In South Africa, a symbol of power and privilege fades into history

Johannesburg's Rand Club has hosted elites for more than a century. But a changing downtown and the institution's association with white South Africa has made it difficult to attract members.

A worker prepares a table, as Cecil Rhodes looks down from the wall, at the Johannesburg Rand Club. (2008 file photo)

For more than a century, the soaring edifice on Loveday Street was Johannesburg’s answer to London high society – a buttoned-up, members-only gentleman’s club in the heart of city’s business district, where mining magnates, bankers, and businessmen came to smoke pipes and talk shop over a fine Sunday roast.

As the city around it churned through political turmoil, violent protest, and the growing pains of a new democracy, behind the club’s heavy doors, little changed. Not the dress code – smart shoes, slacks, no sportswear – or the furnishings – taxidermied wildlife, Victorian furniture – or the statue of mining tycoon Cecil Rhodes that greeted patrons as they walked into the bar. (Women and black members were eventually allowed, but only in the early 1990s.)

But earlier this month, after 128 years as a living piece of Johannesburg’s colonial history, the Rand Club abruptly announced that it would close its doors, citing nearly two decades of dwindling membership and difficult finances.  Although the owners say they believe the closure will be temporary – they hope to ink a deal with a new investor and re-open the club within a year – the end of the Rand Club is also a symbol of how briskly both Johannesburg and its elite have transformed since the end of apartheid, and how some of its oldest institutions have struggled to remain relevant in the face of this vast change.  

“I don’t think most people using the inner city now identify with the Rand Club anymore,” says Thomas Coggin, a law professor at the University of the Witwatersrand who co-runs the blog Urban Joburg. “It’s rather hopelessly a vision of an old, white South Africa, and the new elite is choosing largely to congregate elsewhere.”

Johannesburg was less than a year old in December 1886 when legend has it that Cecil Rhodes stopped abruptly during a walk through the dusty gold mining boom town and announced to a friend: “This corner will do for the club.” In the coming decades, the institution he founded that day became an anchor in Johannesburg’s transformation from frontier prospecting town to Africa’s richest city, a place where the city’s growing upper class and visitors from across the empire congregated for talk of business and politics around Africa’s longest bar, which wraps around an entire room on the club’s ground floor.  

Over the years, visitors have included members of the British royal family, the poet Rudyard Kipling, and a young English foreign correspondent named Winston Churchill, who wrote that in a country that “seemed to European eyes desolate and wild,” Johannesburg was evidence of “bustling civilization” at in the far-flung African corner of the British Empire. In 1896, the gentlemen plotters of a failed coup to overthrow Afrikaner rule in Johannesburg turned themselves in to authorities after a final drink at the Rand Club.

“It’s very much the case that the Rand Club isn’t just a place where people come to meet. A very big part of its appeal to members is its heritage,” says David Williams, the club’s chairman. “It’s about being a part of the city’s history, and of having a connection to something larger than yourself.”

But despite its longstanding place in Johannesburg history, the Rand Club began to fall onto hard times in the late 1980s, as an exodus of big business from Johannesburg’s inner city and a slackening of segregation laws began rapidly shifting the demographics in the area around the club. Membership, which currently runs 10,000 rand ($770) per year, fell off, even as the club began to admit black and female members. (Today, neither of those groups makes up more than 10 percent of the club’s 1,200 members, Mr. Williams says.)

Today, the neighborhood that surrounds the shuttered club is a tribute to those transformations. The Rand Club now shares a block not just with bank headquarters and office buildings, but also with Musa Dreadlocks Specialists, the regional headquarters of the ruling African National Congress, and the Ethiopian-run Gandhi Supermarket. And crucially, almost all of those strolling past the building on a recent morning, from the businesspeople barking into smart phones to the domestic workers out for a lunchtime stroll, were black.

Xiluva Khosa runs a small boutique across from the club, where she sells African-inflected business wear to the downtown professional crowd. On her own visits to the Rand Club on non-members’ nights, she at first felt out of place. “My friends and I were practically the only black women in the whole place,” she says. But she nevertheless found herself charmed by the building’s ornate library and the strange collections of colonial curios nailed to its walls.

“Yes, it’s a very colonial space, but you know what? So is Johannesburg. That’s all of our history,” she says. “I’ll miss it – there’s not much in this city that’s stayed still that long. It’s a good reminder of where we’re coming from.”

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