Former South African president Jacob Zuma appeared in court Friday to face corruption charges relating to a $2.5 billion arms deal, a scandal from the 1990s that has come back to haunt him within weeks of his fall from power.
The 75-year-old, whose scandal-plagued nine years in office were marked by economic stagnation and credit downgrades, faces 16 charges including fraud, racketeering and money laundering.
Zuma denies any wrongdoing and is challenging the decision to prosecute the case, a dramatic development on a continent where political leaders are rarely held to account for their actions before the law.
Wearing a dark suit, a smiling Zuma waved to crowds of supporters and reporters as he mounted the steps of the High Court in Durban shortly before 0700 GMT.
The speed with which prosecutors have booked his day in court is a sign of the loss of control Zuma has suffered since his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, became head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December.
However, Zuma still retains some popular support, especially in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, where the case is being heard.
Heavily armed police in riot gear lined the square outside the court, as thousands of Zuma supporters gathered to express solidarity with a leader they say is the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt.
Marchers, many clad in the distinctive yellow, green and black of the ANC, carried placards reading “Hands off Zuma” and performed the high-stepping toyi-toyi protest dance made popular in South Africa’s decades-long struggle against apartheid.
Businessman Siya Khoza said he admired Zuma’s determination to bring in economic policies that he said were designed to spread the wealth in what remains one of the world’s most unequal societies.