The Randlords

The Randlords: ESRC PhD Studentship

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2018) ‘The Randlords’ Whites Writing Whiteness and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. ‘The Randlords’ is the topic of a PhD Studentship attached to the Whites Writing Whiteness project and completed in September 2018. This research, by Jacques Human (2018) is focused around some central sociological concerns: how a society changes over time, how social hierarchies and inequalities come into being and take different shape in different contexts. It explores these by investigating a particular group of people, men who made considerable fortunes through the discoveries of diamonds and gold and the industries that grew up around this in South Africa, and who were known collectively as the ‘Randlords’. What impact did these powerful men have on the emergent South African society, were they able to influence major decisions about what was happening, how did they operate in relation to each other, how should their connections be understood?

2. The occurrence of rapid and profound social, economic and political change in South Africa in a relatively short time-period enables many key sociological questions about social change, imperialism, colonialism, local forms of capitalism, class, labour, gender and ‘race’ to be explored. It is a truism that sociology came into existence to investigate and understand the processes of social change. While terms such as globalisation, late modernity and postmodernity operate something of a closure on the ‘what’ of social change, the Whites Writing Whiteness project is concerned with the ‘how’ of what happened, where and when it happened, and how people wrote about this from within the ferment of change occurring. The PhD Studentship has researched one aspect of this – diamonds and gold and the activities of a powerful economic and political elite group or, to use Norbert Elias’s term, figuration.

3. When first diamonds in the 1860s in New Rush, and then gold in the 1880s on the Witwatersrand, were discovered, what has been referred to as a ‘minerals revolution’ occurred. Erupting into the midst of a largely pastoral and stockholding economy, highly capital intensive economic developments took place in what rapidly become enclave economies centring on these two places. The availability of paid work attracted a migrant black labour force wanting to purchase specific kinds of goods and so willing to work away from home for short-run periods of time; and an increasingly intensive use of labour developed, with technological and organisational developments leading to workers living in compounds and the confinement and close regulation of their labour. Large numbers of both white and black miners were attracted from many different parts of the world, and also from within southern Africa, with the institutionalisation of ‘race’ as well as labour hierarchies over time.

4. Soon the quintessentially modern cities of Kimberley and Johannesburg mushroomed, characterised by mobilities, the comings and goings of diverse people from many different parts of the world including different parts of southern Africa, and flows of money including in international transfers to European money markers; and they also experienced equally rapid growth of populations.  This was the context in which the so-called ‘Randlords’ came to play the part they did, as much constrained by circumstances as by choice to become entrepreneurial in particular ways. Cecil Rhodes is usually seen as the archetype. However, perhaps this is rather misleading for others, including Abe Bailey, Barney Barnato, Alfred Beit, George Farrar, Lionel Phillips, Julius Porges, George Albu, all had rather different business and political careers.

5. A conceptual framework drawn from the work of Norbert Elias iwas used by Jacques Human to explore the phenomenon of the Randlords, centering on Elias’s ideas about figuration, the established and outsiders and ratios of power, and using letters and other ‘documents of life’ as its source material. A more detailed abstract of them this research will be found elsewhere on the Overview tab.

Last updated: 10 Jan 2022