Ideas & Debate

Today’s private members’ clubs ought to re-invent themselves


Elite group Private members’ clubs taken over by Kenyans from British settlers have changed over time from ones that worked hard to control production resources, and now comprise patrons who are busy cutting deals. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK



  • Kenyans who replaced British settlers took a different stance in matters economic production.

What is the value proposition of private membership clubs in 2020 and beyond?

To answer this question we need to go back in time.

In pre-independence Kenya, all factors of economic production especially arable land, were in the control of British settlers. Class relations were on the basis of race and it was hard for Africans to share in the ranks. Colonists set up own private spaces far away from common subjects to socialise and make commercial decisions around factors of production, which they held.

These private settings were in the form of membership clubs. Members played golf, squash, had work-outs and dined before driving away to tuck in. They were also regional. For instance, colonists living in Nanyuki had their own private clubs, and so were those residing in Nakuru, Kitale, Nairobi, Eldoret etc.

When the clamour for independence crystallised, the few educated African elite who were at the forefront, were at hand to receive the factors of production.

A few years after independence, class relations were determined by relations of factors of production and the nova ‘indigenous bourgeoisie’ moved in to occupy the previous colonists’ private member clubs, socialising and dining among themselves as well as with the few whites who, for the love of the terrain, chose to stay along.

The clubs offered an opportunity to meet decision-makers and transact on production in key sectors of the economy. They also provided an orderly setting as members were expected to follow a set of rules (such as not exchanging pleasantries in dining areas).

However, as Prof Bethwel Ogot writes in his book ‘‘Reflections on the Meaning of NationalIdentity and Nationalism,’’ African anti-colonial movements were, in fact, the product of a temporary convergence of various sectional, economic, regional and ethnic interests within the colonial territories, joined solely by their common interests in getting rid of colonial masters.

Hence, many Africans did not have a strong sense of attachment to the emergent nation in which they found themselves and many continued to identify themselves with their ethnic groups. Ethnic and politics of power would replace education as the currency of relations and a new tribal-based bourgeoisie would emerge.

This became the norm especially during Moi’s 24-year presidency. It was during this period that, as Prof Ogot notes, entrenched politics in Kenya as a cottage industry of private expropriation.

Politicians who supported the regime of the day were able to make ill-gotten wealth in short spans of time. Class relations were now determined by relations of power rather than relations of production.

Elitist socialising and commercial decision-making did not require ivy-league education or an orderly setting offered by private member clubs but rather access to political power.

They neither played golf nor squash, did little work-outs and maintained ‘public opinions’ (which is still the case). The Kibaki Administration (Kibaki himself being an avid golfer) offered some disruption to the phenomenon but it appears to have regained momentum under the current administration.

So do the legacy-style private membership clubs appeal to this group of elite? Of course not. Instead, a new class of private setting has been rising to serve this new group of elite in the name of lounges.

This is where order belongs to the very important diners (VIDs); who come to intermediate on political power and resources.

Even some of their proprietors often have questionable demeanours, and so are their VIDs. So do private membership clubs have the same proposition they had in the post-colonial era? No they don’t, and perhaps they’ll need to re-invent themselves over time.