Hundreds of his supporters have gathered outside the court in Polokwane, capital of his home state of Limpopo.
There is a heavy police presence and long stretches of barbed wire fencing have been put in place.
Mr Malema, who has been granted bail, says the charges against him are politically motivated.
Bail was set at 10,000 rand (£750).
The charges against Mr Malema relate to a government tender awarded to a company partly owned by his family trust.
He is accused of using his former position as the leader of the ANC’s Youth League to enrich himself and his business partners.
The BBC’s Andrew Harding, outside court, says it had been widely anticipated that Mr Malema would face a broader raft of charges – including corruption and fraud.
The single charge came as a surprise to his supporters, and adds weight to the view of some that the case against him has been rushed, our correspondent says.
The court appearance comes less than a week after a warrant for his arrest was issued.
Chanting and dancing outside the court, hundreds of supporters are waiting for Mr Malema to come out and address them.
Many are holding up placards saying “Hands off our leader”.
Julius Malema is well-known in South Africa for his fiery populist rhetoric and lavish lifestyle, describing himself as an economic freedom fighter.
The 31-year-old politician was thrown out of the ANC in April, accused of sowing divisions in the party.
He is a fierce critic of his former ally, Jacob Zuma, recently attacking the president over his handling of the Marikana miners’ strikes.
Mr Malema is also the subject of a separate tax investigation.