It has been quite a few weeks for the newly-inducted president of the 158-year-old Cape Town Club, Kenilworth resident Peter Soal.
Not only was the former Progressive Federal Party (PFP) MP for Johannesburg North bestowed the honour of leading one of the country’s oldest members-only clubs a fortnight ago, but he also celebrated his 80th birthday on Saturday, February 20.
“(IFP leader) Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi came for my birthday, which was very special. I actually felt quite awkward, because I later learnt that he had even prepared a speech. I emailed him to send my apologies, but his secretary told me that I was not to worry. Apparently Prince, as we refer to him now, prepares a speech wherever he goes.”
This is but one of the many anecdotes Mr Soal, who has replaced the late Colin Eglin as president, is able to recall with such affection in a life that has been anything but ordinary.
He was was a member of the Democratic Party team that negotiated the new South African Constitution, while in 1994 then president Nelson Mandela appointed him to the staff of the Mission of South Africa to the United Nations in New York where he remained for four years.
“I am obviously very honoured to have been appointed president of the Cape Town Club. It is quite an institution,” he said at his Kenilworth home this week.
“I have been a member of the club since I first arrived in Cape Town in 1982. I joined when I became an MP, since I thought I would be staying there a lot of the time. In those days there were rooms where people could stay, so it made sense.”
Although Mr Soal said his role as president would be largely ceremonial, he was buoyed about the club’s future prospects.
“A big part of that has been the club’s return to its original premises (at 18 Queen Victoria Street) from Gardens.
“What has been pleasing to see is that the age of our members has dropped, because many younger lawyers and doctors have their offices nearby. It is easy for them to walk across and stop by for a drink after work.”
Asked whether he believed members-only clubs might be perceived as “elitism” in an age when a dim view was often taken of such institutions, Mr Soal said he did not believe this would be the case.
“Our club is very social, but it also offers wonderful networking opportunities. You can relax and enjoy yourself, but also network with people with whom you can do business. You cannot beat the friendship and camaraderie at the club.”
Reflecting on a political career that spanned some five decades, Mr Soal, who was born in Zambia before emigrating to South Africa where he was schooled at East London’s Selborne College, explained that among his more challenging roles was working on policy for the then South African homelands.
“My focus was on the Transvaal and Eastern Cape, and I travelled a lot. It was very hard work. One of the interesting aspects was that I went to a lot of funerals at weekends.
“Funerals at that time were used as black political meetings, because they were the one place where police presence was not as evident. As the PFP opposition in Parliament, we attended those funerals so we could take back what we had learnt to Parliament.”
Mr Soal said there had been “many memorable moments” at the Cape Town Club, although the 150th anniversary celebrations attended by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was one of the “really grand occasions”.
With such fervour for the club, its history and reputation as one of Cape Town’s finest social landmarks, it is hardly surprising the club’s board settled on Mr Soal as president.
However, one also gets the distinct impression members have long enjoyed the dryness of wit and humorous turns he has brought to so many occasions over the years.
“The Cape Town Club is in a very attractive building, with wood panelling in the dining room and bar, but I have always believed (designer) Sir Herbert Baker made one fundamental error. There is no gentleman’s (bathroom) on the ground floor next to the bar. You have to go into the basement, although I must admit I subsequently learnt that this was the style of all gentlemen’s clubs in England.”