JOHANNESBURG, JUNE 23 -- Controversy has arisen over eight "exit strategies" proposed by a leading South African reform foundation for U.S. companies considering divesting their holdings here.

The Urban Foundation, which has led the private sector's efforts to upgrade black housing and which spearheaded the fight against pass laws and other apartheid measures, has been accused of encouraging the disinvestment bandwagon in order to fatten its own endowment.

The respected financial daily newspaper, Business Day, disclosed today that the foundation earlier this month circulated a letter to U.S. firms showing them how they could gain substantial U.S. tax benefits by transferring their assets in South Africa to the foundation.

The strategies proposed included transfer of assets to the foundation's tax-exempt U.S. branch or to an intermediary offshore trust so that the donations could be deducted from a company's gross taxable income.

The donations also would circumvent the economic sanctions bill adopted by Congress over President Reagan's veto last year, which bans new investment in South Africa.

The offer, prepared with the help of the Washington law firm of Gammon and Grange, has been criticized as an attempt to exploit the disinvestment campaign. In an editorial page commentary, Business Day accused Urban Foundation President Jan Steyn of "offering American companies a painless way of jumping overboard and in a manner he asserts will benefit all South Africans."

The foundation said in its controversial letter that it is not encouraging disinvestment but is only "exploring productive strategies, given the realities."

Steyn today said the foundation's offer was made in the interest of continuing social responsibility programs established by the U.S. firms and encouraging American companies that, despite divestment, want to "remain involved with social change."

Steyn added, "The foundation has consistently encouraged foreign corporations to remain in South Africa. By staying as good corporate citizens, they can continue to contribute to the promotion of policies and programs that encourage change and promote the development of disadvantaged communities," Steyn said.

He said the foundation is "not in the business of acquiring commercial ventures" and that the U.S. firms approached already had indicated they planned to get out of South Africa.