He received the Platinum Class 2 medal on Thursday, second to the Platinum Class 1 that was awarded to first commanders of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC's former armed wing.
ANC MP Andrew Mlangeni conferred the medal on Zuma on behalf of former president Nelson Mandela, the first commander-in-chief of the MK. Zuma was a member of the MK's Luthuli detachment, the first group that formed the military wing.
At the event held at Waterkloof Air Force Base Zuma also announced that government plans to build a heroes' acre and a museum to document the history of military veterans and their contributions to South Africa's struggle for liberation.
Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thabang Makwetla said conferring medals on Zuma and his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who did not attend the event despite confirming his availability, was part of educating the public about the history of the struggle and the contribution members of liberation armies made.
"It's to say we have leaders in our political lives who are not just career politicians, but their origins are as freedom fighters."
This was the third award ceremony this year and the department has so far spent about R40-million on the fist two events. Figures for Thursday's spending were not yet available. Makwetla said the awards ceremonies are meant to coincide with the celebration of the MK's 50-year anniversary.
Though the department is yet to stand firmly on its feet and provide all envisaged services to military veterans – having been created from scratch in 2009 – Makwetla said the medals and the spending on the ceremonies are worth it.
"We are through these medals recognizing the origins of the South African National Defence Force [SANDF]. In that respect we're also preserving our own heritage of our military." The SANDF was formed from a merger of statutory forces and former liberation armies.
Makwetla said his department's mandate is to "honour and memorialise military veterans in life and in death".
Most MK military veterans lead destitute lives without any income or proper housing and Makwetla said an aspect of material benefits would soon be attended to.
"We shouldn't counterpose the importance of honouring military veterans and assisting them with material things. They are both important."
He admits that the department has had inadequate funds since its formation.
The first annual budget was R20-million for the first financial year, followed by R30-million and another R30-million for the current financial year. "These allocations were only meant to begin the process of starting a department," Makwetla said.
Themilitary veterans department has begun providing healthcare to military veterans who are over 60 years old by allowing them free access to militaryhospitals and sickbays as well as assisting families with finances to bury veterans.
None of the former South African Defence Force (SADF) members will receive the medals because "they've been honoured by the apartheid government," Makwetla said. "No former SADF member who was deserving, is without a medal. They had resources and we did not."
Other prominent politicians who received the medals were former cabinet ministers Pallo Jordan, Zola Skweyiya as well as Aziz and Essop Pahad. Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj, Speaker of Parliament Max Sisulu, ANC MP Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and retired General Sandile Sejake who also leads the ANC's Veterans League were also honoured.
Other MK detachments and the Pan Africanist Congress' Azanian People's Liberation Army military veterans will be honoured in the same way next year.