A walk around the Johannesburg CBD is like finding yourself in a labyrinthine textbook on the city’s history – and one of the richest chapters explores the venerable Rand Club.
The Rand Club is one of the great historical landmarks of Old Johannesburg. Episodes in its history were at the centre of events that rocked the nascent city. Here, in the bar of the earliest clubhouse on this site, the Jameson Raid was plotted, while in 1913, striking miners tried to storm the club building – many of whose members owned the mines at the centre of their grievances. And during the 1922 Rand Revolt, the club was where the defence committee of mining magnates met with the government to discuss the implications of the mineworker’s strike, and to mull over Smut’s brutal handling of it.
Today the Rand Club is like a pensioner trying to cobble together a means of staying alive. On the one hand it’s a patriotic symbol of allegiance to a varnished empire; on the landing, there are pictures of Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, and there’s a replica of Pietro Annigoni’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, an earlier version of which was destroyed in the fire of 2005. On the other hand it’s trying to court the plutocrats of the new South Africa, for whom Nelson is somebody quite different, the hero of Trafalgar an unfamiliar blast from the past. Can this colonial throwback, which until 1993 excluded everybody who wasn’t a white, non-Jewish male, find its place in the twenty-first century? Women were only allowed to become members in 1993, and until the 1980s couldn’t enter by the front door, even as guests. Admittance of black members too is a recent development. Business has moved to another part of town and today, perhaps for the first time since its founding, the Rand Club is on the sidelines of history.
The Rand Club began life in 1887, a year after Johannesburg was founded. Its first incarnation – a small brick structure with a wide, deep stoep and an iron roof – was on a site chosen, it’s said, by Rhodes one dusty day. It housed the all-important bar and a billiards room along with various rooms to meet in. Two rebuilds later, in 1904, it was transformed into a handsome, four-storey, beaux-arts edifice designed for the committee by Frank Emley and William Leck who, as Leck & Emley, also designed the Corner House (1903) and the third Stock Exchange (1904). A steel frame, made in Glasgow and transported to Loveday Street via Durban, on ox wagons, is at the core of the brick and stone-clad building.
It’s male, socially exclusive membership comprised the city’s most prominent men of influence – politicians, plutocrats, entrepreneurs, people shaping national affairs – who sought refuge here to socialise, debate and connive. It was a retreat for gentlemen, such as Rudyard Kipling and a young journalist called Winston Churchill, who represented the essence of the quintessential English gentlemen’s club on which this one is based. The difference between the venerable London club like, say, White’s, in St James, and this one built on a dusty corner of a mining town halfway around the world, was that this club was at the centre of the world’s greatest goldfield. In those days, the Rand Club was a real focus of power.
These days, to get inside you have to be let in by the porter lurking in the lobby. If suitably dressed, you’re allowed to enter the entrance hall with its odd little collection of artefacts, which include a bust of Chief Albert Luthuli, former president of the ANC, a bronze statue by Anton van Wouw of a top-hatted Paul Kruger, former president of the South African Republic, and Rhodes again, this time in bronze. From the hall, a short walk away is the Main Bar with a teak bar counter that’s 31 metres long, a tin tray filled with sand skirting its feet for cigar butts and for drinkers to spit into. But, best of all is the spectacular wooden staircase that rises up past towering, faux-Iconic porphyry columns to a colonnaded piano nobile, the so-called ‘Surrounds’, dominated now by a large portrait of Nelson Mandela which deposed that of Her Majesty. Soaring overhead is the stained-glass dome that lights the interior of the building. This is an extraordinarily handsome space, and dotted about are old seats and little sidetables, lit by shaded lamps, for covert meetings and the plotting of business subterfuge.
The main dining room doubles, when needed, as the ballroom, and there’s the library with a collection of Africana and a row of leather armchairs which, facing the stacks, permit its members to contemplate the silence in peace. On the floor above are various meeting rooms that, along with the Rhodes Room with its spectacular full-length portrait of Rhodes, are adorned with all kinds of memorabilia – trophies from fishing trips and hunting excursions, old photographs, portraits of former British kings and queens, and cartoons lampooning the luminaries of the colonial era at home and abroad. And there’s a whole corridor lined with works by Thomas Baines. In the basement is the Snooker Room, its walls and dark corners adorned with a menageries of stuffed wildlife.
Extracted from Hidden Johannesburg by Paul Duncan, photographs by Alain Proust (Struik Publishing), available September 2016. View more about the Rand Club at randclub.co.za
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Photographs Alain Proust