Obituary

Pieter de Lange: Broederbond chief who met Mbeki

Behind-the-scenes leader pushed for talks with the banned ANC in exile

14 April 2019 - 00:00 By CHRIS BARRON


Pieter de Lange, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 93, headed the secret and powerful Afrikaner Broederbond for 10 years in the 1980s and early '90s, and was the first representative of the apartheid establishment to meet the then banned ANC in exile.
Almost the entire apartheid establishment - including the head of government, his most senior cabinet ministers and generals - belonged to the Broederbond.
De Lange, rector of Rand Afrikaans University (RAU, now University of Johannesburg) and one of Afrikanerdom's sharpest intellectuals, became chair of the Broederbond in 1983 after a bitter power struggle with conservatives, and almost immediately began to lead it in a reformist direction.
In 1984 he was behind a resolution acknowledging the need to dismantle apartheid and prepare Afrikaners for black majority rule, albeit with guarantees for minority rights.
In May 1986, in New York, he met Thabo Mbeki, who at the time was ANC president Oliver Tambo's closest adviser, and some of Tambo's top lieutenants.
The initiative almost ended in disaster when, soon after De Lange's presentation, a senior ANC official, Seretse Choabe, screamed at him: "I'll shoot you, you Broederbonder!"
'OUR CHILDREN ARE DYING'
Mbeki and Mac Maharaj did damage control, assuring De Lange he had a right to express his views. Choabe apologised and the two men embraced.
"Remember, it's our children dying in Soweto," Choabe told De Lange.
"I know that," De Lange responded.
De Lange told Mbeki that Afrikaners were more concerned about losing their cultural identity in a democratic SA than economic or political power.
When he returned to SA he resigned as rector of RAU to concentrate on driving reform.
He told PW Botha, then the president, to whom he spoke frequently, that the ANC was more moderate than Afrikaners realised and that Nelson Mandela must be released.
One of the Broederbond's most important policy documents, "Basic Political Conditions for the Continuing Survival of the Afrikaner", was circulated among its 20,000 members and released publicly in November 1986. It argued that the exclusion of blacks at the highest level of decision-making was a threat to the survival of whites.
'CALCULATED RISKS'
De Lange acknowledged that moving in this direction entailed "calculated risks" but said: "The greatest risk we currently run is not to take any risks."
Its more conservative members left the Broederbond. De Lange was scathing about Andries Treurnicht and his Conservative Party, who he said were trying to paralyse any thinking about the future.
The majority accepted the document. It had a significant influence on government thinking and laid the foundation for a democratic dispensation.
Botha's successor, FW de Klerk, later told De Lange that if the Broederbond had not done the work it did in the '80s he could not have made the speech he made on February 2 1990, unbanning the ANC and committing to negotiations.
De Lange recalled that his contention in the 1986 document that a negotiated settlement and full democracy with voting rights for all was "the only way out" had not been well received by De Klerk at the time.
REFUSED TO REVOLT
When Botha pushed back against the Broederbond's reform programme some National Party MPs called on De Lange to mount a revolt against him along with a group of progressive Nats. He refused, but told a meeting of the Broederbond that he did not believe political change would happen "until the personalities at the top are changed".
After De Klerk became leader of the Nats in February 1989 - but before he took over from Botha as president seven months later - De Lange set up private dinners for him with activist businessman Nthato Motlana and other black leaders who were close to the United Democratic Front.
De Lange was born in Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape on February 27 1926. He attended Aberdeen High School and Gill College in Somerset East.
He studied law at the University of Pretoria and obtained a master's degree in education. He completed his PhD at RAU, where he was appointed rector in 1979 after heading educational colleges in Potchefstroom and Johannesburg.
De Lange is survived by his wife, Christine, and three daughters. He had been ill for months and had a stroke a few weeks before his death.
1926-2019

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