Sandton City Aerial

Sandton then and now: a look at the richest square mile in Africa

In the 1800s it was just a farm in Johannesburg; today it is Africa’s richest square mile. Here's a look at Sandton's rise over the decades.

1. History

Oxen photographed in William Nicol drive in Sandton Large
Oxen photographed in William Nicol drive in Sandton (Image: Sandton Central)

In 1836, the Esterhuysen family settled on the farm Zandfontein (meaning “sandy mountain” in Dutch), in the northern part of what would later become Johannesburg. Today, this land is home to some of the world’s top multinational companies and the most exquisite hotels and exclusive shopping centres on the continent. 

The place we now know as Sandton, whose central business district is Africa’s richest square mile, started life as a farm many, many decades ago.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw an influx of people from other parts of South Africa into Johannesburg, many of whom went to live and work in Sandton. Sandton’s population grew in the 1940s and 1950s, which saw the area developing further.

Because of this rapid growth, the district requested independence from the Johannesburg local government, seeking control over its own municipal services. In 1969, Sandton was declared a municipality, its name derived from a combination of the farm Zandfontein and the nearby suburbs Bryanston and Sandown.

2. Shaping the skyline

Sandton City Aerial
Sandton City and surrounds (Image: Sandton Central)

Armed with its new-found independence, Sandton started its transformation with the building of the iconic Sandton City in 1973. This shopping centre changed the one-time farming community into a business hub, and in the 1980s demand escalated for commercial property space in the area. (It's hard to imagine now, but it was cheaper to buy land in Sandton than the Johannesburg CBD back then, as the latter was a prime area for business and lifestyle during this time.)

Today, Sandton is the second-largest commercial area in South Africa, behind the Johannesburg city centre. It offers prime office space and is leading the way in environmentally friendly commercial space. According to the Green Building Council of South Africa, it currently has the highest number of certified “green” buildings of any business area on the continent.

Sandton has more than 1.5-million square metres of commercial land and that number continues to grow.

3. Business is booming

Sandton is the now economic hub of South Africa, as evidenced by the modern skyscrapers that dominate its skyline.

Many multinationals choose Sandton as their location of choice, and some of the country’s largest companies, including Investec, RMB and the JSE, are based there. It is also home to top hotels (including the Michelangelo Hotel, The Maslow and The Hilton) and eateries, and the Gautrain’s direct link to OR Tambo International Airport adds to Sandton's appeal as a business hub.

Sandton has truly staked its claim as an economic hub and the richest square mile in Africa.

Sandton Convention Centre

Sandton Convention Centre Completed 2
Sandton Covention Centre (Image: Sandton Central )

The Sandton Convention Centre, located just across from Sandton City, is a leading events venue, hosting some of the biggest international conferences, meetings and exhibitions in Africa. 

The recent Africa Investment Forum, which saw Africa’s top business leaders and heads of state converging in Sandton, was held at this venue. 

The Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, which brings together some of the top South African and international jazz acts every year, is also hosted at the convention centre.

4. Shoppers’ heaven

Sandton Shopping
Nelson Mandela Square (Image: Gauteng Tourism Authority )

Originally the anchor for Sandton’s exponential growth in the 1970s, Sandton City has since become one of the most prominent buildings on the Sandton skyline; you cannot imagine Sandton without visualising this skyscraper pointing up to the stars.

Today, this mega-mall is home to stores featuring top local and international brands such as Zara and H&M. The Diamond Walk is an aspirational section of the centre where luxurious shops can be found, such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Giorgio Armani, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton and Cartier.

The mall also offers great places to eat and socialise. It houses top banks and also has office space for commercial businesses. Sandton City is linked to Nelson Mandela Square, which has exquisite restaurants including The Butcher Shop, The Big Mouth, Wang Thai, Tashas and Hard Rock Café, and is a popular destination for tourists.

A massive statue of Nelson Mandela stands prominently in the central square, and you will find tourists and locals alike taking pictures with the iconic figure.

Nelson Mandela Square
Nelson Mandela Square (Image: Sandton Tourism Association)