The Rand Club: Truly a Bygone Era

When I was invited to a networking event at the Rand Club last week, both Noisette and I jumped at the opportunity to see this venerable institution. Even though it was cold and mid-week, both reasons to typically be in bed by 9:00 pm, we wanted to go check it out.

Entrance to the Rand Club in Johannesburg, South Africa

For “membership by invitation only” the Rand Club seemed awfully eager to recruit new members

Maybe we should have been suspicious when all of the friends I quickly shot off emails to (admittedly only that morning) found reasons to decline. Because I think that’s precisely what I’m going to do next time. As my friend Jacky likes to say: Been there, done that, gotten the t-shirt.

I’m sure in its day the Rand Club was THE place to be. It was founded in 1887, by none other than Cecil John Rhodes himself. It doesn’t get any more venerable in terms of history in these parts. Incidentally, that is about the same time as the building of Prynnsberg, diamond magnate Charles Newberry’s estate in the Free State which I’ve written about here. One was fueled by diamond mining, and the other by the discovery of gold, but other than that they are both tributes to the same era.

Rhodes felt like a men’s club was needed right at the center of the area of the Witwatersrand where gold had recently been discovered, and proceeded to source a few plots of land to build upon. The first thatch-roofed structure was subsequently replaced by newer and bigger versions to accommodate the fast-growing membership, and the building still standing today was finished in 1904.

The  Rand Club’s most distinguished architectural feature: The glass dome

I’m sure it was very grand in 1904. In fact, it is still a grand building today. It’s just that not much seems to have changed since 1904. The Rand Club website claims a complete overhaul in 2005, when apparently the magnificent glass dome was totally destroyed by a fire. I really don’t want to know what it looked like before then. Everything there is just so, well, dated. Hunting trophies dot the walls, but rather sparingly, as if the will for decoration fizzed out sometime mid-20th-century. There are a few great pieces of furniture on display, like an old barber’s chair, but mostly in some hidden, out-of-the-way nooks. The menu is drawn up just as sparingly as the wall decorations and probably hasn’t been overhauled since 1947. Ox-tail or lamb are your only options, and both of them served lukewarm. Maybe I’m a snob (okay, most definitely I’m a snob), but when I step into a posh club that forbids me to wear Jeans and boasts of only admitting “highly educated, famous, and influential people”, I would expect the waiter to be capable of delivering a mojito to me, pronto. Instead, I just attracted uncomprehending stares and feeble gestures towards the taps of cheap beer and perhaps a bottle or two of undistinguished whiskey (or so Noisette says).

I guess Cecil Rhodes didn’t fancy mojitos whenever he felt the urge to briefly sit back and linger over a drink in between founding De Beers and conquering Rhodesia.

For some reason this sand pit, lining the entire bar, was the most fascinating feature of the Rand Club to me. I could just imagine it all: Newly-rich gold miners, all of them white of  course, boasting of their recent exploits, the air heavy with smoke and crude jokes, cigars carelessly tossed at their feet while immaculately dressed black waiters cleaned up around  them.



One of the waiters gave us a quick tour of some adjoining rooms filled with artifacts

If you feel like immersing yourself in South Africa’s colonial past and perhaps take a few interesting pictures, by all means go visit the Rand Club. But maybe you won’t apply for membership and bite your nails during the 3-month waiting period just yet. (If, indeed you are famous. Otherwise don’t even bother. I have a feeling being a blogger doesn’t qualify. Even though women, as of 1993, do have a general chance).

The front office or rather security guard’s room of the Rand Club. The picture doesn’t really show just how shabby and faded it looks.

The oxtail looked more promising than it tasted

I wonder if this sign was put up post-1993, when women were first admitted to the club

Granted, we only saw the bar and a few glimpses of the staircase and dome, and I’m sure a longer stay would be interesting, especially for the avid historian or photographer.

But first impressions rarely lie. It’s safe to say that the Rand Club’s day has passed. It kind of belongs on the same pile for me as the Voortrekker Monument, even though each typifies an entirely different era. You can sort of get a whiff of the old “glory days” when you’re there, but then you can’t wait to get out again. If you Google “Rand Club,” you will see promises of “An Inner City Vision!” attached to the link. 

A vision of the past, if you ask me, not the future.