HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO A SOUTH AFRICAN LEGEND
Do you remember your first trip to the Rand Show? You’re risking giving away your age, but do you remember the prize show bulls? Or the soaring Tower of Light and the cable car? Or maybe your memories are more recent … Maybe for you, the Rand Show is all about clambering about on SANDF tanks or watching motorcycle daredevil stunts or getting a bird’s-eye view over Nasrec from the ferris wheel.
AN AUSPICIOUS BEGINNING
The first Rand Show of 1894 wasn’t quite the entertainment spectacular it is today. Initially just a display of horticulture, that first Rand Show still captured the imagination of early Joburgers. In a town that had yet to reach its tenth birthday, it was a not-to-be-missed occasion.
The brainchild of the newly instituted Witwatersrand Agricultural Society, the 1894 event, held at the Wanderers Club, saw local horticulturists showing off their green thumbs with displays of plants, flowers, fruit, table arrangements, posies, and gardening equipment. Though small by today’s standards, Joburgers had never before seen an exhibition of this extent.
And more was promised in the year to come. The society moved the show to a rough piece of state-owned veld next to Milner Park (what is today Wits University’s West Campus); steep and rocky, it was the only piece of land which didn’t have any gold claims attached to it.
Paul Kruger, the state president of the Transvaal Republic, opened the show that year. Some 900 participants made the long rail journey up to the Highveld from as far afield as the Cape Colony and Natal. The clout of the Rand Show was beginning to be felt even then as the rail networks agreed to reduce their tariffs to all show exhibitors and visitors, with thousands of people snapping up tickets to the Highveld.
Never before had Johannesburg seen such crowds. Thousands welcomed “Oom Paul” at the station, then followed him to the showgrounds, where displays of livestock, poultry, dairy products, bees, ornamental plants and trees, farming equipment, and wagons and coaches, awaited them. The Rand Show that year also presented the first-ever exhibition by the Transvaal Kennel Club, as well as wild animal displays.
THE EARLY DAYS
All too soon however, politics would intervene; the two Boer Wars of the late 1800s and early 1900s put the fledgling Rand Show on hold. Come 1907 though, and the Rand Show, now relocated to Milner Park proper, picked up where it had left off. The entries for exhibits that year were so numerous that the society found it didn’t have enough space to show all the horses and cattle; frenzied building followed to erect over 140 new animal stalls.
Through the years, the Rand Show would continue to grow, drawing more and more exhibitors and visitors. It received a further shot in the arm in 1936, when the Empire Exhibition, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of Johannesburg, contracted to use the Rand Show showgrounds.
As an exhibition meant to showcase the country’s trade and industry, only the best would do, and that meant new exhibition halls, a new electrical system, new roads, and numerous other improvements to the showgrounds, to the benefit of future Rand Show visitors.
The iconic Tower of Light, which has since been elected as one of the 100 structures that record Joburg’s history, was built as the centrepiece of the new gardens and buildings erected for the Empire Exhibition. Lasting four months, and attracting more than two million visitors, the Empire Exhibition ushered in a new era of quality for the Rand Show, prompting the Agricultural Society to up its game. In the decades which followed, the Rand Show would add to its attractions, augmenting its agricultural displays with manufacturing and industrial displays and exhibits, giving a full 360-degree glimpse of South Africa’s strengths.
The Rand Show became the flagship exhibition of South Africa, its importance underlined by the dignitaries who opened it each year. In 1947, it was King George VI who did the honours, attending the Rand Show with Queen Elizabeth and the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In 1950, the 80-year-old General Smuts opened the show for the eighth time. In 1957, it was the turn of diamond and gold mining entrepreneur, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, while the first president of the new Republic of South Africa, CR Swart, did the honours in 1962.
Presidents, cabinet ministers, and company chairmen and directors continued to open the show through the coming decades, as the popularity of the show continued to rise, with visitor numbers eventually exceeding half a million.
With numbers like these, the Rand Show, now known as the Rand Easter Show, began to find its traditional home somewhat snug; it relocated in 1984 to the Johannesburg Expo Centre at Nasrec. Its success continued unabated until the start of the new millennium, when the show was sold.
The change was not a good one. By the time it moved to Gallagher Estate in 2009, it had lost many of the elements for which it had become best known, most notably, the agricultural displays. Now focused on hosting rock concerts which attracted a less savoury element and made it less family friendly, the Rand Show began to lose ground, taking on the air of a giant fleamarket cum bazaar.
But a show which had maintained its relevance for over a century despite a changing society, would not be kept down for long. That same year, the show was sold to Nasrec, and new managers were brought in to return the Rand Show to its former position as South Africa’s premier consumer exhibition.
REINVENTING THE RAND SHOW
The ‘new’ Rand Show was launched in 2010, on showgrounds that were somewhat restricted by the presence of FIFA, which was using over 100 000sqm of the Johannesburg Expo Centre’s indoor and outdoor exhibition space as a headquarters for the 2010 World Cup.
Squeezed into a mere quarter of the 30-hectare site, the relaunched Rand Show nonetheless managed to attract 175 000 visitors that year. New attractions included the World Strong Man SA Grand Prix, a horse extravaganza, an international food and culture exhibit, and a boat show on the Rand Show Lake.
In the next few years, word spread that the Rand Show was rising from the dust. Once again a must-do event for the whole family, the Rand Show’s visitor numbers soared to 245 000, up 40% on 2010.
Those elements of ealier shows that had most resonated with the crowds were reintroduced. While the prize bulls weren’t back, a new Animal Kingdom exhibit let visitors once again get close to wild animals, birds, snakes and reptiles, while the Lipizzaner displays in the main arena harked back to the crowd-pulling horsejumping competitions of old.
The SANDF returned to the Rand Show in 2011, putting on spectacular displays and flyovers, with immense static exhibitions for visitors to wander through. The food hall was relaunched, complete with a food theatre and exhibits of food products, cooking utensils and accessories.
The first-ever car show in Africa was held at the Rand Show back in 1912. Almost a century later, the Rand Show 2011 introduced a new motoring show and a theatre of motoring, with drifting displays on the showground racetrack.
As it prepares to celebrate its 120th birthday, the Rand Show is once again adding to its offering, bringing back a huge drawcard from the past as it launches a small-scale agricultural exhibition, with livestock, poultry and other farmyard attractions.
Reminiscent of the early days when Joburg’s ladies used to sell their jams and preserves, visitors will now be able to pick up treats from the BluBird Whole Food Market, where everything from organic coffee to handmade chocs will be on sale. An international deli, a ‘local is lekker’ homegrown market, a spice route, and a wine pavilion round off the culinary offering at the 2014 show.
Since the Rand Show has always been about shopping and great deals, there are also halls dedicated to the home, to technology and gadgets, and to health, beauty, wellness and fashion.
Once again, the Rand Show has become a showcase of the nation. From military displays to exhibits by government departments and parastatals, from halls offering a platform for every type of business to displays from the motoring, agricultural and tourism industries, the Rand Show has it all.
From18-28 April this year, South Africans can once again enjoy a great day out for the whole family, just like the families of that dusty mining town did over a century ago.
THE RAND SHOW 2014
DATES: From Friday 18 April – Monday 28 April 2014
SHOW HOURS: Gates open daily at 09h00. Ticketing booths into the showgrounds close at 18h00. The show closes at 19h00.
VENUE: Johannesburg Expo Centre, Rand Show Road, Nasrec. (GPS – S26°14.810′ E27°68.695′)
TICKETS: R100 for adults, R50 for pensioners over 65, R50 for teens aged 13-16, R20 for kids aged 6 to 12, and FREE for children under six.
Tickets are available at the gate or through Computicket. (There is no surcharge on Computicket tickets.)