Not very long ago, Roelof F. "Pik" Botha was apartheid's most visible apostle, the gravel-throated foreign minister who defended South Africa's oppressive white minority rule. His ruling National Party banned the African National Congress and jailed the protest movement's leader, Nelson Mandela.

Now Botha has applied for ANC membership, although he would not play an active political role, and has strongly encouraged other white South Africans to join the party that now governs the country. And it is perhaps a testament to just how far this nation has come in the decade since Mandela's release from prison that Botha's overtures are widely regarded here as more pragmatic than bold. Seven months after this nation's second all-races election, the ANC's dominance has emerged as the political fixture of the reconstituted South Africa.

"I think I can associate myself with [the ANC's] fundamental principles," Botha told reporters last week. "All of us changed."

Botha's reeducation culminates a string of conversions, concessions and collapses by the ANC's political adversaries since the governing party won 266 of Parliament's 400 seats last June and Mandela retired from the presidency. No other party could muster more than 38 seats, but ANC critics hoped a legitimate opposition party would surface, if only to keep the ANC from exercising unchecked power.

It hasn't happened. And as the ANC's rivals have floundered, the democratic government has become more firmly entrenched.

The United Democratic Movement (UDM) was perhaps the best positioned of all the parties vying against the ANC, many political analysts here said last year. The UDM was created two years ago by Bantu Holomisa, an ANC lieutenant who defected after a public rift within the party, and Roelf Meyer, a moderate white politician who as an apartheid-era cabinet member helped negotiate a multiracial democracy with the ANC. It was regarded as the only party capable of drawing black and white voters.

But Meyer, one of only a few prominent National Party figures to express regret over apartheid, abruptly resigned from politics last week to form a Christian-based lobbying organization.

"The UDM was virtually invisible as an opposition party, and I think Meyer felt that frustration of not gaining any ground," said Tom Lodge, a political science professor at the University of the Witwatersrand here. "Meyer and Holomisa are heavyweights, and I'm afraid that if they couldn't pull it off, none of the other [parties] will fare any better. Clearly, they are on a roll."

The ANC has by no means pleased everyone since the white minority government bequeathed to it a country of 31 million blacks who were poor, poorly educated and in poor health. Crime has soared along with the jobless rate. Adequate housing is scarce, and the number of South Africans infected with AIDS is roughly 1 in 8 and climbing.

Still, Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, and his cabinet have managed to navigate a course that has not radically alienated either poor blacks or privileged whites. The government is only slightly behind schedule in its promise to build decent housing for the poor. And the ANC's free-market reforms, and increasingly tough stances on handling labor unions and crime, have impressed many conservative whites concerned about the liberal and socialist ideologies the group cultivated when it was an underground freedom movement.

"Like all good ruling parties," said Lodge, "the ANC has pinched their opposition's best ideas. They've stolen all their thunder." Said Botha in a letter to the Sunday Independent newspaper: "The style and rhetoric of our opposition party have had no effect on job creation, crime prevention, AIDS reduction, curtailing corruption and improving health services and education. Why do we not try a new beginning?"

Since apartheid ended in 1994, the National Party has collapsed. And the formerly conservative political faction that created apartheid is trying to reposition itself as an alternative to the ANC, hoping to attract black voters with a drastically retooled message centered on the redistribution of wealth.

Those efforts have not worked so far. The renamed New National Party received only about 6.8 percent of the vote last year, mainly splitting the white vote with the mostly white Democratic Party, which has taken the most antagonistic stance toward the ANC.

"The National Party is gone," said Meyer, who resigned from the party in 1997. "Its history is just too heavy."

Unlike its African neighbors, which have overthrown repressive white settler governments only to fashion autocratic regimes in their place, South Africa and its governing party appear firmly committed to democracy. The new constitution resembles that of the United States and is one of the most liberal in the world. Mbeki repeatedly has lauded his counterparts, such as Zambia's President Frederick Chiluba, who has promised to uphold the constitution and step down in 2001 after his second term ends.

"We welcome [Botha]," ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama said. "By accepting into our fold someone who was part and parcel of that system that once oppressed us, we believe that demonstrates that the ANC's policies are pushing this nation forward."