Ice clunks as Thokozane Nxumalo fixes a drink over a long bar of antique wood that’s a luxuriant deep red-brown color. It’s faded in patches, courtesy of the elbows of the many people who’ve leaned on it over the decades.
Lamps hanging over the barman cast dim yellow light onto dull brass panels that patch and reinforce some of the worn and cracked sections of the wooden bar.
This is The Guildhall bar in bustling Harrison Street in inner-city Johannesburg, where Nxumalo’s on a first-name basis with the regulars.
He says some of them have been drinking here for 50 years. He’s able to pour their favorite concoctions with his “eyes closed.” But as for himself, he’s a life-long teetotaler.
“Since I was born, I never drink! I never tasted beers!” Nxumalo exclaims.
But he quickly adds that he’s proud to work at The Guildhall, which opened in 1888 - two years after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand Reef.
As an entire city rose from the gold dust, plenty of bars opened to slake the thirsts of miners and prospectors and their assorted hangers-on.
“It’s the oldest bar in Jo’burg... It’s 127 years,” chirps Nxumalo.
But don’t ask the Guildhall’s current owner, Fernando Coimbra, for a history lesson.
“I don’t know much about history because me and history, we’re not very good friends!” he says, laughing. “Anyways, I’m more interested in the present than the past.”
Nevertheless, the stout, raven-haired man of Portuguese descent is aware that The Guildhall’s first customers were sweaty miners and the outlaws and outcasts that accompanied Johannesburg’s lust for gold.
Later, says Coimbra, the bar attracted more “refined” customers.
“This used to be like a gentlemen’s pub. And from what I’ve heard, yes, the lawyers and the judges and the big boys used to come and drink here.”
One of those “big boys” was one of South Africa’s first mining magnates, Barney Barnato.
‘Destruction of history’
In Johannesburg, very few establishments like The Guildhall remain. They’ve been replaced by fancy franchise bars, decorated with plastic and glass.
But, at The Guildhall, it’s business as usual, although the clientele has changed.
Today’s patrons include people who work in nearby banks and courts, and officials from the headquarters of the ruling African National Congress party, just a block away.
Office clerk Abie Tsoai is 30, but already has 10 years of patronage at The Guildhall under his designer leather belt.
“Life sentence,” he smirks. “But don’t tell my mother, she doesn’t know I drink.”
Tsoai bemoans the fact that many old pubs around South Africa have been knocked down, revamped and “modernized until they all look the same.” And he think that’s a sin. “It’s a destruction of our history.
“History is not just about museums and monuments. History is also about old places like The Guildhall,” Tsoai says. That excites him. “For me it’s like a privilege, being associated with the oldest bar in the whole of Jo’burg!”
Tsoai is dressed stylishly in a white shirt, shiny blue pants and pointy Italian leather shoes.
He maintains that he frequents this pub because it has “culture,” and he learns a lot from its older customers.
“The last guy I met here has been drinking here since from 1976… So they’ll tell you all about the history of the place and all that; that’s when you get to like the place…”
Tsoai says it means a lot to him to be able to lean on a bar counter that was built in 1888. He adds that he’s taken a lot of photos of The Guildhall over the years.
He explains, “When my children are grown one day, I’ll show them that this is one of those oldest bars in Jo’burg, and I was part of it, really. One day if this place is gone, I’ll look at those photos when I’m old and I’ll remember the good times here…”
Octopus for lunch, anyone?
Up a serpentine staircase from the main downstairs bar is a smaller bar. It’s a reflection of Coimbra’s heritage: Bright green, red and yellow Portuguese flags hang from the pressed ceiling; posters of Portuguese soccer stars are plastered on the walls and a chalkboard offers Portuguese cuisine such as flame-grilled peri peri chicken.
It’s far removed from the late 1800s, when men drinking at The Guildhall were lucky to be offered stale bread to wash down with the beer they quaffed.
Inside the pub’s kitchen, translucent tentacles fly as Coimbra tenderizes a whole octopus and chops potatoes with a huge knife that looks older than his bar. He’s preparing to roast the creature in a rich, spicy, tomato-based sauce.
Entertainment at The Guildhall has also modernized… DJs now make it a very different place from the days when the only sounds inside its cavernous interior were chatter from inebriated miners, and the clatter of horse-drawn carts loading and offloading in the long-gone market across the road.
No women were permitted into The Guildhall until the mid-1970s. The policy is reflected in the fact that the downstairs toilet remains marked with a sign reading ‘Gentlemen’ in bold black letters.
Coimbra is quick to quip that women now make up a large part of the bar’s clientele, and that there are now two toilets for them.
Tsoai says he’s “all for tradition” but is “ecstatic” that women are now allowed into The Guildhall.
He laughs mischievously and says, “They’ve got karaoke on Thursdays, where the ladies – beautiful ladies, nice ladies – will come sing here. It’s a good thing, hey.”
In days gone by, the pub was infamous for brawls between rough-and-ready miners, gamblers and other rogues. Now, says Tsoai, it’s a “place of peace.”
“It’s a different environment, really. I’ve never been in a place the same as this in Jo’burg. You know, mixed races, everybody just comes together. I’ve never had a single fight in a single day here,” he says.
Tsoai says he doesn’t mind “at all” drinking in the shadows of all the photographs of British colonialists on The Guildhall’s solid walls.
He smiles and says, “Yes, they did bad but they also did good – like they built this pub, for instance!”
At that he raises his half-full mug of beer and proclaims, “Cheers to them!”