Sandton, Johannesburg’s ultra-modern business hub, has been termed Africa’s richest square mile. This is not an understatement.
Located north of the city and stretching across 134 square kilometres, Sandton is one of the most well-known areas in Gauteng Province where some of the world’s richest prefer to live, work and play.
A walk through the rich district reveals an urban development that is the envy of many urban planners on the continent.
Immaculate offices, international hotel brands, a modern shopping centre and convention facilities combine to make Sandton the most sought-after real estate address on the continent.
The urban sprawl that blights urban developments on the continent is absent as planners took a deliberate effort to create a world-class economic zone.
Deriving its name from two nearby suburbs, Bryanston and Sandown, Sandton was a residential area that consisted of small holdings mainly inhabited by the Tswana people.
It was the smartly dressed residents of the 1960s that gave the area its ‘mink and manure’ tag.
But how did Sandton evolve from a farming settlement to a global business hub? As absurd as it may sound, Sandton would not have “matured” were it not for the spiralling crime and urban decay in Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD).
According to a study conducted by Tom De Bruyn in collaboration with the University of the Witwatersrand, the high rate of crime in the city was a chief reason why big businesses moved to the northern suburb.
“For years, Johannesburg has suffered an image of crime and grime. This has led to low investor confidence and flight from the inner city to the northern suburbs of Greater Johannesburg,” stated Bruyn.
The resulting capital flight from central Jozi made Sandton the preferred destination for multinationals.
International hotel groups such as Radisson Blu, Hilton, and Holiday Inn also found a home along the town’s most famous thoroughfare, Rivonia Road.
Financial institutions such as Johannesburg Stock Exchange and Nedbank are headquartered here.
The area is also home to Africa’a largest and most modern convention centre on Maude Street. With 220,000 square feet of functional space on four levels, the convention centre hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 in addition to the 2008 Miss World beauty contest.
International brands such as Prada, Gucchi and Calvin Klein jostle for space on the continent’s largest shopping centre, Sandton City, next to the famous Nelson Mandela Square.
The high profile lifestyle comes with a cost that big corporates are willing to pay. Building top notch office space in the area costs anywhere between 24,000 Rands and 27,000 Rands (Sh260,000 and Sh300,000) per square metre.
The new 37,000 square metre Alexander Forbes’ offices in Sandton, for instance, cost 840 million Rands or Sh9.2 billion.
Residential homes, too, come at a price. While Nairobians will cringe at the thought of coughing up Sh150,000 for a three-bedroom flat in Westlands, a two-bedroom executive apartment in Michelangelo Towers goes for 36,000 Rands or Sh396,000.
For easy movement of people, an efficient rapid rail link known as Gautrain has its flagship station in Sandton. From here, connections are made to O.R. Tambo International Airport, downtown Johannesburg and Pretoria.
According to Dr Ojiambo Oundo, a land economist and principal consultant with Roack Consult in Nairobi, the Sandton model can be replicated elsewhere on the continent as the old cities get clogged up.
He says that over time, cities lose their original shine when they become more of transport hubs than commercial centres.
“It is only natural for big businesses to get out and look for more space since there is no way of expanding the current CBDs,” says Dr Oundo.
Dr Oundo says such relocations allow corporates to come up with their own, flexible designs in contrast to rented properties that leave no room to manoeuvre. “Sometimes, people just want some change due to what has been termed as the “newness syndrome”,” says Dr Oundo.
Many buildings in Sandton are design masterpieces, having little semblance with their older cousins in the CBD. The iconic Michelangelo Towers that rises 143m into the sky belongs to this category.
As cities across the continent continue to expand, the Sandton model is one that planners do well to copy if only to ease pressure on existing urban infrastructure.
But as rosy as the picture of Sandton is, it can never run away from one small detail that irritates like a gadfly.
The opulent neighbourhood is located just six kilometres from one of South Africa’s poorest areas, the Alexandra townships, highlighting the continent’s glaring inequalities.