Liberalism – liberal ideas, or self-identified liberal parties – has caused its fair share of trouble in South African politics over the years since Alan Paton’s formation of the Liberal Party in 1953. But for all the argument liberal ideas can provoke, an argument can be made that an ideology premised on individual freedom is never provocative of necessity.
In other words, there is no reason to assume that there is a logical inevitability of liberalism leading to distrust, anger or violence, particularly of the physical rather than verbal sort. By contrast, nationalism – and particularly racial nationalism – is rooted in and reinforces conflict. This is because it sets up a necessary opposition between them, and us, however those groups are defined.
With this in mind, I regard the formation and trajectory of the Afrikaner Broederbond in 1920 as a key element in recent South African history. This is thanks to the way in which it set a tone and laid the foundations of racial nationalism, leading not only to very fertile ground for National Party dominance and the normalisation of apartheid in white culture, but also in setting a precedent for the racial nationalism of today’s African National Congress.
The AB grew out of an organisation called Jong Suid Afrika (Young South Africa), formed in 1918 (O’Meara, 1977). But understanding why it was formed and had the influence it did requires looking back to the South African War of 1899 to 1902, where the Afrikaners were defeated by the British (Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2013).
The “scorched earth” policy of the British during the war devastated farmlands, particularly in rural areas. Tens of thousands of Boer women and children died in British concentration camps. On top of this privation, there was gloating – Lord Milner’s policy of Anglicisation serving to rub salt into very open wounds.
Not only did this defeat leave the Afrikaners humiliated, but it also set the stage for what was to follow: the formation of the Broederbond, the National Party and also the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism in general.
While a class divide always existed amongst Afrikaners, the war helped to accentuate it. Some Afrikaners suffered financial as well as other forms of defeat in consequence of the war – poor conditions in agriculture, and deaths due to influenza, crippled families who had already suffered internment, or death in battle. Other families, especially in the Cape, enjoyed relative prosperity (O’Meara, 1977).
Responses to this crisis amongst Afrikaners varied, but the political consequences were undeniably profound. In 1913, the split in the South African Party was one consequence, with Louis Botha having dissolved his cabinet in the face of irreconcilable differences of opinion regarding how to deal with the competing interests of the Dutch and the English.
The National Party was a product of this split. It was founded in 1914 on a platform of “two stream” development, with Hertzog insisting on the Dutch and English pursuing their interests in parallel channels, by contrast to Botha’s ‘one stream’ policy whereby the two groups would converge as one people, in union (South African History Online, 2013).
There should however be no doubt that Hertzog and Botha were of similar mind when it came to black traditions and interests. While views differed on the two white groups in question, they agreed that black South Africans should be on an entirely different stream, totally segregated from whatever might occur with regard to white interests.
Except, of course, when white interests required black labour. As agriculture recovered and expanded, white interests were placated through measures such as the Native Land Act of 1913, that assisted in the recovery of the white farmers while crippling the interests of black South Africa.
Contemporaneously to these developments, 1912 saw the formation of the Native National Congress, later renamed the African National Congress. Despite the fact that some within the ANC championed the cause of non-racialism, the existence of such a strong climate of Afrikaner (and, white) nationalism cannot help but have informed the motivations and strategy of the ANC. When moderation, open debate and equal consideration of interests seem to be off the table, why waste ones’ time pursuing those goals?
Still smarting from the humiliating defeat suffered in the war, and still trying to rebuild their families, as well as their economic structures, the Afrikaner – or at least, some proportion of Afrikaners – now had to also contend with a growing voice of black dissent.
In one hypothetically possible version of history, the fact that Afrikaners knew full well what defeat and humiliation felt like might have inclined them to listen to the concerns of black South Africans, leading the country closer to the sort of equality we now enjoy (at least in law, if not entirely in reality).
But that sort of unselfish, forward-thinking attitude proved to be impossible, at least in those years. Much of this had to do with the formation and subsequent power – even if often behind the scenes – of the Broederbond.
As Schönteich and Boshoff put it in ‘Volk’ Faith and Fatherland. The Security Threat Posed by the White Right (2003), “the Afrikaner Broederbond was born out of the deep conviction that the Afrikaner volk has been planted in this country by the Hand of God, destined to survive as a separate volk with its own calling”. If God insisted on a separate destiny, one might think, who is man to quibble?
The origins of the Broederbond are in feelings of persecution – of being threatened by enemies known and unknown, but also of being proud, stubborn, and resilient. Even though the enemy might have been the British at the time the organisation was formed, that was only tangentially the point. The point, instead, was that whatever adverse circumstances were encountered, the Afrikaner would prevail.
Prevail they did, as all South African born before the 1980’s knows full well. The Broederbond was a key part of their success, in that not only did the Broederbond launch several cultural organisations as breeding grounds and reinforcements of Afrikaner values and culture (gathered under the umbrella Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge, or Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Societies), but they also ensured linguistic and cultural – and thus, racial – “purity” in positions of influence in education, commerce and politics.
It was in the 1920’s that the Broederbond became properly organised, and began being properly influential. In 1921, they started campaigning for Afrikaans schools and the preservation of Afrikaans culture in schools, which led to a rapid surge in membership. In 1927, this (now secret) society resolved “to take an active part in the life of the community, leaving no avenue neglected” (O’Meara, 1977).
The extent to which the Broederbond reinforced cultural and racial myopia is clear from its selection and membership criteria. Only “financially sound, white, Afrikaans-speaking, Protestant males, over age 25, of ‘unimpeachable character’, who actively accepted South Africa as their sole homeland, containing a separate Afrikaner nation with its own language and culture” qualified to be members (O’Meara, 1977).
Some highly-combustible elements were therefore being thrown into one pot – a group of pious Calvinists with persecution complexes (thanks to the British and the war), armed with a sense of religious predestination (or more crucially, entitlement), were setting up a structure that ensured that no heterodox thinking would be allowed to penetrate into their structures.
Psychologists and behavioural economists speak of confirmation bias (Wason, 1960) and concepts like the “filter bubble” (Pariser, 2011). Confirmation bias refers to our predisposition to ignore evidence that counts against (or, disconfirms) existing beliefs or hypotheses, and also to over-emphasise the relevance of evidence that confirms what we already believe.
The term “filter bubble” was coined to describe the results of Internet search personalisation, whereby we tend to get search results that play into our confirmation biases – if you tend to read liberal media, Fox News will tend to not show up in your Google results.
Even though the Broederbond didn’t have Google, what they did have was a trusted community of leaders and influencers who would tell them – and you, if you wanted to succeed – exactly what you needed to believe, and usually, exactly what you wanted to hear.
Little surprise, then, that Afrikaner politics was far more concerned with internal power-struggles than with the continued alienation and disempowerment of the majority of South African residents (“citizens” being too generous a term, if we are to be accurate). This incestuous dominance of power structures would enable and buttress decades of apartheid rule, and also allowed for the arrogance that led many within the National Party (in its 1948 – 1994 guise) to never question their divine right to rule, even as the country burned at Sharpeville and elsewhere.
This messianistic, Calvinistic and conservative Afrikaner nationalism, promoted by the Afrikaner Broederbond, was tremendously successful. “Every prime minister and state president in South Africa from 1948 to the end of Apartheid in 1994 was a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond” (Boddy-Evans, 2013), and its members occupied positions of power throughout other areas of South African society also.
The legacy this leaves us is not only racial distrust and tension, as exemplified in the modern-day Broederbond-lite of a Dan Roodt or Steve Hofmeyr, but also in the fact that nationalism, and perhaps tribalism, comes naturally in South African politics. We are attuned to that discourse, which makes the discourse of liberty outside of tribe, language group or race difficult for some South Africans to hear.
Afrikaner nationalism was premised on victimhood, and a commitment to never be victims again. It is perhaps little wonder that some Afrikaners felt – and continue to feel – threatened by the African nationalism sometimes apparent in the South Africa of today, and that the rhetoric of difference continues to prove so successful in South African politics.
This is a trap from which the country needs to escape in order to leave the divisive politics of identity and race behind. Only when African nationalism can mean, simply, a nation of Africans, can we truly say that apartheid has been defeated.
- Boddy-Evans, A. 2013. Afrikaner Broederbond. [Online]. Available: http://africanhistory.about.com/od/glossarya2/a/def_AfrikanerBroederbond.htm [8 July 2013]
- Encyclopedia Brittanica. 2013. Afrikaner-Broederbond. [Online]. Available: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/8470/Afrikaner-Broederbond [8 July 2013]
- O’Meara, D. 1977. The Afrikaner Broederbond 1927-1948: Class Vanguard of Afrikaner Nationalism. Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 156-186
- Pariser, E. 2011. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Penguin Press.
- Schönteich, M; Boshoff, H. 2003.’Volk’ Faith and Fatherland. The Security Threat Posed by the White Right, Institute of Security Studies. Monograph. No 81
- South African History Online. 2013. Louis Botha. [Online]. Available: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/louis-botha [8 July 2013]
- Wason, Peter C. 1960. On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (Psychology Press) 12 (3): 129–140.