Johannesburg — One of South Africa's most controversial political documents - the so-called Freedom Charter - is about to emerge from the shadows. In the light of day of a clearer legal status, the Freedom Charter will offer a sharp contrast between the direction this country's white rulers are heading and the one envisioned by a large number of blacks and a smattering of white allies.
The Freedom Charter has come to represent the most clearly articulated blueprint for a ''nonracial'' South Africa.
The nation's white-minority government traditionally has viewed the Charter as a subversive manifesto, suggesting a communist-inspired plot to overthrow white rule. But now South Africa's official censorship body has considered the Freedom Charter in its entirety and found it not to be ''undesirable,'' meaning it can be possessed and distributed. Advocacy of the Charter now can be explicit.
The document's popularity among government opponents has varied since its formulation in 1955, when it was adopted by opposition groups representing South Africa's four main racial groups. Ratifying the document were the African National Congress (ANC), the liberal white Congress of Democrats, the South African Indian Congress, and the South African Colored Peoples Organization.
But over the past couple of years the Freedom Charter has revived. A number of new opposition groups support it.
The South African Publications Appeals Board ruling could aid Charterist groups like the United Democratic Front that are fighting the implementation of the government's proposed new constitution. That constitution would bring Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and Indians into the Parliament, which is now all white. But blacks would remain excluded. Critics consider the new constitution the ''ultimate'' apartheid measure.
The South African government has never officially banned the Charter. But the banning of the principal organization associated with the Charter - the African National Congress - and the prosecution of individuals for possessing certain editions of the Charter have for years clouded the Charter's legal status. To play it safe, most people simply avoided owning the document.
Now it can be embraced openly. But the Appeals Board warned that ''irresponsible use of the Freedom Charter, taken together with the concomitant circumstances, could readily lead to a conclusion that a section of the Internal Security Act has been contravened.''
The so-called Congress of the People, which ratified the Charter 29 years ago , turned out to be a watershed event in opposition politics. Charter proponents consider the document to be the only truly ''democratic'' document ever agreed upon in this nation.
The Freedom Charter, stripped of its associations, is a short, idealistic, and rather magnanimous-sounding document. Its preamble offers an olive branch to whites, saying that ''South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.''
The Charter also calls for universal franchise, equal rights, the abolition of ''apartheid laws and practices,'' and restoration of the nation's wealth ''to the people.''
The document's somewhat generous tone toward whites has helped create an schism in black politics. The so-called ''black consciousness'' movement, prominent in the late 1960s, has its roots in an early split in the ANC over the language of the Charter.
In particular, advocates of black consciousness have objected to a Charter plank assuring that ''there shall be equal status in the bodies of state, in the courts, and in schools for all national groups and races.'' Some critics object to the reference to ''national groups and races'' as a sop to white fears and a perpetuation of racialism here.
In upholding the legality of the Freedom Charter the Publications Appeal Board accepted the argument that the Charter should be judged on its merits alone. It noted that the Charter was not even adopted as official ANC position until a year after the Congress of the People.
The Appeal Board noted that while the ANC has adopted violence as a means of achieving power, the Freedom Charter makes no reference to violence.