It's showtime! Rand Easter Show celebrates 125 years of history

In the Rand Show’s 125th year, Sue de Groot examines its role in South African history — and its place on the curve of human interests

14 April 2019 - 00:00 By Sue de Groot
Youngsters fly through the air on one of the rides at the Rand Show at Nasrec, which is still a major attraction 125 years after it was first held in Johannesburg.
Youngsters fly through the air on one of the rides at the Rand Show at Nasrec, which is still a major attraction 125 years after it was first held in Johannesburg.
Image: Sydney Seshibedi

The Rand Show, like SA, has survived because of its ability to reinvent itself. It can also be seen as a mirror reflecting the changing face of human interests and obsessions.

The show started because of cattle. For hundreds of years these useful animals have been symbols of wealth and status. A prize animal demands the existence of competitions in which it can win prizes, so the Rand Show began as a way of honouring the brawniest bulls and curviest cows - and their breeders, because cattle don't really care about gold cups.

The Witwatersrand Agricultural Society was set up in 1894 with the aim of improving farming methods and raising standards in the breeding of dairy and beef. Cattle competitions and auctions were part of the Rand Show for 105 years.

In her 1970 book, A Very Smart Medal: The history of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society, historian Thelma Gutsche locates the show in the tumultuous times that framed it. In 1895 there were 900 exhibitors and about 20,000 visitors, of whom 3,000 came by train from the Cape. According to Gutsche, these were mainly people who wanted to see the nine-year-old town of Johannesburg that had grown up around gold mining camps.

In December that year, the Jameson Raid caused the showground to be temporarily commandeered as a point from which to distribute food to starving refugees. Three
council members of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society were jailed for helping to organise the raid. In 1896, the showgrounds were used to accommodate nearly 500 people made homeless by a mining explosion that opened a crater in Braamfontein and killed more than 100.

Then state president CR Swart admires an award-winning bull at the 1962 Rand Show, which was held at Milpark in those years.
Then state president CR Swart admires an award-winning bull at the 1962 Rand Show, which was held at Milpark in those years.
Image: Rand Show

Like other enterprises, the show was affected by the turning tides of war and fortune. The showgrounds were used as military barracks during the Anglo-Boer War as well as World War 2. Attendance rose steadily, however, reaching more than 100,000 in 1927. By 1946, that number had doubled.

Never mind the locusts, look at the waitresses

In 1907, attendance was down due to the miners' strike, which was supported by tram drivers. There also wasn't much fresh produce on show because a plague of locusts had decimated crops. That year's show is remembered mostly for its "home industries" section and tea tents, both introduced by Mrs Poultney, wife of the show's secretary. She employed pretty waitresses to serve cake in what became a forerunner to today's food courts. Liquor was also served, naturally.

In 1908, six policemen were assigned to protect the booze in the produce shed but they disappeared along with the alcohol.

From 1910 the arena was floodlit at night (a new transformer bought in 1914 enabled greater illumination but caused blackouts in the neighbouring suburbs of Vrededorp and Auckland Park) and the committee began looking for even more attractions. Military displays had already been introduced and were soon joined by riding acts, musical performances and circus displays.

Contestants in a bodybuilding competition at the 2015 edition of the show.
Contestants in a bodybuilding competition at the 2015 edition of the show.
Image: Alon Skuy

In 1912, the new "motor traders' section" was an instant hit and presaged the proliferation of trade exhibitors. Space allocated to vehicles was never enough, even when an enormous Motor Show Hall was built in 1927, housing an aeroplane as well as Malcolm Campbell's land-speed-record-breaking car, Bluebird. Many new and experimental models of luxury vehicle have since been unveiled at the show.

When a dedicated amusement park became part of the show in 1918, some of the farmers complained about such frivolity sharing space with the serious business of cattle. But over the next 100 years the sideshow entertainment moved more and more to centre stage.

In 1956, a polio epidemic caused a drop in numbers, but from then on the show regularly attracted more than 500,000 visitors.

Craig Newman, current Rand Show CEO, said: "This used to be the biggest event on the calendar. At one point it lasted for 27 days and the whole country came to a standstill."

Old photographs going back decades show traffic jams that rival any rush-hour blockage today. Only the rich could afford the parking fees, according to Gutsche. The attractions multiplied as rapidly as the visitors.

In 1928, the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce presented the first exhibit by a foreign country, soon to be joined by a huge range of pavilions displaying the pride of other nations. Domestic appliances and inventions were seen first at the Rand Show, where visitors gasped at machines that could slice, dice and grate, or magical cooking surfaces that went beyond hotplates.

In 1947, the show was opened by King George VI, flanked by the Queen Mother and princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

Apartheid casts its dismal shadow

It was inevitable that, like the rest of SA, the Rand Show would suffer from the National Party's segregation policies. In the 1960s, separate gates were introduced for separate races, followed by separate days, and attendance declined rapidly. Later organisers got around some of the absurd legislation by exploiting a loophole whereby facilities declared "international" could be used by people of all races.

In 1964, the overhead cableway was launched and safely carried 24,388 passengers until five minutes before closing time, when one of the two-person capsules fell and injured the occupants - two strangers who later married each other. The cableway carried millions more without incident, although its thrill faded somewhat with the arrival of plunging
roller coasters.

In 1970, Krugerrands for sale to the public were launched at the Rand Show at a cost of R28 each. Almost 1,000 were sold on every day of the show and demand continued to soar. Gold, the root of Johannesburg's existence, still captured the imagination and the wallets of the people.

Long staged at Milpark - now part of the Wits University campus - the show moved in 1984 to Nasrec, where the cattle competitions of the past have now been replaced by celebrations of human wizardry and inventiveness.

The Rand Show still contains familiar elements - aerial displays and military manoeuvres, flower exhibits, machine demonstrations and gravity-defying rides - but in place of groomed and gleaming horses and luscious long-horned cows there are now pavilions dedicated to fashion, beauty, fitness and futuristic gaming technology.

Even though the current show targets the tastes of 21st-century leisure seekers, its heritage has not been forgotten. For the 125th anniversary, the organisers engaged archivist Diana Wall to curate the new Rand Show Museum, where visitors can take a comprehensive stroll through history. The information in this article is largely based on her research.

The Rand Show is at the Nasrec Expo Centre from April 19-28. Visit randshow.co.za

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