Earlier supporters held an overnight prayer vigil outside Durban's High Court in Kwa-Zulu Natal, a stronghold for Zuma.
He sang and danced along enthusiastically to a rendition of "Umshini Wam", a struggle-era song that means "Bring me my machine gun".
What was the arms deal?
The charges were recently reinstated after being thrown out almost a decade ago and relate to an arms deal in the 1990s, when Zuma was deputy president.
He is accused of accepting 783 illegal payments.
The adviser, Schabir Shaikh, was found guilty of trying to solicit the bribes and was jailed in 2005.The case against Mr Zuma was dropped shortly before he ran for president in 2009.
Zuma was deputy president at the time.More news: Magnitude 5.3 quake strikes off Southern California coast
The expected court appearance of Zuma had been hailed by South Africa civil society and trade unions which includes the powerful National Union of Metal Workers (NUMSA).
Many say he has survived several controversies and criminal accusations until now because the ANC always came to his aid.
On the defendant's bench in the courtroom, Mr. Zuma politely greeted Christine Guerrier, a vice-president of Thales, who was delegated to represent the co-accused company.
NAIJ.com previously reported that Jacob Zuma resigned as the president of South Africa amidst numerous controversies surrounding his administration.
Since then Zuma has been replaced as President by Cyril Ramaphosa.
Mr Ramaphosa came in on a ticket of clean governance and entertaining yet another Zuma controversy could lose him the support he is now enjoying.
He criticized the ANC, which banned his supporters from wearing ANC colors, clothing and regalia at his trial to support him.More news: Pakistan, Afghanistan agree to achieve common aim of regional security
Zuma's long time nemesis - state prosecutor Billy Downer - was first to address the judge, explaining that the charges against Zuma and Thales marked the "continuation" of the NPA's old case.
His rule was beset with a series of scandals, including claims of state looting.
For two years, Zuma fought the order to repay part of the money.
He denied the allegations and the case was later dropped. He had been told to step down or face another vote of no-confidence in parliament.
Black First Land First (BLF), a radical pro-Zuma group that has supported him through numerous scandals, said it expected 200 bus-loads of supporters to travel to the court ahead of his arrival.
The case is unlikely to be heard before the end of this year, according to legal experts, given Mr Zuma is challenging the decision to prosecute him.More news: Key messages for World Health Day 2018
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