"We've put education above everything. Of the five priorities we have, education is the apex," Zuma said.
Zuma was speaking to Talk Radio 702 host Redi Tlhabi on Monday morning, in a wide-ranging interview that touched on the consistency of discipline within the ANC, the possibility of revamping the party's elective process, plans to review the Constitution, his personal life, and the future of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who he said could still be a good leader for South Africa someday, if he were properly mentored.
But the conversation was dominated by talk about the government's handling of the Limpopo education crisis.
The provincial education department has been riddled with financial irregularities, and many pupils are still without textbooks seven months into the school year.
At one point Zuma appeared to lose patience with Tlhabi, who persisted in asking whether those responsible for the Limpopo textbook fiasco would be brought to book.
'You can't just fire someone'
Asked when he was going to fire Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, Zuma responded that he could not fire anyone without due process.
"You can't just fire someone without verifying the facts," he said.
"You don't know who is responsible for that. You can't say the minister sitting in Pretoria in the office is responsible. Even if the buck stops there she needs to find out who the individual is [that's] responsible before she takes action," he said.
Zuma said that the task team appointed to investigate the situation in Limpopo should be given "reasonable time" to do their job.
"Once the investigation is done, conclusions are drawn, and recommendations are made, we will act," he said.
Zuma also denied that he had failed to take action on education.
"That's why I've got two ministers. That is an action. That's why [the education department] has got the biggest budget. That is an action," he said, drawing listeners' attention to the national government's intervention in the Limpopo education department last year.
'We have prioritised education'
"Once we discovered there were problems [in Limpopo], we applied section 100."
In December, the government placed Limpopo under a section 100 (1)(b) intervention, and took over the running of the province's treasury, education, transport and roads, health and public works departments. The education department racked up R2.2-billion in unauthorised expenditure in 2011, yet some schools did not receive any funds.
"We have prioritised education in every respect," he said, adding the education system was still suffering from the legacy of apartheid.
"We're not dealing with a problem of today, we're solving a problem of centuries," he said.
He defended the government's track record on service delivery saying that the challenge of decades of deprivation could not be solved in a decade or two.
"There is something happening. The enormity of the challenge is you can't do it all at the same time," he said.
Working on capacity
Asked to explain the extensive waste of public funds seen in many government departments, Zuma said that "in some areas the capacity to utilise the funds is not there" and that that this was being worked on.
He denied that the there was no will to tackle corruption and said the government was "absolutely" committed to rooting it out.
Zuma evaded questions on the release on medical parole of both his former financial advisor Schabir Shaik, and former police chief Jackie Selebi, saying that this was done in accordance with the conditions set out in the Constitution.
"I don't think I can make a view on each and every prisoner who gets parole," he said, criticising those who "politicise matters that don't need to be politicised".
Asked if he still believed the Constitution needed review, he said that as a powerful arm of government, it could not be "left unattended".
He chose not to respond to recent criticisms of his personal life and conduct, made by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, saying that he would keep his personal views to himself.
And, while he said that Malema still had the potential to be a leader, he also said he was not interested in discussing what Malema does with his time these days.
Perhaps having learned from Motshekga's rating faux pas earlier this month, Zuma opted out when Tlhabi asked him to rate his own performance.
"Rating myself wouldn't be appropriate," he said. "The performance of an individual is better rated by other people. All I can say is I have tried my best given the task."
Zuma said he served as president at the behest of the ANC, and that if the party asked him not to serve, he would walk away.