July 5, 2012

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

Perhaps this sofa is the one picture I took that best conveys the precise feeling of "faded
glory" that visiting the Rand Club evoked in me

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. 


2Summers said...

I've never been to the Rand Club and hence can't comment. But I love your honest and hilarious assessment. Haha.

Anonymous said...

The Rand Club has always mirrored the gold mining industry. Its decline is also seen in the many expiring gold extraction ventures, where they are sifting through the leftovers of the last 110 years. Picking at a listless oxtail fits that mood quite well.

Sine said...

LOL, picking at listless oxtail vs picking listlessly through the mine dumps. Perfect!

sebastian czartoryski said...

Dear Blogger,

It is always interesting to find out what others think of one's club, be it flattering or not. Good feedback abounds, not-so-good feedback is to be expected. It usually comes from a category of persons whom David Bullard (also a member) describes as "comrades". In fact, please feel free to peruse what a comrade from The Guardian had written about it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/18/rand-club-johannesburg, as well as David Bullard's response here: http://www.freejourn.org/column/DavidBullard/Would_you_let_your_daughter_marry_a_%E2%80%98leftie%E2%80%9D/9/3369/.

As a self-professed snob, you would no doubt appreciate the decline in breeding that has taken place in the last few decades. You will have noted that way too many use substandard SMS-newspeak (often without the foggiest idea on how to spell), consider it their human right to wear old denims anywhere they go to (including at the theatre at a bolshoi ballet opening gala), do not know how to tie a necktie (being grown men) and apply make-up in full view of the unsuspecting public who might not want to be privy to such sights. We get invited to their homes and get shown where the kettle, coffee, and sugar are, to "help ourselves". We listen to their toddlers' cries on a overnight flight. We often wonder whether their learned any basic manners at home.

You see, this is not the sort of person the Rand Club wants as a member. It is not a measure of sanity to adapt oneself to a profoundly disturbed society, or something to that effect, as one wise author had once observed. There are those amongst us who crave some sort of a refuge, where one can legitimately expect integrity (and its physical manifestation - etiquette) to be the norm, not the exception. I cannot see how this human need can be deemed archaic, as your write-up seems to infer.

As a self-professed snob, you will also no doubt appreciate that a club is a home-away-from home for its members. The currect connotation of it as a place where people go to "hang out" (membership does not come into the equation) is a modern invention. You will also appreciate that there is such a thing as heritage, and that some people (who have it) are justifiably proud of it. The inner snob in you should on the very least have heard that a gentlemen's club is not actually a place to have a panoramic view of various lasses in various stages of undress.

A bit of hatin' and trollin' should never be discounted as a means to release negative emotion, but I struggle to understand what is it that you found about the Rand Club that is so offensive to your principles. If I presume that it could have been offence taken that no women were allowed as members (though in other respects they could, and did, attend events, as the old photographs would evidence, and the ladies' rooms well antedate 1993), please give it some thought that today, in Joburg, there are exclusive women's gyms (being women's sports clubs), which do not allow men; my egalitarian self might very well be offended, but I do respect the right of those women who have formed themselves into such clubs to keep them exlusive on the grounds of gender (and possibly other grounds). If it is that the taxidermy is sparse, I should like to invite you downstairs to the Snooker Room, which it appears you may not have been shown.

sebastian czartoryski said...

On the issue of heritage, I will find it necessary to enlighten the inner snob in you - you see, this is what separates the sheep from the goats; one either has it or one does not. The snob in you would appreciate that it is a lot more valuable to have inherited one's Herbert Baker home than to have built oneself a pseudo-Tuscan monstrosity in Dainfern. You may vary well be able to afford your own diamond necklace, but you will agree it is much more meaningful to have inherited one from one's grandmother. By the same token, heritage signifies "membership since...", which is something the nouveax riches may very well want, but cannot really have; they can save themselves the embarrassment by not pretending to be more of a snob than someone who can trace one's lineage going back a few centuries. You see, that torn sofa is actually over 100 years old and stands for just that, its age and nobility, which no Italian "designer" piece can accomplish. Being a snob actually means not appearing to be such - it is vulgar to flaunt one's "designer labels" (like some newly-minted fellows do when they keep the HUGO BOSS tag on the sleeves of their suit jackets or "ladies" with oversized logos on their handbags), because what one is actually doing is the advertising for someone a lot better at marketing, without the bonus of being paid for doing such advertising; a true snob removes labels from one's clothing, if there are such labels on it, or - preferably - goes to his bespoke tailor. I trust this brief excursion into snobbery may have been useful; perhaps, there are things about snobbery that you still have to learn.

It is regrettable that you did not enjoy yourself. It is even more regrettable that you seem to have formed an opinion on an institution that is 125-years old on the strength of a single visit.

sebastian czartoryski said...

As to the menu, you must no doubt have attended the After Hours function, for which the chef prepares a shorter menu. The correct thing to do when your food does not arrive as hot as it should be (or as you would like it) is to ask for it to be brought back hotter. I feel personally obliged to invite you for some other event (like, say, the 125-year anniversary black-tie dinner, where the chef is reproducing a menu from 1898 when Rudyard Kipling visited the club), so that you can experience what the place is about, meet more of the members, and dazzle everyone with your sparkling wit.


P.S. There are more than one posts, because of the limitation in wording per post.

Sine said...

Hi Sebastian,

wow - this will take me a while to sort through. I definitely must have hit a nerve with my blog post!

First off, yes, I read David Smith's article. Interestingly, not until after I had visited, and I must say I shared most of the sentiments.

You note "the decline of breeding" and talk of "SMS-newsspeak", but then you give me a rebuttal article using language such as "leftie journo" when referring to a journalist writing about the Rand Club - is that the language you're afraid is declining? Then maybe it's a good thing.

And why are you so upset by a simple opinion? It almost harks of Muslim sensitivities vis-a-vis certain Danish cartoons of the prophet. Yes, everyone is entitled to "some sort of refuge" from a "profoundly disturbed society" as you call it, but you are not entitled to be immune from people making fun of it because frankly, it has indeed seen better days.

Have you even read my article? I wonder where you got the idea that the Rand Club was offensive to my principles. I was poking fun of it. And I certainly object to equating my writing to "hatin' and trollin'." And you are wrong. I DID enjoy myself tremendously, precisely because the Rand Club has such a rich history (one that you wrongfully seem to presume I detest) and is so beholden to heritage (or part of SA's heritage, as it is).

Thanks for the compliment re my sparkling wit, I do pride myself of that. Though I almost fear I detect a hint of sarcasm in that.

In any case, I'm glad I provoked such interest here on Joburg Expat and such lengthy commentary.

Sine said...

By the way, that response by David Bullard is some of the worst racist blather I've read. I can't even bring myself to quote it here. But if that's what you're going to give me to show that the Rand Club does NOT belong to a bygone era, then you might very well try again with something more refined. Being a self-professed snob does not make me a self-professed racist, if that's what you assumed.

Conrad said...

Eine "bygone era" eben. Wobei das "alte Geld" in Europa vor 125 Jahren sich über den Rand Club der Neureichen in Johannesburg wahrscheinlich ganz ähnlich geäußert hätte wie dieser Herr 125 Jahre später...

sebastian czartoryski said...


that was possibly a more appopriate comment, but the origins of the rand club are not nearly as arriviste as your comment might imply. it was founded by a prime minister, who himself originates from the gentry. membership includes knights and peers, then as now. the duke of york, on his visit to SA in the 1920s, chose to stay here in preference to official residences. membership today includes former presidents, ambassadors, high court judges, archbishops, composers, playwrights, and the professions; you might also be surprised at the number of young people to whom the club is anything but a "bygone era".

sebastian czartoryski said...

oh dear, sine, what is this "racist blather" you are referring to?

Anonymous said...

Wow - lots of comments on this. I do respect the opinions of the gentleman concerned that his club wasn't shown in the proper light. I get quite defensive of my Alma Matter in the same way. But it is quite hard to defend a ripped up sofa as anything but a ripped up sofa. Pride of ownership, or lack of it, is usually a pretty accurate reflection of the owners' attitude(s)toward their home, or in this case, club. Whether or not you are asked to help yourself to tea or are served tea in proper manner, please never ask a guest to sit on something as ghastly as that and be offended when they are not impressed. - Beth

sebastian czartoryski said...

Dear Sine,

I did not use “SMS-newSspeak” but “SMS-newspeak”, which, if you recall George Orwell’s “1948” is a slew of ill-thought neologisms. If they do not sell the book in the States, I am confident you can pick up a copy from the premises of Mr Amazon. It seems we are not speaking of the same thing here.

Moving swiftly along, it is baffling to see you equate my being somewhat upset with your “opinion” with the Muslim outrage at the Danish cartoons. It seems to imply that I was in ranting rage over a lampooning piece. You will be closer to the truth if you considered that (1) going to a place that is 125-years old only once hardly gives one enough perspective to make such final conclusions as assigning same to the dustbin of history; (2) that is even more so, since you have only actually appear to have visited the bar; and (3) you are writing in a blog which gives advice to expats, giving such poorly researched “opinion” on the strength of having been once to the bar is somewhat misrepresentative. On the very least, had you taken tour, you would have seen the evidence of renovations and a lot more taxidermy.

Further, judging by your statement that if a club does not allow denims, then it must be of the class that would serve you a mojito, pronto, makes you seem to compare it to some sort of a hotel (perhaps because a hotel is the type of establishment you are most familiar with when it comes to providing various victuals and creature comforts), which caters to the general public and must, accordingly, be able to satisfy many different tastes. A club of this type is not in fact a public place; it does not need to satisfy any tastes other than those of its members; this was the whole point of my trying to explain to you that a club is in fact a home-away-from home; and its members (you do not seem to have spent much time amongst gentlemen who belong to such clubs) do in fact have rather simple tastes – I am perfectly aware that on screen James Bond imbibes only the most obscure of cocktail combinations or single malts, and I would not be surprised if this is how similar characters were depicted in romantic novels, but this is not how things happen in real life. (If you think that that particular third of the House of Lords which belongs to the Carlton Club in London is any different, you might want to reconsider.) Instead of thinking of a gentlemen’s club as some sort of a glitzy hotel, rather consider you like the country house of your aunt’s (in fact, these are the principles it is ran on) – I am confident that, if she herself does not drink mojitos, her staff are also unlikely to know how to fix you one. Plus, I do not see how a gentleman is expected to know what a mojito is or does to begin with. It is quite, well, proletarian.
As you can see, far from being bitter and twisted, my quarrel with you is that you seem ill-equipped and poorly informed to pronounce on the Rand Club, since you hardly seem to understand what it stands for (or what a gentleman is). And when you do express an opinion thereon, it makes you appear either misinformed or mischievous. Either way, that hardly makes you immune from being “poked fun of” yourself ;-)

But you are a good sport, I’ll give you that, you suburban snob, you ;-)

sebastian czartoryski said...

dear anonymous,

you will be in shock and horror if you had to be invited for a weekend at most english country houses, french chateaux or italian country villas that are still in the hands of the same family that built them.

the "ripped-up" sofa shows "membership since...", particularly if it has a fine XIX century oil hanging next to it. to replace it would detract from its authenticity. the same principle applies to carpets - they must, in fact, be close to threadbare, otherwise they appear too new and therefore vulgar.

I can understand how this could sound strange to you, but I am confident that if you come across a fine leather chesterfield today, your grandchildren will one day be very grateful to you for its patina and odd crack. Particularly, if you bequeath a fine oil that goes with it.

Sine said...

Sebastian, frankly you just make me tired with the shear volume and slightly patronizing tone of your comments. Who has time for all this? But oh, I forgot, you are a gentleman. A gentleman of leisure I presume:-)

I think this will be it for me, as I have exhausted my patience with this debate.

And by the way, it is 1984. Not 1948. I do know my George Orwell.

sebastian czartoryski said...

ah, sine, and I just called you a good sport! :-)

if meaningful debates are tiring to a lady, I will be loath to carry on :-)

"gentleman of leisure"? ah, I like that, though in real life I am more of a lawyer with a flair for arguments and fast-typing fingers :-)

many thanks for correcting the error - I could certainly tell you know your orwell :-)

you must forgive me if my comments came across as patronising - the written word has its limitations.

Sine said...

Oh, a lawyer? I should have known. I'm sure I could now tell a good lawyer joke but I suppose I've insulted you and your club enough. The thing about tiring debates is, I get to have them whenever I feel like it right here at home. I have a teenage son, you see. And in that spirit, let me close with the words I always offer him, in the end: Yes dear, you may have the last word.

sebastian czartoryski said...

Oh, lord, and then you say my comments come across as patronising? :-)

I actually learnt quite a bit from this spirited little debate, namely:

1. though shallt not argue with bourgeois armchair critics, for their class consciousness rivals that of red comrades;

2. though shallt not expect rational responses from said critics, as same are firmly of the opinion that they represent the "future";

3. though shallt request the committee to place a sign at the entrance that "members here wear proper trousers and shoes, have real jobs, do not use street language, peruse one of the largest collections of africana, treat each other with courtesy, and drink average liquor - this might make you feel like the place is a throwback from the dark ages and you might feel an irrepressible urge to denounce it"

so my last words would be 'thank you'.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I think the Rand club is as much a victim of its location as anything else. Also in a region/country that is so uptight about the colonial era it is amazing it lasted as long as it did. Apparently the club closed recently or rather has been put on hiatus. They still host some events so I'm not sure exactly what is going on.

Part of the problem which ties into the location thing is that they have suffered a massive decline in membership since the end of apartheid. Had the CBD not lost out to Sandton the Rand Club might have been able to survive. Even then it would not have been the same as in the past because it is an unwanted vestige of the British Empire. Not unwanted by me of course as I doubt as I'll never stop missing the empire even though it faded from view long before I was born.

Brian Kent said...

Oh bless Sine,
Were you expecting something 'fancy' like Montecasino, or perhaps ever the plastic lions at the Michaelangelo? You are probably American, and certainly can't afford the membership fees. I do hear that the flood is generally served warm at Wimpy, they even have free Wifi for your tedious and self gratuitous 'blog' posts. When you're passing, we'll be happy to see you pass.

Sine said...

Goodness Brian, I have no idea why this blog post elicits such a heated response from the good old boys at the Rand Club. Perhaps it proves my point. I have no idea about Wimpy, having never set foot in one, but I do know the food at the Rand Club was not especially nice. What I basically wrote here is that it had seen better days, something its owners must have realized too or why was it closed and is now reopening? If I still lived there, I would have loved to go and check out the new look. And perhaps written a gratuitous blog post about it.