Sol Kerzner

South African hotel tycoon who built a pleasure den in the jungle


With its gaudy architectural style Sun City, would have looked bold and brash anywhere but its location, deep in the South African bush, made it stick out even more. Here was a luxury hotel complex complete with man-made lake, golf course, casino and slot machines, a theatre featuring girlie shows, and cinemas showing soft-porn movies.

And on top of that, all races were free to intermingle, which was illegal in the apartheid South Africa of the 1970s and 80s. Like any forbidden pleasure, it proved a Nirvana for the hordes of sexually repressed white South Africans who flocked there from all over the country.

The brainchild of hotelier Sol Kerzner, who has died aged 84, ‘‘Sin City’’, as it was dubbed, owed its existence to its location in the nominally independent homeland of Bophutatswana, a couple of hours’ drive from the country’s main hub, Johannesburg. Homelands, also derisively known as ‘‘bantustans’’, had been one of the apartheid regime’s tools in its attempt to deprive the black majority of citizenship. Black South Africans were divided into their ethnic groups and given their own nominally independent states within South Africa.

Bophutatswana was the designated home of the Tswana people but thanks to its permissive legislation regarding race, gambling and sex, it became a playground for South Africans of all colours, though mainly white. It had neither infrastructure nor money but where others saw dirt roads and bushland, Kerzner saw opportunity. It was a massive gamble that ended up a massive pay-off. With its fake lake and kitsch architecture, Sun City was a temple to bad taste but millions of South Africans made the pilgrimage to its casinos and topless revues. Sol Kerzner had hit the jackpot.

Solomon Kerzner was the son of Ukrainian immigrants who had settled in Troyeville, a working-class suburb of Johannesburg. His mother Bertha and father Morris ran a café and later a small kosher hotel chain. Sol, the youngest of their four children and only son, attended Athlone High School in Johannesburg where he was bullied for being Jewish. Short and stocky, he took up boxing as a self-defence mechanism and ended up the welter-weight champion of Witwatersrand University, where he went to study accountancy.

His career as an accountant lasted only a few years and in 1962 he embarked upon his first venture as a hotelier, buying the Astra, a small hotel in Durban, on the Indian Ocean coast. But Kerzner was already thinking big and in 1968 he gave South Africa a taste of what was to come when he opened the country’s first five-star hotel in Umhlanga Rocks, just north of Durban.

With the chutzpah that would become associated with his name, he called it the Beverly Hills after Los Angeles’ glamorous suburb. Kerzner was on a roll: together with South African Breweries he established Southern Sun, the country’s first luxury hotel chain. But he was a gambler, a man used to thinking outside the box and Sun City, helped by the government’s massive tax breaks, was the result.

When Frank Sinatra officially opened Sun City in 1981, South Africa was the polecat of the world, the object of international economic and sporting boycotts, its townships in open revolt. Kerzner’s folly in the bush offered a respite from all that.

Abroad its name may have been a byword for everything that was wrong with South Africa, even spinning a protest song: I ain’t gonna play Sun City. But enough international names were willing to play there, lured by Kerzner’s cash. Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Shirley Bassey and famously, Queen performed in Sun City’s 6,000-seat arena even as the outside world raged.

Kerzner, with his wealth and jet-setting lifestyle was a South African icon, but was loathed elsewhere. Not that he cared; famously brusque, he was first and foremost a businessman, willing to make deals with anybody, be they homelands rulers or Mandela’s ANC.

Some of these deals would come back to haunt him. In 1989, he was accused of paying around £770,000 three years earlier to the chief of Transkei for exclusive gambling rights. He called it extortion rather than bribery and got away with it.

His last hurrah in South Africa was the 1992 Lost City, a 62-acre addition to Sun City, the imaginary remains of a lost African civilisation, deep in (fake) jungle.

But change was coming to South Africa. Always the wily operator, when it came Kerzner had already made sure he was on good terms with the new kids on the block. He donated a generous two million rand to the ANC’s election campaign and would end up organising Mandela’s inauguration.

But Kerzner needed to expand abroad. He had already moved some of his offices to London in 1987 and in 1994 he managed to make a mark outside Southern Africa with Atlantis, a hugely popular themed resort on the Bahamas’ Paradise Island. Here – as in his entire hotel empire, spanning resorts from Dubai to the Caribbean and China — it was the casinos and slot machines that brought in the dollars.

One of his biggest successes in the 1990s was the Mohegan Sun, the world’s largest casino, whose story has more than a whiff of Sun City. Although within the American state of Connecticut, where gambling was illegal, the casino was located in an American Indian reservation whose legislation was considerably more permissive.

But his glory days were largely over, and in 2014 Kerzner, who four years earlier had received an honorary knighthood for services to the Bahamas, retired to his estate near Cape Town.

Kerzner’s colourful personal life kept gossip magazines busy but was also touched by tragedy: his son and business heir Butch was killed in a helicopter crash in the Dominican Republic in 2006, and his second wife, Shirley Bestbier committed suicide just after giving birth to their second child.

His first marriage, to Maureen Adler, ended in divorce as did his third, to former Miss World, Anneline Kriel and his fourth, to model Heather Murphy. He is survived by his four children Andrea and Beverley (with Adler) and Brando and Chantal (with Bestbier).


Sol Kerzner: born August 23, 1935.

Died March 21, 2020

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