An anachronism from apartheid

SUN JOURNAL

Symbol: Once the base for South Africa's colonial powerbrokers, the Rand Club struggles to find its niche -- and fill its barstools -- in a new century.

April 03, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - At the entrance to the main bar of the Rand Club, a bronze statue of mining magnate and British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes stands with his left arm raised as if to welcome weary guests for a drink or perhaps to call for a toast.

Fewer people, however, are heeding the old colonialist's call. Here at South Africa's oldest and most exclusive British-style club, the barstools are empty. At the top of the grand staircase, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II stares down on the first-floor dining room, where bored-looking waiters roam from vacant table to vacant table polishing silverware and straightening chairs. From the old lodging rooms on the top floor to the billiard rooms in the basement, the club is as quiet as a church on a Monday morning.

Not too long ago, you might have had trouble finding a place at what's reputed to be the longest bar in all of Africa. And you would need a reservation to get a dinner table. The Rand Club was the place to come and revel in the privileges of membership in a bastion of prestige.

"It was very crowded until 1993," says Peter Nephawe, a bartender at the Rand Club for the last 17 years. (It used to take eight men to keep the clubbers' glasses full. Now two are more than enough, he says.) "And then most of the businesses moved to the suburbs."

Driven out by fears of carjackings, muggings and murders, business owners have fled downtown and sought refuge in the plush northern suburbs. Downtown property values have plummeted. In the biggest blow to the city, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, after more than a century downtown, moved last year to the bustling suburb of Sandton, pulling out thousands of jobs with it.

During apartheid, Johannesburg was a white stronghold, off limits to all blacks except those with passes. But as apartheid was dismantled, blacks and African immigrants flooded into the city to live and work. Now the city is a mix of abandoned office towers and a vibrant street life of vendors hawking everything from fresh tomatoes to handbags and radios. Minibus taxis, honking their horns in search of passengers, dart up and down the street.

A few of the major banks and mining companies with downtown headquarters hang on. And so has the Rand Club, struggling to find a place in a city few of its members dare to visit. As one of the club's doormen here put it: "We have no problem with membership. It's just that no one comes here anymore."

Its five-story classical brick building, built in 1904, sits opposite a discount shop and street vendors on Loveday Street in the central business district.

Founded by Rhodes and other mining giants in 1887 as an all-male, all-Christian watering hole, the Rand Club earned a reputation as the gathering place for the cream of the boomtown's social set. The Rand Club defined itself as much by who it kept out - women, blacks and Jews - as who it allowed in. The club kicked out its German members at the beginning of World War I. They were not allowed to return for 13 years.

Over the years it has tried to catch up with social changes. First, it let in members of the city's large Jewish population. In 1994, women became eligible to join and four years ago, blacks. "The ladies caused more of a stir than the blacks," says Tony Thomson, general manager. "Everyone's welcome now."

And in another nod to the changing times, the main dining room is graced with a painting of Nelson Mandela, the country's first black president, just across the room from the queen. The club voted to relax its dress code to allow traditional African dress. And last month, the club did the nearly unthinkable by dropping the long-standing requirement for men to wear a coat and tie.

All the efforts to be inclusive have translated into a more casually dressed though not necessarily more diverse membership. Of the 1,700 members, about a dozen are women and about 20 are black. Included in the 1,700 are 500 "absentee"` members living overseas, mainly whites who found that the northern suburbs were not far enough away from the perils of the new South Africa.

"There is a general perception of violence. People don't want to go downtown," Thomson said. "We have to cajole the members to come with entertainment."

One night a month there is a drawing for a cash door prize. For several months last year the club opened its doors to all visitors as the site of a dinner theater show, "Gold," a historical revue of Johannesburg. But locals were too afraid to go downtown at night, and the show moved to a casino.

People are so terrified of downtown that a recent Rand Club advertisement for a dinner followed by an evening of classical music at City Hall read like a visit to a war zone: "Security provided on the route into and out of town."

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