The Rand Club polishes its silver to draw former plebs
In an effort to remain relevant and financially viable, the once colonial, white males only stronghold has opened its doors to non-members
Sometimes walls truly do speak. Not in the obvious way you expect to hear, but in the subtle nuances you pick up when you take the time to discover their silent voices.
Standing outside the Rand Club on Loveday Street in downtown Johannesburg, you find yourself looking at the chips and marks on its outside walls that date back 115 years. It is here that in 1913, striking miners tried to storm the building that served as the playground of the mining magnates. At least 20 people died in what is today the boomed-off parking area for the Rand Club.
The opulent space inside the Edwardian baroque-style building with its towering green columns, wrought iron curved banisters, magnificent chandeliers and deep maroon wall-to-wall carpeting still evoke a gentleman’s club carved out for the wealthy, where Randlords such as Cecil John Rhodes plotted and connived and passed out in the rooms upstairs after three too many. It is an opulent vestige of the who’s who of white, male SA: men of influence, businessmen, gold prospectors, politicians and entrepreneurs.
No women were allowed in the club, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t some occasionally present. If you walk to the back of the lobby, go through a door marked “members only” and take a corridor that spills into a room that connects to the kitchen, there you will find a door: the very one that was used as a side entrance by women until the 1980s, no doubt smuggled in.
Only in 1993 were women allowed to become members of the Rand Club, shortly after people of colour were allowed in at the dawn of SA’s democracy.
Throughout the club, relics of colonial SA stand in juxtaposition to objects that represent the struggles of an inclusive, democratic, SA. A bust of Chief Albert Luthuli, former president of the ANC, is perched defiantly next to a bronze of Rhodes. An oil portrait of Queen Elizabeth II casts a sideways glance at Nelson Mandela, whose portrait now claims pride of place in the centre of the landing as you ascend the beautiful carpet-clad staircase. Assegais and rifles adorn the walls of the armoury room.
Perhaps the most beautiful room is the club’s library. In a most curious manner, it catalogues a colonial history that has mutated over time. A London dictionary of modern biography printed in 1895 fills the shelves along with history books from 1887, when the club was founded, to the establishment of the club as it stands today, in 1904. Its contents trace the tumultuous history of SA following the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand.
Books praising the heroines of the Boer War as well as the most recent South African publications — including a novel by Deon Meyer and a biography of the life of Pixley ka Isaka Sema written by Bongani Ngqulunga — are on display, inviting bookworms to a literary feast previously forbidden between these walls.
The soft glow from the lamps above the towering bookshelves and the smell of old books are calming. On a cold winter day, the fireplace offers warmth. As you grab an issue of the New Yorker and sit back in a leather wingbacked armchair, you forget you are in bustling Johannesburg.
But looking out the window over Commissioner Street and the people literally hustling for a living, one wonders if this building is still a shrine to colonialism. The taxi driver skipping the red light just before it turns green, the hawker trying to sell his wares before the sun sets and the worker making her way to the job she dutifully tends to each day — how relevant is the Rand Club to them?
Each one of these average South Africans has the freedom to walk into the club and start the process of becoming a member; the steep membership fee of R9,600 per annum effectively keeps them from doing just that.
The Rand Club was conceptualised by Rhodes in 1887, a year after Johannesburg was founded, when he wandered in search of a spot on which to build a gentleman’s club. Standing at the junction of Commissioner Street, the first street in Johannesburg, and what came to be known as Loveday Street, Rhodes announced: “This corner will do for the club.” From this first imagining of the Rand Club to SA’s celebration of 25 years of democracy, these walls remain walls of exclusion that divide the richer echelons of society from the run-of-the-mill worker.
The manner in which the space continues to exclude is but one of the problems that has befallen the Rand Club in recent years. Save for a handful of prominent businesses in Johannesburg’s CBD such as Anglo American and SA’s four big banks, businesses along with the JSE , have largely migrated to the lush streets of Sandton and Rosebank that do not grapple with the same level of crime as those surrounding the Johannesburg CBD.
The desire to draw people back to the club has prompted its committee to slightly relax its dress code and open its doors to non-members. At the very least, the urgency of remaining financially viable has prompted a number of changes since 2016.
In 2015, the Rand Club went into hibernation. As Alicia Thompson, deputy chair of the club and the chair of the events committee, explains: “It never officially closed. It was a period of 10 months but the club was still active thanks to the reciprocity offered by other clubs in Johannesburg ... we just didn’t use our own building.”
After reopening at the end of 2016, the club partnered with Masiwela, an events company, to offer some of its spaces to the public as a functions venue. Thompson says: “This building is our biggest asset and we needed to find a way to make it pay for itself. In the old days Rand Club was an exclusively members venue — but there was so much real estate in this building that was not being used.”
The venture has resulted in a juggling act for the club’s committee. Brian McKechnie, the chair of the house committee, says despite opening up the club, they’re trying not to dent the offering to members. “Over the last two and a half years since we’ve re-opened we’ve been kind of finding our feet because we need the big functions to make the club viable, but obviously we still want it to be a members’ club. So there are certain areas and events that are still exclusive to members.”
The club also started undergoing much-needed refurbishment in 2016 to address its dated look but this is an ongoing and expensive process. New touches to the décor include Ardmore wallpaper, designed in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands by local women and hand-painted and translated into prints by Cole & Son in London. McKechnie says they liked the idea of contributing to black women empowerment.
Just before the Easter weekend, the Rand Club, with its new in-house caterer French Corner, launched its new hot lunch and dinner menu, which is open to anyone who wants to be served in the moody main bar where, it is rumoured, the Jameson Raid was plotted. At 31.2m long, it’s the longest in Africa. They will run weekly specials that will incorporate old Rand Club favourites such as marrow bones and Rogan Josh.
James Finlday’s gallery in the basement has also put the Rand Club on an underground bookseller’s circuit and regularly draws tour groups. The committee hopes to entice these groups with a meal or drink as this is another potential revenue stream.
The club has had its share of misfortunes. A devastating fire in 2005 ravaged large parts of the building and a flood in 2018 badly damaged the basement and much-loved billiards room, but there are big plans for further renovations. Work has just been completed on a new cigar lounge, while bedrooms on the third floor, mainly used to accommodate club members and members from overseas reciprocal clubs, are being refurbished.
Phil Thurston, the club’s new business development consultant, says they hope to have the first three rooms ready by the end of May. They plan to have up to 30 in total. These rooms will not be open to club members but also to those booking big functions such as weddings.
Refurbishment of the billiards room is well underway as is the development of a Victorian tea room in the basement, where they will host high teas.
“High tea at Rand Club has become very, very popular and that happened after [Prince Harry and Megan’s] royal wedding in 2018. We hosted a high tea which we thought would attract about 30 people to the main bar, but we ended up having 200 people come to watch the wedding in the main ballroom — and that just sparked the interest of the public in having high tea at the club,” says Thompson.
McKechnie was instrumental in starting a business hub on the second floor in early 2018 which is open to members to use as a work space or to host meetings. Drawing inspiration from New York-style coffee offices, the space was developed to attract younger members. Wi-Fi, smart TVs and modern furniture have transformed an otherwise stuffy space to encourage a hot-desking idea of working. Newer members are increasingly making use of the space but, ironically, McKenchie says the space is being used mostly by older members.
Thompson, a Johannesburg native, says she used to think the space was “too prestigious”. “Speaking for people like me, black females, the overwhelming perception is that it’s still a white male club. It can only change when more women become members — but more women don’t want to become members because they still think it’s a white male club. I think people will join when they’re ready to. For now, I will make it my space. I will take ownership of this club and make it what I want it to be and hopefully other women like me will feel the same over time and decide to become members.”
The Rand Club is not only in a unique building; it is a unique space that, in its quiet grandeur, houses very conflicting histories. In this historically exclusive space, passionate members are working hard to make it more inclusive and to keep it viable and relevant. As with the striking miners who revolted against the mining magnates in 1913, it still encapsulates two worlds that are at odds with each other.
In their book Hidden Johannesburg, Paul Duncan and Alain Proust write: “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 vanished empire … on the other hand it’s trying to court the plutocrats of the new SA. Can this colonial throwback … find its place in the twenty-first century?”
They suggest that perhaps, for the first time since its founding, the Rand Club is on the sidelines of history.
For people such as Thompson, McKechnie and Thurston, who consider the club their second home, for those who work effortlessly to keep it current and to transform the space into a more inclusive reflection of 2019 SA, the Rand Club is as relevant today as it was in 1887.
Thompson says the club was the heartbeat of Johannesburg for a long time and it can continue to be relevant. “It’s literally at the centre of the city and it was here from the beginning; and I think as long as members are open to evolution there will always be a space for a place like this.”
For now, you are free to lunch at Africa’s longest bar or to enjoy a high tea surrounded by portraits and busts of SA’s history makers while jazz spills onto stained glass and carved wood. Whether or not the stories captured between the walls of the Rand Club will remain relevant in the next 50 years remains to be seen.
High Tea at the Rand Club
In a world where tea is no longer prepared in teapots and served in tea cups, a high tea at the Rand Club is a welcome respite from the rest of the world.
- High tea at the Rand Club costs R200 for members and R250 for non-members, excluding drinks. Tea or coffee is charged at an additional R18 per person.
- A table is laid out with a white tablecloth, dainty gold cutlery and white and gold crockery.
- A booking needs to be arranged 24 hours in advance and paid for before the day. You are asked to make a selection from the menu when you book but this may be subject to change without notice.
- Expect to eat a lot! Three tiers and a selection of eight generously portioned treats make for a very satisfying meal.
- The menu includes a wide selection of savoury options, including smoked salmon and crème cheese éclairs, vegetable quiche, filled pastries and chilli chickpea fritters as well as sweet options such as lemon meringue, a pear and pistachio tart, petit fours and strawberry panna cotta.