zaheer took off from long-on, covered plenty of ground to his right, his weaker side, and threw himself as best he can to intercept the ball at full stretch. Although different, it was as fine a catch as Kohli's. No wonder Zaheer's team-mates converged on him from all parts of the ground.
India then took the vital wicket of Smith. Even when not in the best of touch, Smith is a dangerous batsman, for he can keep an innings together and, when he regains batting rhythm, pace it.
An attempted paddle-sweep off Harbhajan — a stroke prompted perhaps by the stationing of short-leg — went wrong. The ball lobbed off the toe-end of the bat. Kohli completed a good catch.
India, which had South Africa on 90 for four, could have strengthened its position a run later. A mix-up between Duminy and du Plessis had the former scrambling for his crease. Yusuf was slightly tardy in dragging the throw down to the stumps — still, it appeared as if he had done enough to find the batsman short.
The replays weren't clear, although circumstantial evidence suggested the bail was unseated before the bat crossed the line. There wasn't a conclusive frame, however, and Duminy was given the benefit of doubt.
After this rocky start, the pair batted beautifully to revive their side. Both batsmen used their feet well against the part-timers and placed the ball in vacant areas; the constant turnover of strike between left- and right-hander prevented the part-timers from settling.
Du Plessis played with remarkable composure and clear-headedness for a debutant. Duminy, who was subjected to severe criticism by the local press for a careless stroke in the previous game, showed again that his velvet-smooth batting isn't without steel.
South Africa: G. Smith c Kohli b Harbhajan 43 (79b, 3x4), H. Amla b Zaheer 16 (18b, 2x4), C. Ingram c Kohli b Harbhajan 10 (16b, 1x4), A.B. de Villiers c Zaheer b Yusuf 16 (20b), J.P. Duminy b Zaheer 52 (59b, 2x4), F. du Plessis c Kohli b Munaf 60 (78b, 2x4), J. Botha b Zaheer 9 (14b), W. Parnell (run out) 5 (3b, 1x4), D. Steyn c Raina b Munaf 5 (8b), M. Morkel (not out) 0 (0b), L. Tsotsobe (run out) 0 (1b); Extras (w-4): 4; Total (in 49.2 overs): 220.
Fall of wickets: 1-31 (Amla), 2-49 (Ingram), 3-83 (de Villiers), 4-90 (Smith), 5-200 (du Plessis), 6-202 (Duminy), 7-207 (Parnell), 8-216 (Steyn), 9-219 (Botha).
India bowling: Zaheer 9.2-0-43-3, Munaf 10-1-42-2, Nehra 7-0-42-0, Harbhajan 9-1-23-2, Yusuf 6-0-27-1, Yuvraj 6-0-30-0, Rohit 1-0-5-0, Raina 1-0-8-0.
Power Plays: One (1-10): 39/1; Bowling (11-15): 18/1; Batting (44-49): 25/4.
Keywords: India-South Africa ODI series