The South African government has taken another step in its incremental reform program, allowing blacks to own land in their segregated townships. Until now they have only been able to lease.

The reform was announced against a backdrop of renewed controversy over the role of the police in the townships. Just one day after they were widely praised for showing restraint at Tuesday's mass funeral in Mamelodi, the police last night fired tear gas into the grounds of a church, dispersed groups with whips and ripped candles out of the hands of people holding candlelight vigils for detainees in Cape Town.

The land concession, which was announced yesterday and clarified today, is the latest in a series of reforms to the laws governing black residential rights that the government of President Pieter W. Botha has made during the past seven years.

Initially, blacks were regarded as "temporary sojourners" in the 87 percent of South Africa reserved for whites. Their real homes were supposed to be in the 10 small tribal "homelands" that together make up the other 13 percent of the country's land area.

While they were working in the cities, these "temporary" inhabitants were not allowed to own property and lived in houses rented from the state.

One of the major reforms made by the Botha government has been to recognize that some urban blacks are now "permanent."

In line with this shift, it introduced a concession in 1978 allowing those blacks -- about one-sixth of the 28 million total -- who qualify for permanent residence under the stringent influx-control laws to own houses in the segregated townships, but they still could not own the land on which the houses were built. They were only allowed 99-year leasehold title to the land.

Two years ago this was extended to perpetual leasehold. Now Constitutional Affairs Minister Chris Heunis has announced that legislation will be introduced in Parliament early next year permitting freehold title.

When he made the announcement yesterday, it seemed that the concession would apply only to the specially qualified blacks who now have the leasehold rights. But today Heunis issued a clarifying statement saying any black citizen will be able to buy township land.

Business organizations that have long campaigned for the freehold concession welcomed the announcement, and some commentators were encouraged by the apparent implication that the influx-control system would have to be changed.

But civil rights specialists said the concession would be of benefit to only a handful of wealthy blacks. Sheena Duncan, president of the Black Sash organization, described it as more theoretical than real because of other apartheid laws that limit where blacks may live.

According to the main domestic news agency, the South African Press Association, police dispersed groups of people holding candlelight vigils for political detainees last night in half a dozen mixed-race townships outside Cape Town.

Witnesses said the police fired tear gas at the groups, ripped candles out of people's hands and lashed some with horsewhips.

A reporter who was there said a candle was smashed into the face of an elderly woman, injuring her and setting fire to her blouse.

A group of about 700 persons in Bellville South township fled into a church where the Rev. Allan Boesak, a leading antiapartheid activist, was conducting a prayer service for the detainees.

Reporters said that when the crowd later came out of the church singing "We Shall Overcome," police fired tear gas at them. Many ran screaming back into the church.

Later an angry Boesak accused the police of "behaving like pigs," saying they had "no respect for the church and no respect for God."

During the service, Boesak called on the congregation not to celebrate Christmas this year, saying the continuing racial violence in the country meant it was "not a time for spending sprees and spending parties."

Instead, said Boesak, Christmas should be observed "in a spirit of mourning, mindful of the sadness and tragedy which has this country in its grip."

A police spokesman confirmed today that a crowd had been dispersed with tear gas outside Boesak's chuch, saying the police fired it when the crowd shouted at them and gave black-power salutes, the news agency reported.