The children's crusade against apartheid has galvanized adult black politicians into stretching the limits of the system they have tried to work within, revived the hopes of jailed and restricted nationalist leaders and brought black clergymen forward as prominent spokesmen for and interpreters of the new movement.

Six years ago, liberal parliamentarian Helen Suzman called South Africa's demoralized black population "the great silenced majority."

Today there is a strong competition among blacks to speak out and articulate their people's aspirations, and to gain access to the resources, local and international, that will help determine who does emerge in the top black leadership role here.

The schoolyard rebellion has come at a crucial time. The first of the native reserves concerted into "homelands," Transkei, received a formal grant of independence in October and the government was obviously counting on the status and benefits conferred on Prime Minister Kaiser Matanzima to persuade the other homeland leaders to follow him in negotiating independence grants.

Most of the others appear to be falling in line with Zulu chief Gatsha Buthelezi, who has denounced Matanzima and who is emphasizing even more his already clear commitment to Black Consciousness and eventual black liberation.

"I have to start where I am," Buthelezi said of student criticis of him as a government stooge because of his role as hereditary Zulu chief and his efforts to bind the country's 4.5 million Zulu together as his powerful base. "But what we are talking about is black liberation, not Zulu liberation. We are all black, we are all oppressed."

Buthelezi appears to be playing the most difficult and dangerous game of any of the nine homeland leaders. His efforts to rebuild the Zulu into a political unit that would be able to withhold its labor to back up political bargaining revives white fears of the Zulu wars as well as student scorn.

But he appears to believe that he is positioning himself to pick up the pieces if all-out violent confrontation does occur. "We support the reconciliation of all blacks. We want the broadest possible front to fight aparttheid," he said in an interview.

He also said the U.S. government should help finance a newspaper he wants to start and responded, "Why should we tell them?" when asked if the South African government would not forbid such a move.

While in the church was once seen as part of the establishment here, a new generation of concerned young black clergymen have come to be important allies of the students. When they needed an adult to try to talk the police into stopping the shooting in Soweto, the students sought out the Rev. Manas Buthelezi, a younger cousin and political foe of chief Gatsha.

"It is only recently that the black men has drawn full implications of the fact that he too was created in the image God," Reverend Buthelezi says in explaining the Black Theology movement that has contributed to the growth of Black Consciousness. "It is a recent discovery on the part of the black man to realize that he is entitled to interpret the Bible in the light of his own experience."

"I happen to be a biblical conservative," explained the Rev. Wesley Mabuza, a Methodist minister working in townships near Cape Town. "I believe it when the Bible says tthat God wants justice done, so I get involved. The children are confronting us with the gravest moral issues of our time, and we have to respond."

Asked if he feared jail, he replied with a comment that is one measure of the new black attitute: "It seems now that everybody has to do a stint. If mine comes up, I'll do it."

The struggle by the students has also revived long-dormant cells of the outlawed African National Congress, which was responsible for blowing out a wall in a Soweto police station in November, and of the Pan-African Congress, its equally banned rival in the 1950s for political leadership here.

ANC leader Nelson Mandela is serving a life sentence in the Robben Island prison. PAc leader Robert Sobukwe, considered by South Africans and foreigners who have met him as one of the country's mosr brillant political thinkers of either race, is condemned by the government to live in the small town of Kimberley, under house arrest at night and banned from speaking for publication.

But friends to whom Sobukwe does speak freely say that he is again today quoting Frantz Fanon on the results of guerilla struggle and believes that even minor guerrilla thrusts will present the white government with insurmountable problems "because it cannot trust its own internal population."

David Thebehali, who accepted appointment as the government 's "mayor" of Soweto by heading Urban Bantu Council, is dismissed derisively as an Uncle Tom by the students, who feel they have set the new standards of leadership.

"The UBC leaders are not important," said one student. "They don't even get arrested."

But in the wake of the rebellion and its impact, Thebehali, a plump insurance agent, has formed a political alliance with Gatsha Buthelezi rather than with more conservative homeland chiefs, and begun to speak in terms that were virtually unthinking for a UBC leader at the beginning of the decade.