JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ The government denied Thursday that it had lifted restrictions on Winnie Mandela, but it made no effort to remove the black activist from the home that had been barred to her.

She returned to her four-room house in the black township of Soweto on Wednesday after her lawyer said the state had effectively ended her ''banning'' order by deciding not to contest an appeal she had filed against it.

Col. Leon Mellet, spokesman for Law and Order Minister Louis le Grange, said Thursday: ''The government has not lifted the restriction order.''

Mrs. Mandela has been banned for nearly all of the past 23 years, which meant she could not address public gatherings, meet with more than one person at a time or enter a long list of places that included schools and printing houses. She had been prohibited from living in Soweto for nine years.

She flouted the order repeatedly in recent months with activities that included speaking at political funerals.

Her lawyer, Ismail Ayob, said Wednesday that prosecutor Pieter Kleynhans told him the government had decided to drop the challenge of Mrs. Mandela's appeal.

Kleynhans told The Associated Press on Thursday, however, that he gave no such pledge and the case ''is definitely proceeding .. . I have not as yet been instructed to abandon the judgment or to waive anything.''

Ayob was not in his office Thursday, but his secretary said he had nothing to add to his initial statement

Mrs. Mandela, whose husband Nelson has been in prison since 1962, was told in December she no longer had to live in the Orange Free State town of Brandfort, to which she was banished in 1977, but still was barred from the two districts that cover Soweto.

She was arrested twice for going there in defiance of the ban, and in January she appealed a court ruling upholding the restriction order.

Neighbors and school children welcomed her jubilantly when she returned Wednesday, fist raised in a black-power salute, to the cottage she and her husband once occupied together.

The tone of the official comments made it appear unlikely that the government would try to enforce the residential ban before it finished reviewing the case.

Ayob said the decision not to contest the appeal stemmed from last month's decision by the Appeal Court, the highest tribunal in South Africa, that past banning orders were invalid because the government did not state specifically why they were necessary.

Two other activists then successfully challenged the orders against them and Le Grange, the law and order minister, informed three others who filed similar appeals that their bans no longer were valid.

His spokesman said Le Grange was reviewing the bans on Mrs. Mandela and two other activists, but it was not clear how long the review would take.

Mellet said it was possible the bans would be redrafted with specifics, to comply with the order. Mrs. Mandela said when she returned to Soweto on Wednesday that she felt her order might be rewritten.

Apart from the banning order, Mrs. Mandela also is under a separate restriction that makes it illegal to quote her in South Africa.

For that reason, local news accounts of the purported lifting of the ban did not include her bitter comment about the white government, in which she said: ''I am grateful to no one. It was my right to be at home.''

Jaap Marais, leader of the right-wing Reformed National Party, said the sooner Mrs. Mandela was restricted again the better: ''It is obvious, especially from her publicity in the Soviet Union, that she has communist affiliations.''

This comment for the opposite view came from Msgr. Desmond Tutu, the black Anglican bishop of Johannesburg: ''Why all these games - her harassment and being taken to court? It's so ridiculous. Now she is allowed home where she should have been in the first place.''