For 127 years, the Rand Club, in the heart of downtown Johannesburg, has been home to the rich, ambitious and gentlemanly. It was born in 1886 when Cecil John Rhodes, the colonialist extraordinaire, walked from the mine diggings, marked a small dusty spot and said ‘This corner will do for the club’.
In those days, £10 bought you membership and in flocked the Randlords, the millionaires who mined Johannesburg’s gold and turned it from bush to the biggest city in Africa. On raucous nights, behind its oak doors, Rhodes would walk in and roll handfuls of rough diamonds like dice on the green baize of the billiard table to show everyone the fruit of his mines.
There could be few clubs who can claim to have accomodated Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill, when he was a young journalist.
Conspirators met in the Rand Club to hatch the Jameson Raid in 1895. They plotted for a bunch of armed horsemen, lead by Leander Starr Jameson from Pitsani, in Botswana, to stage a coup against Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal Republic, who controlled the gold mines. The Afrikaaner rulers raised taxes and controlled the treasury but refused foreigners, who worked the mines, the vote. Jameson hoped to ride in and foment an uprising in Johannesburg among disgruntled mine workers but only got as far as Krugersdorp where marksmen captured them.
These days, the membership is $1,200 a year. But down the years fewer have taken it. With an aging membership, the welcome is getting warmer. The club is changing to attract a new generation to liven it up.
“In 125 years, much has changed in the business center. Most of our core members have moved out of the city center of Johannesburg going to Sandton or closer to their mining operations. As a result, there are not enough people using the club anymore. In 10 years, the club has not made an operating profit. We want people to use the club, especially with the inner city revival, but we haven’t had the outsource capacity to do that,” says David Williams, Rand Club deputy chairman.
Williams announced in August that it would sell the catering business for $0.01. A new private banqueting company will operate from within the club. It will try to rejuvenate a tired marketing strategy for a building, as much a museum as a club, with Africa’s longest bar.
Every second Thursday evening, you’ll find David Lobban taking new members around the club to learn its history. But, unlike a lot of museums, the building has changed little since 1904. Not even a fire in 2005 changed it, says Lobban.
“I remember that day so well. As the building was burning, we had two of our oldest members at the bar. I remember them saying ‘we’re going down with the ship’, they refused to leave ‘their spots’ at the bar. In the end we convinced them to finish their drinks on the balcony, whilst the smoke was coming out the windows,” he says.
It was a sign of meaner times when the club was forced to increase its security after a $205,000 book was stolen from its library.
Lobban has worked for the club for 15 years, after he left his old job as a bodyguard for the most famous Rand Club member, Nelson Mandela.
“He was one of the hardest people to look after. I used to hate it. The man had no sense of security. Often he would stop in the middle of a street to get out and talk to people,” says Lobban.
A painting, donated by the great man, hangs above the stairwell, to commemorate his membership.
As the club struggles to survive, surely Rhodes would approve of the one last roll of the diamonds.