The Broederbond, established in 1918 in response to the humiliating aftermath of the Boer War, is a secret society dedicated initially to the promotion of Afrikaner values, cultural identity and political supremacy. Latterly, as internal documents have shown, the emphasis has shifted to 'Afrikaner survival'.
The chosen ones - having successfully risen to the challenge of the organisation's motto, 'Be Strong' - all belong to an elite caste of privileged, powerful, politically influential Afrikaners. Most of the cabinet are Broederbond members, including President F W de Klerk, who was inducted in 1964 at the unusually young age of 27.
In The Super Afrikaners, a book on the Broederbond published in 1978, the authors wrote: 'The South African government today is the Broederbond and the Broederbond is the government.' Then membership stood at 12,000. Today, according to secret documents unearthed last week, the figure is 20,047 and rising.
The Super Afrikaners contained a full list of members. Among them were 143 officers of the South African Defence Force, one of whom, General Andre 'Kat' Liebenberg, is today the country's top military chief. Broederbond membership extended then, as now, to those holding the most senior positions in Afrikaner big business, in the civil service, in the universities, in schools, in transport and telecommunications, in the state broadcasting monopoly, and in the legal system. The latest revelations showed, to the outrage of the Johannesburg Bar Council, that a Supreme Court judge sits on the Broederbond's 18-man executive.
Small wonder that a past chairman of the Broederbond was moved to declare in a speech before the inner circle: 'Do you realise what a powerful force is gathered here tonight between these four walls? Show me a greater power on the whole continent of Africa] Show me a greater power anywhere, even in your so- called civilised countries]'
The steps Mr de Klerk has taken in the last three years, steps wholly in line with earlier Broederbond proposals ('The greatest risk is not taking any risks,' said a document leaked in the late Eighties), mean that the Afrikaner elite will soon have no choice but to relinquish a good deal of their political influence. Multi-racial elections are due within the next 18 months but before then, by the middle of this year, it is expected that the first elements of a transitional government will be in place.
But the latest batch of secret documents, exposed by the liberal Afrikaans weekly Vrye Weekblad, reveal that the Broederbond remains determined to retain substantial clout well into the future, even under an African National Congress (ANC) government.
First, the Broederbond has no intention either of disbanding or removing its cloak of secrecy - this despite continual cries from the government for the ANC to sever its alliance with what they believe to be the sinisterly over-influential South African Communist Party.
Second, only Afrikaner males will be invited to join, although a possible exception might be made for Coloured (mixed-race) males who share 'the same language and values'.
Third, women will continue to be excluded. Husbands, however, are enjoined to make more use of their wives' skills. (A proposal some years back for a 'Susterbond' to be created were turned down by the Broeders for security reasons - women gossip too much, was the consensus.)
Where the wives' skills will come, presumably, into play is in the new survival strategy put forward by the Broederbond executive. The idea is to go local, to accept that loss of national influence is a fact of life but to deepen the Broederbond tentacles at community level.
In 1978, 800 Broederbond 'cells' existed nationwide. At least that many must exist today. 'Sections and members,' the secret document says, 'will increasingly have to expand the interest of the Afrikaner within their local communities.'
The reaction of opposition politicians across the board has been harshly critical. The right-wing Conservative Party, whose supporters tend to come from the less privileged half of the three-million-strong Afrikaner population, said that Broederbond members today were 'a power-addicted elite whose only aim is to salvage something for themselves out of the mess they and their government created'.
The ANC described the Broederbond's aim as 'clearly to secure for Afrikaners, and especially for themselves, disproportionate influence and privilege regardless of the democratic will of the people' - a point, this, on which the ANC is not alone in suspecting that Mr de Klerk's thinking is completely of a piece with that of his fellow Broeders.