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Johannesburg's colonial Rand Club transformed

China Daily | Updated: 2019-01-07 09:01
Sello Chauke, the barman of the Rand Club, a relic of South Africa's colonial history, leans on the bar in Johannesburg on Dec 6. MARCO LONGARI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa-With its imposing columned facade, hunting trophies and oil portraits, the Rand Club in Johannesburg's city center is a relic of South Africa's colonial past.

Founded in 1887 by British mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, it was the favored venue for white businessmen and freewheeling gold prospectors to strike deals and socialize in the hushed library or at the 31-meter-long teak bar, reputedly the longest in Africa.

But Alicia Thompson, a black woman born in Johannesburg, is seeking to reposition the club, which has struggled to stay open in recent years, by attracting the city's young while preserving its heritage.

Thompson, 46, is the club's deputy chairman, said that she had faced "not one iota of resistance" in her efforts to haul the club into the modern era.

"I grew up in Johannesburg, I frequented the city and I used to see this building that I was not allowed to enter," said Thompson.

Thompson has seen the number of full-time members-paying $720 a year-grow recently to nearly 500 after years of decline, while the numbers of student members are also up.

Alongside efforts to modernize the club and appeal to millennials, including the launch of a business networking club, some rules still honor tradition with phones and tablets banned in the club's upstairs communal areas.

"The idea is to enjoy each others' company. It's good to be 'personal-that's what's lacking on sites like LinkedIn," said Thompson.

Jane Germaner, the 33-year-old wife of a member, praised the club's transformation policy.

"One of the beautiful things about it is you get to network with all these people you wouldn't necessarily meet in your day-to-day life. You meet all kinds of characters," she said.

Women were not admitted until 1993 but Germaner said she has never felt unwelcome.

Vestiges of the past like hunting trophies are also displayed less prominently than they once were. A portrait of Nelson Mandela, a member in his lifetime, takes pride of place above the sweeping staircase at the heart of the club.

Conventions like the dress code have been quietly relaxed over time as the club pushes to grow its membership base.

It has also begun hosting weddings, parties and functions which, along with a loan from three members, have put the club on a surer financial footing.

It came close to the brink of closure following a fire in 2005 and it went into "hibernation" in 2015 when its fate again hung in the balance.

"Now members are the entrepreneurs," said Sello Chauke, a 34-year-old Soweto resident and a bartender at the club.

ASSOCIATED PRESSE - FRANCE

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