Afrikanerbond attempts to adapt to change
WHEN the National Party walked out of the African National Congress-dominated Government of National Unity earlier this year, the Afrikaner Broederbond - now called the Afrikanerbond - lost its last members in Cabinet.
A body that for almost half a century had direct access to the levers of Afrikaner nationalist government power, and described by the Economist in 1992 as able to “boast a large part in creating and then dismantling apartheid”, the Bond is a victim of a process of change it had helped initiate.
But to Tom de Beer, last chair of the old, secretive Broederbond and first chair of the new, “open” Afrikanerbond, the less cosy relationship with government has its advantages. “In the past, we would have phoned a friend in Pretoria or Cape Town.
Now we have to re-evaluate how we work.
Actually, it has been pleasantly liberating.”
De Beer agrees it has not been easy for the membership. When he was first appointed to the Bond’s executive in 1991, the organisation counted about 16 000 members. “My guess [at the time] was that if we changed, we’d probably lose about 40%, and if we did not change, we’d also lose about 40%.”
Indeed, today organisational strength is down to 11 000 or 12 000 members.
And the soul-searching is not over yet. This weekend, the Bond is holding its biennial bondsraad (congress) in Bloemfontein. The main item on the agenda is the way ahead in a democratic South Africa. Says De Beer, former financial director of mining giant Gencor and the man who ushered in a new name and a new non-racial, non-sexist constitution for the Bond in 1994, a year after he became chair: “Some people are still pining for the old days, and for the secrecy. Any great transformation anywhere in the world goes hand in hand with uncertainties.”
As much as he revels in the liberation the new non-party political stance has brought the Bond, De Beer remains a defender of its past. When broeders caucused an agenda in secret, then sold it to wider society through dominees, school principals, academics and members of government, it smacked little of the conspiratorial style that detractors always accused it of, if De Beer is to be believed. “It was an approach thatcould be used effectively only if your cause was right, as we were never in the majority.”
He traces the Broederbond’s first progressive stirrings back to the 1970s, when it “asked critical questions” over constitutional rights for coloureds, advising the government that “it will not work to hold power in white hands alone”. And the “opinion forming input” of the Bond, he says, played a significant role in facilitating the reforms of the 1990s.
Now the Bond, once a brotherhood comparable to the Freemasons in ritual and exclusivity, has allowed its first women and black members.
The claim is that the secrecy is gone. Admittedly, much more of what the organisation does, it does in its own name - like talking to the SABC about language policy, or making proposals on the Constitution, education or community care.
But members still have the protection of the organisation if they choose to remain anonymous - De Beer cannot say how many of the National Party’s last remaining Cabinet members earlier this year were broeders. What he does say, is that it is “not an unfair assumption” that that is where the Bond lost its representation in the highest level of government. (FW de Klerk is or was one high-profile member, like most senior party colleagues at the height of Afrikaner rule.)
Not that the Bond has been inactive in cultivating friends among the new governing class. Shortly before Nelson Mandela became president, De Beer led an Afrikanerbond delegation to meet him in Shell House, where he was shown the Bond’s new constitution. Mandela told them while “he found the old Broederbond reasonably sinister, there was a basis for co-operation based on the new constitution”, says De Beer.
More contact with ANC government leaders has followed. Mpumalanga premier Matthews Phosa shared a platform with De Beer at a provincial bondsraad meeting last year, Jay Naidoo addressed an Afrikanerbond conference on the RDP, and this year ANC deputy secretary-general Cheryl Carolus addressed a Bond conference in Stellenbosch.
“This is the government of the day,” says De Beer.