Johannesburg - By no stretch of the imagination does Jo Buitendach look like a member of the Rand Club.
This is what it’s come to, I’m afraid, the historic club that counted people like Cecil John Rhodes, JB Robinson and Alfred Beit among its members, the place where Reform Committee members were arrested after the Jameson Raid. Now it lets young women in.
Like many South African institutions, the club is adapting with the times – and surviving. Inside you’ll find a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, a statuette of Rhodes and a painting of Nelson Mandela.
And you can go there too, with Buitendach, after a walking tour of downtown Joburg. You can step off the bustling pavement into the glory of the marble-tiled lobby, mount the grand staircase to the library, admire racks of guns (all disabled) in the armoury, goggle at the mounted trophies in the snooker room – including a giraffe which appears to be bursting through the wall – and have a drink in the magnificent mahogany-panelled bar, with its 30m-plus counter, apparently the longest in Africa.
Imagine the elbows that have leaned on that bar, and the plans that have been cooked up in all the years since 1887 when the first club building opened its doors.
When we planned our trip, people said: “You’re going to Joburg? For a holiday? Why?”
Buitendach, an archaeologist who runs a tour company called Past Experiences, says most people don’t consider the Joburg inner city as a tourist attraction. “But we think they should, and we’re aiming to change this perception.”
We meet outside the Rand Club for our two-hour walking tour of the historic part of the city.
After the goldfields were declared in 1886, the authorities needed a site, preferably not over gold-bearing reef, on which the new town could be built. And it happened there was just such a site available, a triangular piece of around 600 acres of “uitval” ground left over from surveying of nearby farms, called Randjeslaagte.
Its southern boundary is along today’s Commissioner Street, and Diagonal Street marks its upward sloping line. The original mining camp known as Ferreira’s Camp lay to the south-west of Randjeslaagte, on what had been the farm Turffontein.
Although the town was designed to avoid the Reef, it was very close. During construction of the Standard Bank Centre in Simmonds Street in 1986, builders found an old gold-mining stope three levels below ground. .
Do we want to see the stope, Buitendach asks? Of course we do. So we go into the gleaming glass and granite bank building and take a lift three floors down. We’re in a small museum, full of photographs, mine plans, old picks and other implements found on the site, and a chunk of polished, gold-bearing conglomerate. One wall is solid Joburg bedrock, with a bricked-off tunnel leading off it. You can see the pick marks on the tunnel walls, and a cocopan waits to be filled.
The old mine workings reached a depth of 1 000m under the bank, and the No 1 level, which was 30m down, was filled with concrete to stop subsidence – and perhaps resourceful thieves using the old tunnels to get into the bank.
Ironically, this museum is one of the sites, with Gold Reef City, threatened by the rise of acid mine water, one of the legacies of Joburg’s mining history.
The area around Simmonds, Fox and Main streets is rich with mining history, and the Joburg council is imaginatively showing it off. Street bins are made from old mining ventilation equipment, there is a train outside the old Stock Exchange building that used to carry miners underground, a headgear from the Rustenburg Platinum Mine in Main Street, and a 10-stamp gold ore-crushing battery from Langlaagte, which was first used in 1886, making it one of the oldest on the Witwatersrand.
And everywhere there are beautifully mounted information boards explaining the significance of what you’re seeing.
We pass the Corner House, once the centre of Randlord Hermann Eckstein’s empire, and now home – part of it, anyway – to a hair salon; admire the contrast between shiny new skyscrapers and Victorian buildings just off Sauer Street; spot Chancellor House, where Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo practised as lawyers, now partly a museum; and have a look at Beyers Naude Square, formerly the Library Gardens and all that is left of the famous and extensive Market Square, where wagons would bring mining equipment piece by piece up from the coast, greens from the countryside for the burgeoning gold rush town, and ivory and tusks from the interior.
We’ve heard all the horror stories of the Joburg CBD, but we find it’s clean, studded with street art – Jo tells us that Joburg spends one percent of its budget on public art – and full of people going cheerfully about their business. .
After two hours we head back to the Rand Club for a drink in the famous bar. - Weekend Argus