It began on the bleak, littered streets of this township on the eastern edge of Johannesburg the same way it has begun in dozens of other black communities -- with the children.

Some of them walked out of H.B. Nyathi High School one day last August, angered over regulations setting new age limits on student enrollment, over corporal punishment and, ultimately, over the relentless inferiority of the racially segregated education they receive.

They marched and they chanted and they defied the police, who ordered them to return to classes. But the boycott grew to include three other schools, and inevitably there was a confrontation with police.

It came as the orange sun was setting on the late afternoon of Aug. 30. When it was over, high school classrooms had been set ablaze, vehicles had been stoned and police had shot four persons to death: two men, 22 and 19; a 14-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl who was killed while she played in her grandmother's yard. Another child, 6, died that same day in a neighboring township.

The deaths did not end the boycott, which by then had grown to include such other local issues as rent increases and the presence of soldiers in the township. It had also grown a new base of support among parents and civic action groups that joined the students in the streets.

By then, this was a township at war. More youths were killed by police, two of them in an abortive attack on the mayor's house. Five members of a family were killed in a gasoline-bomb attack, allegedly because they refused to honor a two-day strike and boycott. The houses of four local policemen were burned and looted, as were half a dozen shops.

And so last month Daveyton joined the list of 36 cities and towns designated in the government's sweeping decree of emergency powers. More than a dozen persons have been rounded up. Each day helmeted white soldiers warily patrol the streets in armored vehicles, a constant reminder to residents that they are living under siege.

While each of the 36 designated areas has its own chronicle of unrest, its own grievances and its own young martyrs, the story of Daveyton under siege could apply to many of them. A pattern has emerged that helps explain why the violence has lasted so long in this white-ruled country and why, as police quell disturbances in one region, they break out in another.

The grievances are usually local -- dissatisfaction with schools or anger over rent or utility price increases -- and the instigators are usually young people, restless and dissatisfied with their education and with the dead-end prospects that await them when school days are over.

Their anger takes them to the streets, where it is often compounded by the response of an undertrained police force that critics contend opens fire when other tactics might have calmed the situation.

Something similar happened nine years ago when Soweto, South Africa's largest black urban center, exploded in student violence that shook this country for several months. But the state's police power seized that children's crusade in a firm grip and suffocated it.

This time the situation is different, many analysts contend, in large part because the children are not alone. In Daveyton and elsewhere, they have support from a relatively new web of local black organizations that did not exist in 1976 and that often are led by people of the Soweto generation who intuitively sympathize with their young successors.

"Soweto in 1976 was blind, unorganized, student fury," said Diliza Matshoba, a field organizer for the South African Council of Churches who was a student leader back then. "Now there is a much wider base of community support."

The result, most experts agree, is not a revolution nor even what might be called a "prerevolutionary" situation. Despite continuous smuggling efforts by the outlawed African National Congress resistance movement, the state still holds almost all the guns in a contest against an opponent armed only with rocks and an occasional gasoline bomb or grenade.

But a year of constant unrest, much of it aimed at blacks accused of collaborating with the system, has done permanent damage to the government's long-term strategy of nurturing and enlisting as junior partner an urban black middle class while still maintaining the essentials of white domination. It has left white officials with a stark choice: revert to the tough tactics of the past or seek a different and possibly more equitable political arrangement with the black majority.

The four-week-old emergency clearly is an attempt to be tough. Police officials say their goal is to identify and isolate those they believe are instigating township unrest. They say they are succeeding.

"Maybe one percent or less are the real radicals," said a senior police official in Pretoria in a recent interview. "They have the support of follow-ons -- hooligans who are taking advantage of the situation and kids who are bored and looking for excitement.

"Our estimate is at most 10 percent of the population is actively involved -- a small, violent group that has been holding the entire community for ransom. The other 90 percent are law-abiding people who realize the need for stability. Once the situation is normalized, they will not allow this to happen again."

Daveyton's energetic black mayor, Tom Boya, accepts much of that analysis and blames his town's troubles in large part on outside agitators. But many residents see it differently. Ultimately they hold the government responsible for their desperate poverty and for the unrest they say it has triggered.

When it was started in the mid-1950s, Daveyton was supposed to be a model township, and a sign near its entrance still promises a "Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow."

But the years have betrayed that promise. Unemployment is so high that Boya says he has no reliable way to count it. Nearly 100,000 residents are crammed into 12,000 matchbox houses, many of whose postage-stamp front yards have been taken over by tin or plywood shacks.

In the darkened living room of one of them last week sat three young men, all of them local leaders of COSAS -- the Congress of South African Students -- and all of them in hiding from police since the emergency began.

COSAS, founded in 1979, is one of the many national organizations that sprang up to replace those banned by the state following the Soweto uprising, and police contend it has been one of the main elements behind the unrest. Human rights advocates who have monitored arrests under the emergency say several hundred of the nearly 2,000 detained have been COSAS members.

The three young men -- 18, 19 and 21 -- do not deny their role in the violence.

"There are many young ones running in the streets who look up to us for leadership," said the 21-year-old, who identified himself by the nickname Sello.

He justified the burning of the four policemen's houses earlier this year as retaliation for the deaths of students.

"The blacks oppress us more than the whites," he said. "They shoot even before the whites when they see us."

The students say they look up to the outlawed African National Congress, the exiled resistance movement, but they say they have no contact with congress agents inside South Africa. They admire imprisoned black nationalist Nelson Mandela, the congress' patron saint, but the man outside jail whom they say they most respect -- even though they disagree with his advocacy of nonviolence -- is Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu.

The three say they are not eager to die. When police opened fire on a crowd returning from a funeral a few days after the emergency took effect, they ran away.

"How could we fight?" asked Sipho, 19. "We don't have guns. We know we can't win on the streets."

Guns are among the things they hope Mandela's African National Congress will someday supply them. In the meantime, the students say they are looking to their parents and other adults to help organize economic boycotts against the white business community in order to force an end to the emergency and allow them to return home.

One of the men they look to is Steve Mochechane, 31, a local minister with the International Assembly of God and a member of the Soweto generation who strongly sympathizes with the students. He says he has presided over the funerals of at least nine young people killed by police during the past year.

Mochechane says the police analysis of the situation in townships like Daveyton ignores the deep anger of a majority of residents.

"You can't talk in terms of people being law-abiding here," he says. "We simply aren't happy. So all the few activists are doing is mobilizing the rest of us to stand up."

The minister worries that Daveyton's young are so alienated they are inevitably turning to Marxism.

"To many of them the Soviet Union becomes the only possible alternative," he said. "All other avenues have been closed to them, and Marxism becomes a passage out of this oppression. So when the government says the unrest is communist-inspired, all we say is, 'What else do you expect?' "

Mochechane concedes that the activists have used intimidation to unite the community behind them. On a recent tour of the township, he took a journalist past the charred ruins of a black policeman's house, burned two months ago by a mob.

The policeman is also an Apostolic minister -- "He's a good man," Mochechane says -- and some local church groups tried to organize a meeting of Christian leaders to express their sympathy. Many, including Mochechane, did not attend.

"I'm involved in trying to cool down the situation, and if I help that man, I'm immediately identified as collaborating with the government," he said. Referring to the murder of an alleged police informer in nearby Duduza township last month, he added, "What happened to that girl in Duduza could happen to me."

Still, he says of the young activists, "You mustn't think we support them out of fear. We are not saying our children are always right. But we identify with their basic demands and we understand their anger because we are angry, too."

At 34, Mayor Boya is a member of Mochechane's generation, but he has followed a much different path. He says he believes it is possible to negotiate a reasonable future with the white government. He also had dialogues with student leaders, he said, until one day his house was stoned, and he noticed that some of those he had been talking to were part of the crowd.

Boya says the emergency has succeeded in reducing the level of unrest here. Many children have returned to school and incidents of violence are more scattered and less intense, he said.

But Mochechane insists the lull is only temporary.

"Things will continue to be cool as long as the government's machine gun is up and ready," he said. "The minute it is down, they will be hot again."

The emergency decree took effect July 21, and three days later the young people of Daveyton gathered to bury their latest martyr. After the funeral they headed home in a large throng until they came upon an armored police vehicle blocking the main road.

As always in South Africa, there are two widely discrepant versions of what happened next. Police say that the crowd of 4,000 began stoning the vehicle and that police and soldiers opened fire with shotguns and automatic rifles in self-defense.

Four independently interviewed witnesses who were members of the crowd say that no rocks were thrown but that the police, apparently panicked by the size of the throng, gave it only five seconds to disperse before opening fire.

Four persons died that afternoon: Elizabeth Khumalo, 16; Julia Makhubo, 17; Agnes Mbokane, 18, and an unidentified youth, 16 to 18, whose body still lies unclaimed in the local morgue. At least 17 others were injured. Bishop Tutu came to Daveyton two weeks ago to help Mochechane preside over the funerals. Hundreds of heavily armed police and soldiers were there as well, making Daveyton look like a war zone. The two preachers managed to avoid yet another confrontation by persuading Mayor Boya to provide township buses to take the mourners to the cemetery.

Before the buses arrived, the bishop looked at the swelling mob of young people determined to defy the new government ban on political funerals and made a confession.

"These children actually scare me," Tutu said. "They have a recklessness that is quite incredible. Most of them believe they will die. It's not that they have a death wish, but they believe that's how they will get their freedom. They are willing to die."