Black power stalks across Soweto on young, vengeful legs as the sun begins to climb above the gold-veined reef of ore that crests between Johannesburg and this segregated housing compound.

Thando Tiro pauses briefly at a pile of rubble that was an administration center for the white government before high-school students smashed it seven months ago. The diminutive black youth lifts two bricks from the jumbled heap and methodically pouns them to pieces.

"It just makes you feel good, that's all," he explains later. "They have taken so much away from us that to hit anything that is theirs is good. We are not their slaves any more."

Black Power, South African-style, is still a tentative, angry and young experience. So far it has proved to be no match for the guns and economic pressures the white power structure uses in an effort to destroy it. In politics here, black is still more dangerous than beautiful.

But it is no longer passive, as it had been for the past 16 years. A spontaneous student rebellion about school conditions has sparked a wider psychological revolt within the black majority against the labels and status of inferiority pinned to blacks for more than a century.

An educated new generation, with aid from some of its elders, is redefining "blackness" and its position in this segregated society. Racial pride and consciousness are being forged out of the white ideology that was in tended to destroy them, and out of the sudden coming to power of black governments on South Africa's borders.

Student activists interviewed here and in Cape Town admit that they have lost the first round to the white police who have killed, arrested, beaten and forced into exile thousands of young blacks over the past seven months.

But these activists - who seem moderate in their views now but who are becoming increasingly radicalized, anti-white and anti-Western as the conflict sharpens - assert that they will continue the struggle, which, they say, eventually means armed coflict with whites who refuse to grant blacks real equality.

At the beginning of the decade, such talk would have been dismissed as hopeless, irrational bravado. Even today, the odds agaisnt a black populaions that is barred from obtaining arms still seem enormous.

In addition to the white power structure, they confront the weaknesses and divisions in their own community. Each morning, as Thando Tiro pounds bricks, 250,000 black workers crowd into 11-car red trains that shuttle between here and Johannesburg, to go to their jobs in white-owned stores, to pick white-owned newspapers that report to blacks about themselves and to be hustled into court and jailed if they do not promptly display a white-issuede "passbook" if a white policeman asks them for it.

Until June, South Africa's 18 million blacks appeared to be a divided demorelized majority prepared, according to cynics, to let the United Nations worry about their freedoms while they worried about getting a new radio.

Their political organizations wiped out in the repression that followed the shootings at Sharpeville in 1960, their communities riddled with police informers and their leaders in jail, in exile or banned from public statements and gatherings, the black community appeared at the beginning of the decade to be sunk into an acquiescing silence that one liberal called "the peace of a cemetery."

The student impulse - and in the beginning it appears to have been little more than that - to reble against white power by marching into police bullets was quickly transformed into a campaign agaisnt the older generation's meek acceptance of domination by 4.3 million whites.

As the white administration withdrew from Soweto and other black and mixed-raced townships around the country to escape black rage, the students took effective control of the towns away from government-sanctioned black teachers, city councilmen and functionaries. The establishment networks of information between school, reaching out into the countryside, and in recent weeks with exile African politicl groups banned here after Sharpeville.

They are actively struggling with the white government for the allegiance of their elders by preaching a still-developing political philosophy of Black Consciousness, a racial pride and renunciation of white control.

They have succedded in shaming and persuading a small but influential segment of the older generation into action.

"Our parents always said out only choice was suicide or their kind of surrender," said Thando Tiro - a pseudonym for a student who is one of the original 100 members of the Soweto student representatives' council and who is hiding from the police. "But we will fimd something else.

"I am more educated than my father," Thando said. "He looks me to explain things for him. He is learning that letting the white man define you as a 'nonwhite' makes you a servant. We will not paint ourselves to please the white man."

The students - a term that includes many 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds and older persons in a country where poverty and crowded schools make late graduation form high school common - have shown rare courage and unity in the intermittent but bloody confrontations of the past seven months.

Of the first 1,200 persons arrested, killed or hospitalized in the first week of rioting, 44 percent were below 16 years of age, and another 50 per cent were between 17 and 23. There are 170,000 schoolchildren in Soweto, which has a total population of 1 million - 52 per cent under the age of 25.

The confrontations have forced blacks to step forward to bury their dead, care for families, seek lawyers for riot cases and make public statements that call for urgent changes to prevent yet more bloodshed - statements that often land these older blacks in jaik and reinforce their militnat feelings.

The disturbances and harsh police reaction are spurring, in short, a new multiplicity of black institutions and community leaders outside government control that had begun to occur at the turn of the decade as a new political generation came of age.

The students and their allies have borrowed some of the terminology and the clenched fist of the 1960s. But the two experiences differ sharply.

Little of the student's inspriation comes from abroad. Their movement is grimly rooted in the limitations put on their future by the system of segregation known as apartheid.

Apartheid was theoretically designed to water down black nationalism. Political activity was to be channeled into native, or bantu, reserves, and the blacks who remained in urban areas were to be educated to serve the "white" economy. The few mixed-facilities and schools that existed when the National Party began to put apartheid into effect in 1948 were abolished.

"These students are the pure product of the apartheid," said T.W. Kambule, principal of Soweto's Orlando High School and one of the new black educators the students trust. "They have had no contact with whites, except the policemen who have been shooting at them."

Black Consciousness in South Africa "grew from inside apartheid," adds the Rev. Manas Buthelezi, a priest who has been close to the young founders of the Black Consciousness movement, virtually all of whom are in jail or banned from speaking to reporters on the threat of jail.

The development of a racial counter-idelogy to apartheid among young blacks is a serious and perhaps fatal blow to the fading ideal of a multiracial society in which blacks and whites share power and work together to end segregation.

"Kids don't go around saying, 'I'm going to be authentically black now,'" said poet Adam Small, whose work was an ealry influence on Black Consciousness. "They are racting to oppression. They say, 'To hell with these whites.' And in this they are articulating frustraions their parents have been too frightened to voive."

The students themselves speak with a deep bitterness that undercuts government assertions that the disturbances do not reflect deeply felt grievances.

"We will not let the white kill us one by one any more, like our parents did," said G.T., a 17-year-old schoolgirl in a black township outside Cape Town. Your parents failed, but we will succeed. The whites will have to kill all of us together, and they will die too if they do that."

Wearing a black beret and a leather jacket, G.T. forcefully took charge of a discussion with six other student activists, who asked that their names not be used. She was the only female in the group.

The students spoke articualtely, but in an often-halting English, Efforts to force them to also learn the language of the other white group, Afrikaans, provoked the original June demonstrations.

"June 16 was not planned, and it had no leader," Thando said of the first day of demostrations in Soweto., "That is why the police could not break it, likely they did the movement in the early '60s, when they just arrested the heads and everything collapsed.

The student council stepped into a vacuum as the demonstrations continued. They issued orders to shut down the schools, closed speakeasies and bars and chased informers out of town. They mounted two successful brief work boycotts that shook the white economy, before they failed to enforce an appeal for a longer stop-page that would have brought their parents to the edge of economic ruin just before the Christmas holidays.

Moreover, they have launched the young blacks who have remained in Soweto despite the massive arrest campaign of the police in October and November on a mission of "conscientizing" their parents and other older blacks, especially immigrant workers who attacked students and others in August during the work stoppage.

"Apatheid is meant to keep the white masters and us servants, especially psychologically," Thando said, "by keeping us convinced we are inferior. But we know how to conscientize each other and our parents now. Black power here is not saying: 'Let us come together and insist on separation,' as it was in America. Here, this is our land and we will get it back. We are 80 per cent of the population and not 10 per cent."

The government quickly jailed our restricted most of the Black Consciousness movement's leaders. Nine of them were given prison terms ranging from five to 10 years in December after a 15-month trial that "is the most important political trial ever held in South Africa," according to defense lawyer Shun Chetty.

"It did not deal with sabotage or guns. It dealt only with the struggle for the imagaination and minds of the black man that is being waged in his country."

Workers and the business elite emerging under apartheid's homelands scheme were not caught up by the intellectuals' concept of Black Consciousness. But in a strange twist of history, the high-school students' spontaneous protest has now spread Black Consciousness widely in the Black community.

"Their parents couldn't say to the white, 'We don't want our job. They would starve. But the students can say 'We don't want your Bantu education,'" said a liberal white educator. "And the police did not have 14-or 15-year-old informers on the payroll, so they didn't know what was going on. They counted on the teachers, but the students quickly neutralized them and chased them away from meetings."

The students began with several advantages in their spontaneous rebellion. The police have now whittled away many of these, leaving the students confronting the same kind of problems their parents have long known, and looking for a new strategy.

The arrest campaign netted at least 4,250 persons, the majority of them believed to be under 18. The majority of the members of the Soweto student representative council have either fled the country or been jailed.

At least 400 students escaped to Botswana and Swaziland, bordering black-ruled countries. They, many of them have been contacted by the out-lawed African National Congress, which receives support from the Soviet Union, and the Pan-African Congress, another black political group, about undergoing guerrilla training.

Frequently citing the rise to power of guerrilla movements in Angola and Mozambique and the Rhodesian white-settler regime's willingness to negotitate with blacks, after a guerrilla war was launched there, the student leaders who remain behind have come to the conclusion that armed struggled is the only way for them to break apartheid.

But the form of nationalist feeling here - Black Consciousness, in reaction to a white-controlled system, rather than tribal or national identification - clearly sets South Africa apart from the rest of the continent. Many of the angry young black students recognize that they confront here a deeply entrenched radical white community that feels that it has no European motherland to flee to rather than a small, conservative colonial elite.

"We are not saying we want to drive the whites to the sea," a Soweto student said. "We want them to fight injustice with us. But white people will have to pay for what they have done to the children," she said, her voice rising in anger. "The people who killed the children will have to pay."

Their movements has already produced some changes. The government has been forced to alter its education plan. At another level, whites are increasingly dropping the word "Bantu", the hated government term for Africans, from their vocabularies and speaking of the majority as "blacks." The myth that economic advances and "homelands" would substitute totally for political freedoms has been again punctured by their movement.

But the outcome of their struggle is highly, uncertain, as the police continue to suppress even discussion of black aspirations here.

Within 48 hours of one of the group discussions mentioned earlier, its organizer was in jail and the students had disappeared, either in flight or under arrest themselves.

NEXT: White Fear