BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa -- A few years ago, this gathering would have been a secret affair of the stern-faced men who kept a steady grip on the tiller of the South African ship of state.
But when about 600 members of the newly reconstituted Broederbond gathered last weekend on a university campus, their friendly faces and ill-fitting suits made them seem a well-meaning civic group -- a rural Kiwanis or Lions club -- but a bit dazed by the major changes around them.
Founded in 1918, the Broederbond (the "band of brothers") elicited pride from Afrikaners but fear from many other South Africans. It is credited with helping change the Afrikaner people from mostly illiterate farmers to a powerful political and financial force that long ruled the country.
"It used to be we could pick up the phone and get any member of the government on the other end," says Tom De Beer, the organization's president. "All of them were known to us. Now we don't even recognize their names. That's probably been the hardest thing to get used to."
De Beer is trying to steer his group through a vastly changed country. The Broederbond now has a new name -- the Afrikanerbond -- and a new open-door policy toward nonwhites, women and even the press.
This is a far cry from the organization's first 75 years, when membership was open only to Afrikaner males, descendants of the Dutch, French and German whites who began arriving in the 18th century.
Fiercely independent, they trekked inland from Cape Town and founded the agrarian-based republics of the Orange Free State -- with Bloemfontein as its capital -- and Transvaal. They eventually lost out to the power of the British empire that lusted after the country's diamonds and gold.
Resentful of their oppression by the British, they began to plot their comeback, in part through the Broederbond. And at first the issue of race was barely a factor: The British opposed slavery, while the Afrikaners practiced it, though both groups saw the indigenous people as inferiors whose job was to work for whites.
The question was which group of whites would rule -- the British or the Afrikaners. "The Broederbond was founded after the Afrikaners had lost the Boer War to the English and the Union of South Africa had been proclaimed," De Beer says.
It was organized along lines that resembled the Communist Party it hated. Broederbond membership was by invitation only, restricted to Afrikaner males over the age of 21. Their secret meetings were held at night in towns across South Africa.
Unless he were in the leadership, a person would know only the other members of his cell. Orders came down from the Broederbond leaders. Early on, they might be little more than measures to preserve the Afrikaans language; later they were about block-by-block political organizing, as the Afrikaners saw their way to power through the whites-only ballot box.
The Broederbond was closely aligned with the National Party. When it came to power in 1948, the organization's 30-year quest for Afrikaner rule was successful. But the Broederbond remained a secret power, with a behind-the-scenes role.
"Do you realize what a powerful force is gathered here between these four walls?" then-Broederbond President H. J. Klopper said at the fraternity's 50th anniversary convention in 1968. "Show me a greater power in Africa. Show me a greater power anywhere, even in your so-called civilized world." The convention was secret; Klopper's speech was smuggled out and printed years later.
"After 1948, there was a wonderful period of 20 years in the history of the country," De Beer says. "All the Afrikaners were together in one organization. There was one political party representing the Afrikaner community."
But "wonderful" is a word that few associate with the post-1948 South Africa. It was the National Party, guided by the Broederbond, that instituted apartheid, the brutal system of racial segregation and oppression that was dismantled only with the election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994.
But De Beer does not subscribe to the notion of the Afrikaner as the prime villain: "Show me any other country in the world where Anglo-Saxons settled, where there are more of the original indigenous people alive today than there were then -- other than South Africa," he says.
"The Afrikaner did not start the segregation in this country. He did not pass the laws of 1910 and 1913 that restricted native settlement and land ownership. No one talked about the economic development of the native population until the National Party took over in 1948.
"It was talked about in terms of separate development in homelands, which made sense to many of us. But once it became clear that those homelands were not economically viable, that policy should have been abandoned. Where it went wrong, we can see with the benefit of hindsight, was putting too much emphasis on race and color."
De Beer, who was tapped for Broederbond membership in the mid-1960s while a student, says the Broederbond deserved credit for helping to steer the National Party away from apartheid in the 1980s, right up to the freeing of Mandela from prison in 1990 by then-President F. W. de Klerk, who is assumed to have been a Broederbond member.
De Beer says that one of the biggest changes in the new Afrikanerbond constitution is that the group now represents the interests of all speakers of Afrikaans, the Dutch dialect that developed in South Africa. This opens membership to all races, particularly those of the so-called "colored" community, those of mixed racial heritage who form the majority of Afrikaans speakers in the country.
"We have many members of color," De Beer says. "We can't say how many because we have no provision on our application form for race." It appeared that all members attending the convention held at the University of the Free State were white.
In the 1970s and 1980s some Afrikaners sought to ease the rules of apartheid, while others formed even harder-line political groups. The change to "Afrikanerbond" from "Broederbond" is apparently the last round in those fights.
"We did a survey and determined that if we changed we would lose 40 percent of our membership," says De Beer. "And we would lose another 40 percent if we didn't change."
The changes in the organization's name and mission, and the RTC end to its secrecy, were made in 1993 and 1994. Membership dipped to about 10,000; it has now risen to 14,000.
"Now we are just one of the minority groups in South Africa," De Beer says. "We need to organize in order to have our interests heard. We encourage our members to speak up in their local communities on issues that concern them.
"While we like what President Mandela says about including the Afrikaner in the new South Africa, we find that those under him don't always carry out his wishes."
But old habits die hard.
"We want our members to be open about their membership," says Cobus Rossouw, the group's public relations director. "But some of them want to stay secret. They are afraid they might lose their jobs if they come out."
Pub Date: 10/02/96