Former president Jacob Zuma waves to his supporters on his way to the high court in Durban. Picture: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Durban - Former president Jacob Zuma arrived at court in Durban on Friday to face corruption charges linked to a multi-billion dollar 1990s arms deal.

Flanked by security guards and dressed in a dark suit, Zuma, 75, smiled broadly and gave a thumbs-up as he walked into the court building, where he will appear for a brief preliminary hearing on the case.

Heavily armed police in riot gear lined the square outside the court in Durban, as thousands of Zuma supporters gathered to express solidarity with the former leader.

Supporters of former president Jacob Zuma outside the Durban High Court. Picture: Sihle Mlambo/Sunday Tribune

Zuma is accused of taking bribes from French arms maker Thales over a contract worth R30 billion during his time as a provincial economy minister and then deputy ANC president.

He faces one count of racketeering, two counts of corruption, one count of money laundering and 12 counts of fraud.

Thales, which supplied naval vessels as part of the deal, will also be charged with corruption and company representatives expected to appear in court alongside Zuma.

Zuma is accused of illicitly pocketing a total of R4,072,499.85 from 783 payments handled by Schabir Shaik, a businessman who acted as his financial adviser.

A key plank of the prosecution case is a fax signed by Alain Thetard, a manager at the South African affiliate of Thales, which was then called Thomson-CSF.

The fax allegedly describes the agreement reached with Zuma. Thales declined to comment to AFP on the case.

Zuma, who came to power as president shortly after the charges were first dropped in 2009, has always denied any wrongdoing.

Shaik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2005 based on the same accusations – although he served only two years of that term and was released on medical parole because of a “terminal illness”. A much-criticised 2016 inquiry absolved Zuma of any blame. 

Zuma claimed that the inquiry proved that "not a single iota of evidence (shows) that any of the money received by any of the consultants was paid to any officials".

AFP and Reuters