The Rainbow Restaurant opened its doors for trade on Thursday 17 December 1981. It was the first such establishment of its kind in KwaZulu Natal, located in a so called “White” area under the infamous Group Areas Act, to be granted a license to sell food and sorghum beer to Africans; this, after having had to seek permission from all businesses within a 200-meter radius of the proposed site in Stanfield Lane, Pinetown. After a protracted struggle the founding members, Ben Pretorius and Billy Mthembu, were granted a full liquor license in 1983.
In those dark days of Apartheid, the Rainbow played an important role in the struggle against the government of the day. Whilst being under constant surveillance it was an important meeting place for activists fighting against the status quo. In 1983 the first concert was staged featuring Philip Thabane and Malombo, thus starting a key element of what is today the Rainbow legend. Over the years most of South Africa's greatest musicians, who remained in South Africa during the Apartheid years, have performed on the Rainbow stage and it has played a key role in the development of their careers. Whilst the music performed and the concerts that were staged are a celebration of our culture, the concerts also proved to be an ideal medium to protest against the Apartheid system.
At the end of 1985 the Rainbow moved from its founding site down the road to what was a boxing gym. Part of the move process involved a concert starting at the first premises with the musicians then leading the audience down the road to the current premises – all marching behind a banner that proclaimed “The Struggle for Jazz, Jazz for the Struggle”. Images of this event flashed all over the world and ensured that the Rainbow remained very much on the Security Police’s radar.
Despite this attention from the Apartheid regimes security forces, people of all races continued to frequent the venue and support the music events staged there. Other notable events include the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday in 1987, which attracted some 500 people including a Security Police contingent, this after another concert, which was to have happened at the then University of Durban Westville campus the night before was banned.
By 1994 Billy Mthembu had sold his shares in the business to Ben Pretorius and for Ben himself it was a time to reflect on the past and decide on where his future would head. To help in that process he headed off up into Africa with wife Pam on a yearlong safari. Upon his return, renewed energy was put into the music program and partnerships such as the Rainbat project, with the newly opened BAT Centre, were initiated.
It was also through the Rainbat project that Neil Comfort first experienced the Rainbow vibe in 1995. In the later half of the 90’s the Pretorius’ set about establishing what was to become their new venture, the Ufudu Flyfishing Experience – Ufudu being the Zulu word for tortoise and perfectly descriptive of the highly successful mobile fly fishing camps that they set up in places like Kosi bay and the Mthentu river mouth on the Wild Coast.
In early 2001 Pam Pretorius approached Neil Comfort to assist her in staging a surprise 50th birthday celebration for Ben at the Rainbow. Musicians such as Darius Brubeck, Sandile Shange and Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi freely gave of their time to come and pay tribute, all resulting in a typical Rainbow party. Somewhere along the line, whilst the “Rainbow train” was up and running, Pam Pretorius suggested to Nicola Comfort, that they take over ownership of the Rainbow.
After a few months of working out a deal and learning the ropes, the Comfort’s took up the challenge of looking after Ben’s baby on the 1st of September 2001. On the 2nd of September legendary Durban singer Busi Mhlongo performed the first concert under the Comforts’ custodianship – and so the Rainbow story continues….
Text given to SAHO with permission from Neil Comfort of the Rainbow Restaurant https://www.therainbow.co.za/history.html