The new old boys’ club

2013-06-23 10:00

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The Rand Club now reflects the prevailing culture of a diverse society

As Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe convenes a new “consultative forum” to try and solve the mining industry’s woes, consider the traditional “home away from home” of the Randlords and the leaders of South Africa’s founding industry – the Rand Club.

South Africa has a history of negotiation through formalised institutional mechanisms, but the parallel history of loose informal channels of authority in our political economy are instructive.

The Rand Club is where the committee of mining barons met with government, and others, to brood over the economic and security implications of the 1922 mine workers’ strike on the Witwatersrand.

The mainly white working class uprising of January 1922 is probably the closest historical precedent for the Marikana uprising of August 2012.

Post-war inflation and inadequate wage increases between 1918 and 1920 caused low commodity prices, threats of retrenchment and other radical measures employed by mining companies to remain profitable.

The images of that time show a rash of violent riots, arson, looting and death.

President Jacob Zuma can surely sympathise with the then prime minister of the Union of South Africa, Jan Smuts, but will he learn from the long-dead statesman’s mistakes?

Smuts could not afford to alienate the mass of unhappy workers who would be important in an election, but he was also dependent on the mining companies for the economic health of the country.

Smuts’ handling of the strike, which was brutal, cost him the 1924 election.

Zuma’s relationship with labour has been problematic, but the effect of Marikana on next year’s general election remains to be seen.

At the time of the Rand Revolt, the Rand Club’s hosting of high-level informal discussions supplemented existing formal efforts.

The club was founded in October 1887 by Cecil John Rhodes, a robber baron or one of the greatest mining entrepreneurs of all time, depending on your historical perspective.

The Rand Club stands at the corner of Loveday and Commissioner streets in downtown Joburg, a vastly different city now than when Rhodes envisioned his expansion of the British empire from Cape Town to Cairo.

Legend has it that it was Rhodes who selected the corner on which the Rand Club was first established.

The club was founded at the height of Joburg’s gold rush, and celebrated 125 years of existence late last year.

Lack and Frank Emley architects drew up the plans for a club built in the neoclassical style. Art historians have called it one of Joburg’s oldest and most beautiful buildings.

The interiors are a mix of antique colonial furniture and African artifacts, an appealing combination of past and present.

Back when Nelson Mandela, who is now a member of the Rand Club, was a night watchman on the mines, no black people were allowed there as guests. Nor were women.

But the club has become iconic in its ability to mutate, sacrificing elite exclusivity and social aloofness for continuing relevance and a share in the fate of South Africa.

Michael Collins, the club’s acting administrator, tells the story of how, not so long ago, a member of the Rand Club, a lawyer at Bowman Gilfillan Attorneys, applied for a special permit to bring a handsome, young, black articles clerk to the club for lunch.

Today, that clerk is no other than mining magnate and philanthropist Patrice Motsepe – a latter-day black Randlord.

After a fire gutted the club in 2005, an imposing painting of Queen Elizabeth II was replaced by a large, specially commissioned painting of Nelson Mandela.

Before the fire, the Rand Club survived the exodus of commerce from Joburg’s CBD to Sandton.

And now, due to recent efforts to gentrify the city centre, many major corporations are returning.

The Rand Club now has an Mvela Room, named after the predominantly mining-focused group founded by black Randlord Tokyo Sexwale.

In a determined effort to bridge the social and generational differences between classes, how much a candidate member pays is determined by age. The younger you are, the cheaper it is to join.

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