At the end of September, the Rand Club, Johannesburg’s oldest club, and certainly one of its most iconic social clubs, closed its doors.
The Rand Club was part of Johannesburg’s 129-year history and was also symbolic of the inner city’s struggle between urban decay and renewal, owing to its location in the very heart of the central business district, has its closure has naturally generated a considerable amount of press over the last few weeks. Much of has skimmed over the actual history of the club itself, particularly its formation. However, that is always the most interesting aspect of any institution and, thus, it is worthwhile providing a brief historical narrative of the club.
As with most aspects of Johannesburg’s earliest history, the origin of the Rand Club is more anecdotal than undisputed fact. The most accepted version of the tale, inevitably, has Cecil John Rhodes as the central character and goes a little something like this:
In December 1886, when Johannesburg was still a mere mining camp and the gold rush was still gaining momentum, Rhodes, who was one of the first wealthy magnates to arrive on the Rand, decided that what the new gold mecca really needed was a social centre fit for the ambitious gentlemen who, he was sure, would come to dominate the new mining scene. Being one of the key members of the diamond city’s most exclusive gentlemen’s club, he, naturally, wanted this new social centre to emulate the Kimberley Club.
One afternoon, having completed some business, Rhodes suggested to his friend and right hand man on the Rand, Dr Hans Sauer, that they take a walk and select a site for the new club. Being the shrewd visionary that he was, Rhodes chose a key location on the corner of the two busiest roads in the heart of the burgeoning town landscape. The area consisted of four stands on the corner where Commissioner street, Johannesburg’s main street, met a street running from Marshall’s township into the bustling Market Square.
Naturally, such prime real estate had already been purchased, with two stands belonging to a Scotsman by the name of HR Marshall and the other two to the Jewish financier, Ikey Sonnenberg.
Although Sonnenberg’s story has been eclipsed by the biographies of the more powerful and wealthy magnates, he is certainly one of South African mining history’s more colourful characters. The best characterisations of Sonnenberg was written by Louis Cohen, the notorious chronicler of Kimberley’s diamond fields: “If ever nature treated the world to a genuine gambler, she did so when Ikey Sonnenberg came into the world. He was a tall, lank man, with the biggest feet ever seen, and with the largest and tenderest heart. Although cunning as a fox in some things, he was in others simple as a child; and Bret Harte would have given a day’s work to have caught a glimpse of this kindly individual, who had the quaintest wit, quite untouched by malice, one ever smiled at. Ike was most cute in his business transactions – dealt in everything, was no saint, and didn’t pretend to be.”
Rhodes was already well acquainted with the financier and so paid him a visit to state his case. On learning that the property would be used for a gentlemen’s club, Sonnenberg generously made the ground over as a gift. Marshall, on the other hand, did not prove so amenable and demanded payment of the full purchase price of £72.
Having secured the property, Rhodes, in true business fashion, formed a small company to launch and operate the new club. The Witwatersrand Club & Exchange Company was formed in early 1887, with a capital of £3,500. Not surprisingly, its first directors included Rhodes, Sauer and the indomitable JB Robinson. The aim of the company was to establish ”a residential club and exchange, both of which are much needed”, and an early rule stated that a primary qualification for membership was the possession of ten £1 shares in the company. However, that rule was never enforced. The collection of subscriptions was extremely haphazard and apparently “one joined the club and argued with the secretary afterwards about such sordid details as fees”.
The building, as it stands today, is not, however, the original clubhouse. In fact, it is is the third building to occupy the site, having succeeded, first, a simple one-storeyed brick-and-thatch shanty and then a two-storeyed mixed-style structure decorated with turrets and ornate ironwork. The current Rand Club building was built in the aftermath of the South African War (the Anglo-Boer War) and occupied in December 1904. The exterior of the building has changed little over the years, unlike most of the buildings in that original part of the city. The interior, however, was given a complete refurbishment following the fire of June 2005, although it still certainly exudes a style of Victorian gentlemanly elegance.
For the past 128 years, the Rand Club has stood as a bastion of the professional elite of Johannesburg’s society and, more particularly, of the unparalleled gold mining industry that helped shape modern South Africa. It has borne witness to some of the most dramatic events in the city's and the country’s history – from the Jameson Raid to the South African War, the Rand Revolt and countless inner-city protest marches of the apartheid and nonracial democratic eras.
Although it is claimed that the closure is just temporary, it is hard not to draw a parallel between the fortunes of the iconic club and South Africa’s gold mining industry. Having said that, there is still a long life left for South Africa’s mining industry and it will no doubt bounce back, as it has always done in the past. Thus, we can only hope that the same truth can be applied to the Rand Club and that it too will enjoy a golden future once it is reopened as part-club, part-hotel.