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, corruption 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.
He is expected to appear around 0730 GMT.
The speed with which prosecutors have booked Zuma's day in court is also a sign of the control that his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has managed to exert over the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and South Africa's bureaucracy.
However, Zuma still retains some popular support, especially in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Heavily armed police in riot gear lined the square outside the court in Durban, as thousands of Zuma supporters gathered to express solidarity with a leader they say is the victim of a politically motivated witchhunt.
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.
"Whatever happens we will still support Zuma because we believe he brought us radical economic transformation and we still believe that him being in the ANC he will push for it," said Khoza, wearing a waistcoat emblazoned in ANC colours.
"I would want to believe that as an innocent man, he is definitely not worried," the domestic News24 agency qouted Edward Zuma as saying.
Zuma, who was forced to resign by the ANC last month, was at the centre of a 1990s deal to buy billions of dollars of European military hardware to upgrade South Africa's post-apartheid armed forces.
But the deal was mired in scandal and controversy from the start, with many inside and outside the ANC questioning the spending given the massive social issues, from health to education, Nelson Mandela's party had to address after coming to power in 1994.
Fallout from the deal has cast a shadow over South African politics ever since.
Zuma was deputy president at the time of the deal. Schabir Shaikh, his former financial adviser, was found guilty and jailed in 2005 for trying to solicit bribes for Zuma from a French arms company.
Charges against Zuma were filed but then set aside by the National Prosecuting Authority shortly before he successfully ran for president in 2009. The charges were re-instated in 2016.
Since his election nine years ago, his opponents have fought a lengthy legal battle to have the charges reinstated. Zuma countered with his own legal challenges.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)