Capetown — White South Africa suddenly has found 16 black heroes. They are the exuberant West Indian cricket players who defied an international sports ban against South Africa to play a series of matches here.
The cricketers are receiving big fees to risk playing in South Africa. Detractors have called them ''traitors'' to an international sports movement that protests this country's apartheid policy. But the visit is demonstrating that South Africa has begun to change its previously strict ban on social and political mixing among races.
In sports, racially mixed games - once banned - are now almost commonplace, at least at the senior level. Black athletes are excelling in boxing and long-distance running here.
But the international sports boycott has continued as a form of political pressure on this country's government.
South African athletes are barred from the Olympics, and all major cricket-playing countries refuse to send official teams to play here, even though South Africans are among the best cricketers in the world.
South Africans have tried to get around the protest by arranging ''pirate'' tours of top foreign sportsmen. Their means of enticing players to come to South Africa: cash. But these players sometimes wind up paying a price, too. A British cricket team and a group of Sri Lankans visited recently, and their own sporting organizations then banned them from international play. The British players were banned for three years, the Sri Lankans for 25.
The West Indian tour is considered South Africa's biggest sports coup of the lot. The players are as strong a team as any in the world. The sums paid to the players have not been disclosed, but estimates are they are getting about $100, 000 each. Several players said they were offered far more than they could afford to turn down.
Local cricket administrators hope the tour will mark the beginning of the end of the boycott that has blocked its sportsmen from world play. They appear to believe sincerely that apartheid in sports has been broken down enough so that they deserve another chance.
Some say privately that the spectacle of South Africans falling over themselves to buy international competition - especially of black players - serves to emphasize how discredited and embarrassing apartheid is becoming at home as well as abroad.
It is ironic, they say, that it has taken more than 30 years of apartheid and sports boycott to bring about exactly the reverse of what was orginally intended: a match between South Africa and a black team, in this case West Indian.
Even when South Africa played cricket regularly on the international circuit, it never played the top black cricketers or top players from other races. It did not play, for example, teams from India, Pakistan, or the West Indies.
Now the South Africans are paying big fees to black players in order to play with them, and are grateful for opportunities to do so. South African sports fans view this as a measure of change.
At one time sports officials would ban British cricket matches because a team included one player of mixed race, or a rugby game because a team included some Maoris. Once it banned a champion jockey from riding because he was Japanese.
However, as much as South African sports administrators like to boast of their newly ''enlightened'' approach to multiracial sport, it appears unlikely that blacks will be included on its own national team that meets the West Indian players. Officials say this is because there are as yet no blacks who play well enough to qualify for international cricket at this high level.
But a black man played on a Cape provincial team that met the West Indians for the first match of their visit. The West Indians won - to the delight of local blacks who were rooting for them. The usually partisan whites also cheered , apparently thrilled that the West Indian athletes came to play.