The secret organisation at the heart of apartheid

The investigation into the Afrikaner Broederbond, the elite secret organisation that infiltrated the South African government and society at the highest levels, was one of the longest running in the history of South African journalism. It spanned three decades – and three journalism generations – with a majority of the reporting done by four reporters working at different times for the Sunday Times.
Between them they exposed a shocking story of state capture that was deeply rooted in South African politics and the ruling National Party. The organisation’s all-male members included the elite of Afrikanerdom, who profited through their membership with position, power and, in some cases, access to government contracts and tenders.
‘The South African Government today is the Broederbond and the Broederbond is the Government,’ wrote journalists Hans Strydom and Ivor Wilkins in their 1978 book The Super Afrikaners. ‘No Afrikaner government can rule South Africa without the support of the Broederbond. No Nationalist Afrikaner can become Prime Minister unless he comes from the organisation’s select ranks.
‘From this pinnacle of executive control over South Africa’s affairs, the organisation’s 12,393 members permeate every aspect of the Republic’s life. Through its network of more than 800 cells in the villages and cities of South Africa, the organisation has infiltrated members into town and city councils, school boards, agricultural unions, the State-controlled radio and television networks, industry and commerce,’ they wrote.

The organisation invited very few working-class members into its ranksExplaining the reason for this, Strydom and Wilkins wrote: ‘The reason is simple: The Broederbond has become the home of the rich and powerful Super-Afrikaners. They have been so successful in advancing their own careers and finances by being Broeders that the gap between them and the Afrikaner worker will simply not be comfortable in that company.’

The reporters involved in exposing the organisation were a disparate group of characters: Charles Bloomberg, the son of a Jewish dental mechanic and a close friend of Nelson Mandela, fled South Africa after receiving death threats because of his relentless exposés; Hennie Serfontein, who had worked closely with Bloomberg, then took over the Broederbond beat at the Sunday Times. Serfontein, from a conservative Afrikaner background, worked briefly for the liberal Progressive Party, before becoming a full-time journalist and later a documentary filmmaker; Strydom began his journalism career in the Afrikaans press before ending it as news editor of the Sunday Times. Wilkins, the only one of them still alive, worked as a news photographer, journalist and political writer in South Africa, before emigrating in 1987. He now edits a yachting magazine in New Zealand.

All of them produced books about the Broederbond: Serfontein’s Brotherhood of Power and Strydom and Wilkins’ The Super Afrikaners, were both published in 1978. Bloomberg’s Christian Nationalism and the Rise of the Afrikaner Broederbond in South Africa, 1918–48, was published in 1990.

Two editors also played a key role in the ground-breaking reporting on the Broederbond: Joel Mervis, an astute journalist who transformed the Sunday Times into South Africa’s biggest, most influential newspaper, and his successor, Tertius Myburgh.

Bloomberg began breaking stories about the inner workings of the Broederbond in the early 1960s, after a trove of Broederbond documents were leaked to him by Professor Albert Geyser, a clergyman and the son of a prominent Broederbond member. Geyser experienced a Damascus Road conversion after he was appointed to a Dutch Reformed Church commission set up to find theological backing for apartheid. What he found changed him forever and he was charged with heresy after he began to criticise apartheid and the Bond.

Geyser received the documents from the Reverend Beyers Naude – whose father was one of the founders of the organisation – who had sought his theological advice on their content. Naude later angered the National Party after he spoke out against apartheid and both he and his anti-apartheid Christian Institute were banned in 1977. For seven years, he was confined to his home and not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time.

Week after week, beginning in April 1963, Bloomberg broke news stories that exposed the hidden hand of the Bond in South African politics, religion and the formulation of the apartheid laws that governed life in the country. Bloomberg, and later Serfontein, wrote their stories under a Sunday Times reporter byline as they feared for their safety. After several months, police raided the Sunday Times in October 1963. Stand-in editor Louis Welch, who had suspected a raid and moved some of the unused documents to a safer place, handed over a file of already-published documents. ‘For good measure he reproduced more of them on the Sunday after the raid,’ Mervis wrote in his book The Fourth Estate.

The next big break in the story came in January 1978 after an unnamed Broederbond member handed Wilkins and Strydom what was the most comprehensive trove yet of secret documents. For the next six weeks, the Sunday Times ran a series, revealing some of the deepest secrets of the Bond and how it controlled South Africa. Journalist John Matisonn, who alleged in his book God, Spies and Lies that Myburgh had been a high-level spy, claims Myburgh prematurely shut down the reporting on the Broederbond before it had run its course.

An indication of just how far the tentacles of the Broederbond reached came when lists of the names and details of more than 10,000 Broederbond members, which had been captured in the Sunday Times’ new publishing system, were mysteriously deleted. There were also attempts to stop the publication of The Super Afrikaners. First the bookbinders pulled out of the project at the last minute, according to Wilkins. Then Penguin, which through a subsidiary company had lucrative government contracts for school textbooks, was not prepared to risk that lucrative business, and pulled out as publishers. By then Jonathan Ball, who was eager to launch his new publishing company with a book that would attract attention, took on the book. ‘He had some difficulty securing a printer for the same reasons. By the time he got to contract a bookbinder he was being quite cagey about telling anybody what the project was about,’ says Wilkins. ‘When the bookbinder discovered it was about the Broederbond, he refused to touch it. This was right at the last minute and it was a big blow.’

And just as both Bloomberg and Serfontein had feared for their safety, so too did Wilkins and Strydom. ‘We weren’t quite sure what the reaction would be. We were certainly aware of the hit squads,’ says Wilkins. ‘It wasn’t that long since the Durban academic Rick Turner was gunned down in hisown home. Tertius arranged for armed bodyguards for Hans and me. There were other harassments though. My phone was very clearly tapped and I would frequently get heavy-breathing calls in the middle of the night. This continued on and off for years and I developed paranoia about going into dark car parks … after being followed several times late at night with footsteps that stopped when I stopped and then carried on when I carried on – just like the movies. Hans had a harder time of it. He had a scary phone call where the caller named Hans’s kids, the schools they attended and the buses they took to get there. The family cat was killed and left on their doorstep. He also had a problem with his bank withdrawing his mortgage and giving him a hard time.’

The publication of the secret membership lists and the exposing of the inner secrets of the Broederbond had far-reaching consequences, remembers Wilkins. ‘It caused huge divisions within Afrikanerdom and split families. Within Afrikaner ranks, the reactions were quite complex. Some were outraged by a sense of envy – they could see how they had missed out by not being included in the ranks, with all the privileges and contracts and appointments that went with it. Some young Afrikaners were appalled that their fathers were part of it.’

With the unbanning of the African National Congress and other liberation organisations and the freeing of political prisoners in 1990, an already weakened Broederbond began losing its grip on government and its role in defining policy. In 1993, 78 years after it was founded and just before the dawn of democracy in South Africa, the Broederbond became an open organisation that still functions today to serve and promote Afrikaner interests. But looking back, it is clear that the beginning of the end for the Broederbond had begun many years earlier, thanks to the bravery and dogged reporting of four exceptional investigative journalists.

References

Matisonn, John. 2015. God, Spies and Lies. Cape Town: Missing Ink. Mervis, Joel. 1989. The Fourth Estate. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers. Wilkins, Ivor & Strydom, Hans. 2012. The Super Afrikaners. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers. Interview Ivor Wilkins: April 2018, email. Interview Peter Wilhelm: April 2018, Cape Town.

Broeder plan to oust DRC new dealers

Sunday Times, April 1964

A secret Broederbond plan to oust ‘new deal’ leaders of the 1,800,000-member Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk, outlaw theological criticism of apartheid, and tighten the Broederbond stranglehold on church affairs is causing growing friction in the DRC. Details of the plan – disclosed today for the first time – show a direct link between Broederbond decisions and DRC policy. The Broederbond inspired moves in the NGK Transvaal Synods this month to:  Ban public criticism of DRC policies, especially on race matters  Boycott and smear the independent inter-church journal, Pro Veritate  Clip the wings of the ‘new deal’ Southern Transvaal moderator, Dr C.F. Beyers Naude, who edits Pro Veritate

Each of these decisions – as the accompanying photostats reveal – was secretly hatched behind closed doors several months ago by the Bond’s 11-member Uitvoerende Raad …

News disclosures stun Broederbond

Sunday Times, April 1964

Stunned by the Sunday Times’s exposure of its undercover activities, the Broederbond through its chairman, Dr P.J. Meyer, this week started an extensive witch-hunt to discover the source of the leak and ordered an all-round tightening-up of security measures and secrecy …

Police raid proves photostats are authentic

Sunday Times, October 1964

This week’s police raid proved beyond doubt the authenticity of photostats of Broederbond documents published by the Sunday Times – and has ended any doubts among Afrikaans-speaking people about their genuineness. The sensational disclosures of Broederbond influence in many spheres, published during the past few months, shocked and startled readers. On Tuesday, for the first time months after Sunday Times disclosures, the police acted in response to an official Broederbond complaint that a copy of their constitution had been stolen from their offices …

Top Natal education jobs go to Afrikaners

Ivor Wilkins, Sunday Times, 23 January 1977

English speakers have been manoeuvered out of top jobs in Natal’s Education Department. In a recent reshuffle two leading educationists were passed over for the job of deputy director. It went to a less senior Afrikaner. There are now fears that succession to the director of education’s job has been arranged to be kept in Afrikaner hands. If this happens, English-speaking South Africans will lose their voice on the powerful Committee of Education Heads, which coordinates education throughout South Africa. It is also feared that the Broederbond’s ambition to control education in South Africa will have been achieved …

Broeder master plan exposed

Ivor Wilkins, Sunday Times, 15 January 1978

Secret Broederbond papers in the possession of the Sunday Times disclose that the powerful underground organisation has drawn up an enormous ‘master plan’ to secure the survival of whites in South Africa. The plan, drawn up in the wake of the Soweto riots in 1976, is set out in a series of detailed papers circulated to the Broederbond’s 11,000 members through its network of cells. The third paper in the series, ‘Die Strategie’ (The Strategy), outlines a massive scheme to harness the entire economy – private and public sectors – to resettle Africans in the Bantustans on an enormous scale … worked out a plan to indoctrinate the entire population … to accept the ‘Christian national’ viewpoint.

Broederbond plans for more white babies

Ivor Wilkins, Sunday Times, 5 February 1978

The Afrikaner Broederbond has formulated a secret plan to boost the white – and particularly the Afrikaner – population of South Africa. The plan is disclosed in secret Broederbond papers now in the possession of the Sunday Times. It says the white birthrate must double, the black birthrate must be reduced and white immigration must be stepped up. The Broederbond plans to ‘stimulate’ South Africa’s population dynamics to ensure that whites at least maintain their prominent position …

New leaks show up the Broeder turmoil

Hans Strydom, Sunday Times, 19 November 1978

A new set of Broederbond documents handed to the Sunday Times has disclosed that the underground organisation was shaken to the core by publication of its secrets in the Sunday Times early this year. A picture of shock and anger emerges from the latest newsletters circulated to the organisation’s 12,000 members since that massive ‘leak’ of documents … More than 70 Broederbond cells were at one stage suspended because they were suspected of leaking information to the Sunday Times …

Who’s who in the Broederbond?

Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom, Sunday Times, 26 November 1978

The South African Government today is the Broederbond and the Broederbond is the Government. No Afrikaner government can rule South Africa without the support of the Broederbond. No Nationalist Afrikaner can become Prime Minister unless he comes from the organisation’s select ranks. The Prime Minister, Mr P.W. Botha, is a Broeder. Mr John Vorster, the former Prime Minister, is a prominent member – as were his three predecessors, Dr D.F. Malan, Advocate J.G. Strijdom and Dr H.F. Verwoerd. Every member except two of the Vorster Cabinet was a Broederbonder. From this pinnacle of executive control over South Africa’s affairs, the organisation’s 12,393 member permeate every aspect of the Republic’s life. Through its network of more than 800 cells in the villages and cities of South Africa, the organisation has infiltrated members into town and city councils, school boards, agricultural unions, the State-controlled radio and television networks, industry and commerce, banks and building societies. Its membership spirals insidiously upwards through the strata of South African society, into the provincial administrationsthe Departments of Education, Planning, Roads and Works, the hospital services, universities, the quasi-State corporations, the public service, the National Party caucuses, working through the administrators until it finally reaches its apex in the offices of the Prime Minister and the State President …

How the Broederbond captures those top jobs … and how it chooses the Super-Afrikaners to fill them

Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom, Sunday Times, 17 December 1978

Broederbond vigorously disputes claims that it pushes members into top positions. It cites its rule stating that members must not abuse their positions. This sounds right and proper, but the position in reality is totally different: Broeders do hold top positions in almost every sphere of South African life. The key lies in this: To serve Afrikanerdom as they see it, they must do everything in their power to ensure that genuine Afrikaners have control of key positions. To them, obviously, ‘genuine Afrikaners’ mean Broeders. Why else were they handpicked by extremely strict criteria to join this exclusive organisation of Super-Afrikaners? …