JOHANNESBURG, NOV. 27 -- Contrary to widespread expectations, Sir Richard Attenborough's "Cry Freedom," a film about black leader Steve Biko, has been passed by South African censors uncut and without any restrictions on its being shown here.
The film, which portrays Biko's 1977 death from brain damage after a lengthy interrogation in prison by security policemen, was widely expected to be banned by the government publications committee, which viewed it Thursday in Cape Town before issuing an approved rating today.
Besides portraying Biko's violent death in custody, the film graphically depicts some of the most wrenching episodes of South Africa's history of racial turmoil, including the shooting deaths of 69 blacks by security forces in Sharpeville in 1960.
Braam Coetzee, director of publications, said the committee was "completely aware of the speculation and everything else about the film" but approached the screening objectively.
"Everyone tried to rid themselves of any preconceived idea or attitude when they viewed the film," Coetzee said. "The decision arrived at is an indication of the committee's objectivity."
The approval reflects a gradual liberalization over the last five years of censorship of movies and books, although restrictions placed on news reporting have been severely tightened by separate government agencies.
The Publications Appeal Board in Pretoria earlier this year conditionally lifted a ban imposed by a lower-level review board on the documentary film "Witness to Apartheid," a searing indictment of police brutality and suppression of black dissent.
The documentary has not yet been screened in South Africa because of a dispute between its American coproducers over restrictions imposed by the board against its being shown to viewers under 18 and audiences larger than 200. But it can be shown legally to small multiracial adult audiences any time the distributors want to screen it.
The board also lifted bans on the works of Marx and Lenin, and is considering doing the same for the writings of Mao and Stalin.
Kobus van Rooyen, chairman of the appeals board, today declined to comment on the lower committee's approval of "Cry Freedom," noting that his panel hears only appeals. The director of publications appeals has 14 days in which to contest the lower committee's ruling.
But in a meeting with foreign correspondents earlier this year, van Rooyen said his board felt that banning was justified only in cases of "clear and present danger" to national security. He added, "A great deal of what comes before us criticizes and challenges the government but does not truly endanger security."
Under van Rooyen's chairmanship, the Publications Appeals Board has steadily broadened freedom of expression in some fields since 1980, lifting bans on a number of books, periodicals, films and plays that were previously prohibited on security grounds.
Yet an estimated 40,000 items, about half of them political and the remainder deemed to be pornographic, remain on the prohibited index. The same review panel that approved "Cry Freedom" today also banned posters and stickers issued by the South African Youth Congress to celebrate the recent 70th birthday of Oliver Tambo, president of the outlawed African National Congress.
The seemingly ambivalent policy of gradually relaxing bans on various materials has allowed the South African stage to become a major medium of political protest, and theaters regularly present plays with dialogue that normally would be viewed as "subversive" under the government's broad definition of the term.
At the same time, however, the government has tightened its restrictions against the unauthorized reporting by both South African and foreign journalists of security force actions, political violence, black dissent and even peaceful protests.
Last week it ordered Detroit Free Press photographer David C. Turnley to leave the country by the end of the month because he sent allegedly "biased" photographs overseas, and it has stepped up a campaign against so-called "alternative" newspapers in South Africa.
Home Affairs Minister Stoffel Botha recently said he was considering issuing official warnings to three newspapers with predominantly black readerships -- the Sowetan, the Catholic-run New Nation and South, a Cape Town weekly -- that they are in danger of being closed down for publishing "subversive" material that promotes the image of banned organizations such as the ANC.
Among the items cited by Botha was a Sept. 28 news report in the Sowetan in which Tambo condemned "necklacing," the grisly execution ritual in which gasoline-filled tires are placed around the necks of suspected black collaborators and ignited. The article, Botha said, "tends to legitimize a revolutionary leader of the unlawful ANC and to promote his or his organization's public image."
An article in South headlined "Gays Hit at ANC" was also criticized for "giving wide publicity" to an unlawful organization.
Meanwhile, the Weekly Mail newspaper today published in a centerfold spread photographs of imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela, whose likeness, under law, cannot be published without permission.
In a review of a new book, "The Fifties People of South Africa," the Mail quoted the book's publisher, Jim Bailey, as saying he had obtained permission to reproduce the photographs of Mandela, whose image is usually blacked out or substituted with a blank space in South African publications.
However, a spokesman for the Department of Prisons denied it had granted permission to publish photographs of the black leader, who in 1964 was given a life sentence for sabotage and treason.
The spokesman reiterated that under the Prisons Act of 1959, the publication of photographs of any prisoners is subject to the written permission of the commissioner of prisons.