A former apartheid-era policeman appeared in court in South Africa on Monday charged with the murder of a liberation activist 47 years after the alleged killing.

Joao Rodrigues, who was an officer in the police's feared security branch, is accused of murdering anti-white rule campaigner Ahmed Timol while he was in custody in 1971.

The decision to charge Rodrigues nearly five decades after Timol fell to his death from the 10th-floor of Johannesburg's police headquarters followed a review of the inquest that initially ruled his death suicide.

Timol, 29, was arrested in Johannesburg in October 1971 and died five days later.

Officers said at the time he took his own life -- a verdict that was endorsed by an inquest in 1972 but finally overturned by a court in October after a decades-long campaign by his family.

Rodrigues, 80, also faces a charge of perjury and was released on bail of 2,000 rand ($152, 130 euros) and was ordered to attend the Johannesburg High Court in September.

"The (High Court) can impose sentences of up to life imprisonment," said National Prosecuting Authority spokeswoman Phindi Mjonondwane.

Images showed Rodrigues in the Johannesburg Magistrates Court on Monday walking with a crutch and conferring with his legal team.

In delivering his ruling, the judge who oversaw the inquest review had called for Rodrigues, who was accused of helping cover up the murder, to be prosecuted.

The landmark case revived painful memories of apartheid police brutality and led to new calls for justice over dozens of activists who died in police detention under white-minority rule.