Cyril And The Broeders: Why Did The President Choose The Afrikanerbond?

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the centenary celebrations of the Afrikanerbond on Thursday. Was he driven by symbolism or pragmatism?

On Thursday evening President Cyril Ramaphosa went to Paarl in the Western Cape to deliver the keynote address at the Afrikanerbond’s centenary celebrations.

He was evidently warmly received by the members of the organisation, which used to be called the Afrikaner Broederbond, and delivered an address in which he spoke of the Afrikanerbond’s history and its role in South Africa. Ramaphosa also spoke about the future and what his government will do to accelerate change.The president made it clear that Afrikaners are African “by name and definition”, integral to the country and that their needs and aspirations as a community are as important as those of any other community. He concluded his speech by imploring the Afrikanerbond and its members to work together with the rest of South Africa to build and plan a common future.The choice of the Afrikanerbond as a vehicle to address Afrikaners is an interesting one. The Bond used to be the secretive organisation that, over the course of decades, schemed and manoeuvred its members into senior positions in the apartheid state, including premierships and presidencies. It was therefore intimately involved in the construction of the apartheid edifice. And, as detailed by historians, the Bond was also involved in opening up channels of communication between the NP government and the exiled ANC in the 1980s. The Bond was part of the Afrikaner trinity, which also included the NP and the Dutch Reformed Church.

The dawn of democracy has however rendered the Bond and its activities largely irrelevant, as what was left of Afrikaner hegemony evaporated into a myriad of divergent organisations and interest groups. The organisation, as a function of the democratic dispensation in the country, doesn’t have the influence it used to have in government anymore and its influence in broader Afrikaner society is negligible.

Judging from its website, it also doesn’t seem to be actively involved in many social projects. According to its membership page, membership is still “confidential”, seemingly in keeping with its history, while the website also gives access to a couple of discussion documents, most of which are outdated and the last one posted in 2017.

The Bond’s last newsletter was published in February this year in which its chairperson, Jaco Schoeman, reflects on Ramaphosa’s election as ANC leader in December 2017. It contains some opinion pieces, among others “The politics of racism and denialism”, “The Gauteng education department’s masterclass in fraud” and “The eight pillars of apartheid blame”. It also invites members to take part in events to celebrate the Bond’s centenary, without divulging any details. The newsletter doesn’t elaborate on any activities or programmes or actions the organisation plans for the year. There’s also no archive with which to gauge past successes or programmes.

The Afrikanerbond is mildly active in the media space, issuing statements when matters of concern arise, which is then covered by the Afrikaans media.

The Bond’s most high-profile intervention into the body politic in the last decade was when it was part of an ad hoc grouping that opposed the Expropriation Bill, a grouping which also included the F.W. de Klerk Foundation, Solidarity, the DA and a number of other organisations. But beyond that, there’s not a lot to write home about.

Why then, if the Bond is a shadow of the organisation it used to be, did Ramaphosa decide to address the Paarl celebrations?

Ramaphosa has signalled that he will be styling his leadership on that of former president Nelson Mandela: reconciliatory, engaging and statesmanlike. He understands the power of symbolism and the importance of inclusivity. That is to be applauded and encouraged and the symbolism of Ramaphosa addressing the “broeders” (the brotherhood, as they referred to themselves in their heyday) at 100 is significant…ish.

But the Afrikaner, as a group or unit, doesn’t exist anymore as it did when the Bond still operated in the corridors of power and influence. The majority of Afrikaners are seemingly now represented by organisations that don’t exclusively champion Afrikaner rights and who advocate a range of issues across class and creed, from language and culture to gender and education and business and commerce.

If Ramaphosa wants to influence Afrikaners, he needs to engage those organisations to which Afrikaners subscribe. It is true, as Max du Preez points out, that an organisation such as AgriSA does not self-identify as an “Afrikaner organisation”. The same goes for the ATKV — the Afrikaans Language and Cultural Association.

But those organisations, and some others, do have a large Afrikaner support base, and are involved at grassroots level and can actually mobilise people for the greater good.

The president should speak to as many constituencies as he can. That’s what statesmen do. But the Bond’s time is past.