Are the white Afrikaners of South Africa changing? Yes and no, says a man who sits very near the heart of the Afrikaner power structure. He is Prof. Jan de Lange, chairman of the Broederbond, the once-secret organization that has been the power behind the throne for most of the 35 years that Afrikaners have ruled this country.
The most fundamental change among Afrikaners, Professor de Lange said in an interview, is the recognition that preserving Afrikaner ''cultural identity'' does not require absolute political dominance. Until very recently, Afrikaners insisted on dominating the government - with often ruthless results.
But ''it is conceivable,'' Professor de Lange says, that South Africa will have a non-Afrikaans-speaking white prime minister in the foreseeable future - and that the new leader would have Afrikaner support.
This is a startling statement that probably would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. The Broederbond leader adds that this sort of shift is healthy and ''doesn't really worry me.'' This, too, is a startling statement for a key figure in a group that has long believed strict unity is essential to its survival.
Although Professor de Lange foresees a change in the white power base, he indicates that Afrikaners still stick by their belief in apartheid. The policy of apartheid, or separate development of the races as it is called today, ''is not under question. That is central,'' he says.
Professor de Lange's comments help clarify what may appear to be a rather confusing situation in South Africa. There is a change of a sort. There is turmoil within the Afrikaner ranks as its leaders search for a broader power base. The change has required the acceptance of the principle of ''power sharing'' with Indians and Coloreds (people of mixed race), but not blacks. It is a concept that has alarmed Afrikaners used to seeing government as merely an extension of their own movement.
But Professor de Lange's comments make clear that this quest for a broader power base does not imply that the basic tenets of apartheid are now under question.
''The one thing that the Afrikaner feels is not negotiable is his identity, his language, his church orientation, his feeling that he needs instruction for the young through his own language,'' says de Lange.
Fear that they would be ''swamped'' by blacks and a longstanding hostility toward South Africa's English-speakers led the Afrikaners to take an often ''isolationary'' and ''aggressive'' approach to ruling the country when they gained power in 1948, says de Lange. ''There was an acceptance for a very long time that only through political power could the Afrikaner protect and promote his own identity.''
But today ''the realization has broken through that one cannot serve the common good by serving only your own interests.'' He adds: ''This is a very important shift in Afrikaner orientation.''
The extent to which this shift leads to accommodation of the political demands of South Africa's black majority remains to be seen. But it has introduced a fluidity in white politics that has been absent for many years.
What has divided the Afrikaners is the present government's attempt to draw Coloureds and Indians into the all-white Parliament - a proposal that went before white voters Wednesday. (Results of the vote were not available at time of writing.) The very idea of power sharing - even on the limited basis offered under the new constitution - has sent shock waves through Afrikanerdom.
In the view of many analysts, sharing power across the color line is an attempt by Afrikaners to broaden the demographic base of their minority government without surrendering control. But it also implies a willingness by the rulers to court English-speaking voters at the expense of some right-wing Afrikaners.
A scenario that now seems ''quite possible'' to de Lange is that the white political power base will shift from being exclusively Afrikaner to one that also relies on the English. As for the other racial and ethnic groups, Afrikaners believe the country is made up of numerous ethinic and tribal groups. It does not view the black population as a one group, but as many tribal groupings.
The powerful Broederbond of which Mr. de Lange is the leader has not been immune from the turmoil that has beset Afrikanerdom. Its ultra-conservative chairman, Carel Boshoff, was forced to resign earlier this year because of his adamant opposition to any degree of the so-called power sharing. Professor de Lange stepped in.
The role of the Broederbond has changed in recent years, and its influence has waned some although it remains one of a powerful institutions in the Afrikaner world. De Lange said the organization serves mainly as a ''think tank, '' but he offered an analogy suggesting more importance. ''One could compare it to the board of a company, where new strategies are developed for that company'' - the company in this case being the state.
De Lange's assent to the chairmanship of the Broederbond is indicative of changes taking place throughout the Afrikaner power structure. Top leaders today are less the paternalistic figures Afrikaners have long followed, and more like technocrats and managers.
Visiting former Broederbond chief Boshoff at his farm near Pretoria was a bit like stepping back into the ''old world.'' De Lange, by contrast, works from a modern wood-panel office as rector of Rand Afrikaans University. It is a setting that would be the envy of any corporate executive.