S. Africa's powerful secret society mends rift between top leaders

After one of the most critical weeks in the history of South Africa's ruling National Party, the two warring factions have declared a truce and avoided, at least for the time being, what could have been a serious split in the party.

Members of the secret Afrikaans society, the Broederbond ("the band of brothers") -- which has tremendously powerful Afrikaans political, economic, church, and cultural connections -- are believed to have been involved in persuading the two factions not to force a showdown "for the sake of Afrikaner unity."

But it is an uneasy peace, and there are such deep philosophical differences between the two groups that it seems impossible for it to last very long. More likely, the fighting will continue, but underground.

One of the main figures in the conflict is Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha, who believes certain racial reforms are essential if South Africa is to evolve peacefully and counter what he considers a "total onslaught" on its security.

His opponent is Dr. Andries Treurnicht, the leader of the National Party in the important Transvaal Province and the redoubtable "Dr. No" of South African politics, who supports the hard-line application of the policy of apartheid -- enforced racial segregation in all spheres.

Time after time when Prime Minister Botha has announced concessions, "Dr. No" has found an opportunity to attack these either directly or by implication.

Last week it seemed as though both Mr. Botha and Dr. Treurnicht had gone too far to back down, and that Dr. Treurnicht either would be dismissed or would resign.

While Nationalist parliamentarians desperately counted heads, estimates varied widely about how many would follow Dr. Treurnicht out of the party. Some believed that he would be supported by only a handful. The general estimate was that he would have about 12 men with him.

But some members of the Afrikaner establishment thought he might take as many as 48 and be in a position to form a new party that could become the official opposition in Parliament. In any event, the likelihood was that the Prime Minister would have been obliged to rush into a general election.

Around the country, Afrikaans newspapers supporting the National Party reflected dismay at the crisis in banner headlines. Some samples:

* "Crisis hour has arrived: Prime Minister and Dr. Treurnicht can tear apart today."

* "Unity hangs on a thin thread."

But later in the week, after one nationalist newspaper announced there had been "important people in secret moves" and after a Cabinet meeting at which there must have been some hard bargaining, the two men issued extremely terse statements indicating that they regarded party unity as paramount "in the interests of the country."

The nationalist press greeted this with relief. "It is peace after the drama ," said one. "Terrible tension relieved," said another. And one carried a political cartoon showing a groggy and rather battered dove of peace emerging with bandages from the houses of Parliament.

But if it is no longer quite such an open war between the two factions, it is hardly brotherly love either.

The liberal wing of the party fears that Dr. Treurnicht will continue to obstruct any meaningful political change at a time when there is considerable pressure for it.

And the right-wingers around "Dr. No" fear that the Prime Minister may be able to maneuver them out of the mainstream of political power.

The danger for South Africa is that the government may become so preoccupied with its own internal problems that it is not able to deal realistically with the problems of the country as a whole.

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