SA’s biggest gaming and leisure complex recounts 21 years of lasting memories

When GrandWest opened on 19 December 2000, it held a preview party for 1 000 media guests, the biggest such party ever hosted in Cape Town. This year, thanks to Covid-19 there will be no party, but there are still plenty of reasons to celebrate.

The Sun International property – also South Africa’s biggest casino and leisure complex – is best known for its mix of family fun, entertainment, dining and gaming, but it has benefitted the city and the Province in other ways too.

Mervyn Naidoo, GrandWest General Manager said, “We are also a significant contributor to the public purse through the corporate and gaming taxes and gaming licences that we pay. In 1998, before construction had even begun, UCT economists predicted that by GrandWest’s 10th birthday it would contribute R11-billion to the Western Cape’s GDP. But in half that time we had already contributed R8-billion.”

Many people also don’t know that GrandWest gifted R140-million to kick start the development of the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC). Having a world-class convention centre put Cape Town on the international business travel map.”

With over 57-hectares of property in close proximity to the airport and the city, the disused Cape Showgrounds seemed an ideal location. But its distance from any major retail and business hubs also limited the possibility for impulse gambling which was one of the compelling reasons for awarding GrandWest the highly prized Cape Metropole gaming license.


In 2000, GrandWest’s R1.56-billion development budget was the single biggest contract ever awarded in the province’s tourism industry. The complex was also the fastest major casino development in the world, averaging R100-million per month just on construction which, combined with fees and other costs, put R2 500 into the Western Cape’s economy every minute during its 11-month construction period.

Over 2 800 Capetonians worked around the clock on site each day to complete the wet works alone. They laid 3.6-million bricks and installed over 50 kilometres of cabling. On an average day they sunk 300 cubic metres of concrete, the same as 50 ready-mix trucks lined up behind each other, pouring 15 tons of concrete each day.

A further R38-million was needed to prepare the roads outside GrandWest to cope with the increased traffic. In addition to building the Vanguard overpass Bridge at the entrance, other substantial improvements included safe pedestrian facilities at the intersections surrounding the complex. 

Community commitment

Since its earliest days, GrandWest has been committed to the concept of creating shared value for the communities in which it does business. Over the past 21 years, the complex will have spent over R141.3-million on social enterprise development and corporate investment projects since opening, equating to just under R561 000 per month. Key focus areas for investment was health and welfare, community development, education, arts and culture, sport and enterprise development. 

General Manager Mervyn Naidoo says, “Since GrandWest opened we have sought to actively create shared value in the communities we operate in. For us, it makes good business sense to maximize the positive impact we have on our surrounding communities.”

After reopening in July this year, GrandWest become the first approved hospitality and leisure industry workplace Covid-19 vaccination site in the Western Cape, administering around 250 Pfizer vaccinations a day to staff and members of the local community. The facility was closed mid October. 

Memorable wins

Reflecting on opening day, Naidoo said, “We opened at 9am on Tuesday, 19 December 2000 – a working day – but by 12pm more than 6 000 visitors had already poured into the complex and over 1 500 cars had driven through our main gates. By 9pm that night we recorded 23 000 visitors. The first jackpot of the day was R15 000, but possibly the luckiest punter of the morning was a man who won R10 000 followed by a R12 000 jackpot – all during his first hour on the casino floor. In total we paid out R1.5-million in jackpots that day.

A month later, in January, the Roulette Tables created the casino’s first millionaire. By February they were averaging 25 000 visitors a day, and by March R65-million had been paid out in jackpots and other pay-outs, averaging R30 000 an hour. 

In August 2001 GrandWest’s 10th millionaire walked away with over R2.2-million, the highest win yet. He hit the jackpot on his third spin. The machine seized and he believed he had done “something wrong” until he realised people were congratulating him. But GrandWest’s biggest jackpot win – and the biggest ever paid by any South African casino – was R10-million which was won in 2016 by a guest playing slots.

On GrandWest’s second birthday in 2002 it had two winners, with each person winning over R2-million. A short while later a player seated next to them won R145 000, after having won R140 000 two weeks earlier. By the end of December 2002, GrandWest had produced 23 millionaires and given away 70 cars and for that month, it recorded 436 000 visitors, up 11.5% on 2001.

Possibly the luckiest winner was a visitor from Johannesburg who had won a free weekend at the City Lodge hotel adjacent to GrandWest. She booked her prize for Valentine’s Day 2003 to coincide with her 20th wedding anniversary. Before the clock had struck midnight, the couple were millionaires.

Memorable shows

During the course of its 21 years, GrandWest has welcomed a multitude of celebrities and even heads of state, but everyone was taken by surprise when, soon after GrandWest opened, Oprah Winfrey walked in unannounced with film producer Anant Singh who took her on a tour of the complex.

The first of the many international artists to perform at GrandWest was US multi-platinum selling singer and songwriter Shawn Phillips, who entertained visitors at Hanover Street for one night only in October 2002.

But the entertainment game changer was the opening of the Grand Arena in October 2007. With a capacity to seat 5 000 or 7 000 standing, the Arena’s state-of-the-art sound, lighting and rigging made it possible to host even the most technically challenging shows and from October 2007 to the end of 2019, GrandWest hosted well over 300 international and local shows from 2007 until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Arena’s opening act in October 2007 was R&B great Mary J Blige, followed by pop star Enrique Iglesias. The construction deadline was so tight that contractors were still tiling walkways the day before the show. A week later the technical staff were surprised to see Iglesias jump onto stage to assist them with the set up – not something international artists are known to do.

Show highlights for the Arena include:

·         Creating a turf and sawdust pitch for the beautiful white Lippizaner dancing horses 2008.

·         Incredible precision driving during the BBC’s Top Gear show in 2010 with The Stig, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond. The world’s first indoor loop-the-loop, the ‘loop of death’ had to be constructed inside the arena.

·         The Great Moscow Circus’ death defying acts and fire stunts kept Grand Arena technicians on their toes, especially as among the Russian and Chinese performers, only the juggler spoke English.

·         The Cirque Du Soleil was a massive engineering feat as the rigging had to withstand hanging 36 tonnes from the roof. The original structural engineers were consulted over a series of meetings, to ensure that this was done safely.

·         The scariest show was possibly that of German heavy metal group Rammstein which includes the biggest pyrotechnics spectacular in an indoor space. There were tense moments as pilots were unwilling to fly with the pyrotechnics, but the band would not perform without this element. They arrived via road at the 11th hour, leaving a tight window to upload them minutes before the show was scheduled to open. There were 380 pyro cues in the 90 minute show and the heat and sound was intense from the first note. The smoke still had not cleared hours after the show.

The inaugural Cape Town Motor Show in 2017 had the broadest footprint of any event hosted at GrandWest and spilled over into all of our event spaces – the Grand Arena, Market Hall, Sun Exhibits, Sun Park, and several parking areas, as well as a 4×4 track which was constructed on the vacant land, on the opposite side of the GrandWest complex. A area of 25 000 square metres was needed and over 23 000 visitors attended the first Cape Town Motor show, which was held over three days.

Staff working behind the scenes at the Grand Arena have several back-stage memories. David Lombard, GrandWest’s Events and Entertainment Manager said, “Sting was such a humble man despite his fame. He just cruised in backstage and ate supper with the crew, and for me, meeting my Guns ‘n Roses icons was a dream come true. We were also amazed at the 80s Rewind Festival, to see Vanilla Ice running up and down to Front of House to assist with his own mix.

“Michael Buble was a magnificent showman and gentleman too. He really enjoys table tennis and tours with his own tables. There is even a league amongst his crew and we got the chance to play tennis against him. He’s always up for a game.

Sadly, Roxettes last ever performance was at the Grand Arena, on 8 February 2016, After the show the band announced that after 30 years, they would no longer tour due to Marie Fredriksson’s declining health.”

Birthday message

Over the years we have built extraordinary friendships with our customers, our communities and our stakeholders, and we would like to thank them for their loyalty and support during the pandemic. Even during lockdown they continued to communicate with us. We wish that things could have been different and that we could have hosted a really grand 21st birthday party, but the pandemic has put paid to celebrations.”

Naidoo said GrandWest has stringent Covid-19 protocols in place to ensure the health and safety of guests and staff. These include sanitising, social distancing and reducing capacity inside entertainment venues to 50%. It is also mandatory to wear masks.