JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - After more than a century as an oasis of Victorian grandeur and increasingly anachronistic monument to British imperialism in the heart of South Africa’s biggest city, Johannesburg’s Rand Club is closing its doors.
Founded by British colonialist and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes in 1887, the year after the gold rush city came into being, the club served as the watering hole of South Africa’s richest and most powerful men during most of the 20th century.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, it grudgingly went with the times, admitting blacks and women even though the stuffed animals and portraits of exclusively white ‘Rand Lords’ adorning its walls attested to the old South Africa that was meant to have been buried with apartheid.
However, the writing was on the wall with the exodus of big banks and law firms from downtown Johannesburg during the 1990s as violent crime soared and the richest gold mines in human history started to run dry.
With Rhodes now widely despised in South Africa as a megalomaniac and racist - his statue was removed from the University of Cape Town this year and another was defaced with an angle grinder - the club was never going to recapture its former glory.
“The demographics have changed,” said general manager Dave Lobban, a former apartheid secret policeman whose first job at the Rand Club in the late 1990s was as a somewhat improbable flower-arranger.
“Everybody has moved out, and the executives that are still around are having to work every hour that God sends.”
The ornate four-story Victorian building, home to what is said to be the longest bar in Africa at 103 feet (31 meters), is to undergo a year-long facelift, after which it will reopen, probably as part-club, part-hotel, Lobban said.
However, nothing of historical value is being sold or thrown away, from Zulu spears thrown on the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift to the dead members’ billiard cues that still stand, by long-standing tradition, in racks in the basement.
“The Club has been running so long but it can’t carry on as it is. It will be reopened, but it will be a different place,” Lobban said. “But the billiard queues will still be there. That’s Club rules.”
Editing by Kevin Liffey