Sol Kerzner, South African Casino Tycoon, Is Dead at 84

Friday 27th March 2020

His Sun City resort let black and white people mingle in the apartheid era, but some saw it as an emblem of all that was wrong with that racial system.

Sol Kerzner, a sharp-elbowed tycoon and developer of luxurious hotels, casinos and resorts, who used the splintered geography of ethnic division in his native South Africa to profit hugely by circumventing the social and sexual strictures of apartheid, died on March 20 at his home in Cape Town. He was 84.

The cause was cancer, his family said in a statement.

Mr. Kerzner's story was often depicted as a poor-boy-makes-good one, from beginnings in a blue-collar neighborhood of Johannesburg to membership in an international cabal of tycoons and celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. His empire stretched from the United States to China by way of the Bahamas, Morocco, Mauritius, Dubai and elsewhere. In the 1990s he was labeled a South African version of Donald J. Trump.

For all his international profile, though, his name was most closely associated with Sun City, a gaudy hotel, casino and golf complex with a 6,000-seat arena, situated about 90 miles from Johannesburg. Starting in 1975, Mr. Kerzner oversaw its creation, hewn from raw bushlands and rising in a jumble of architectural whimsy in what was then the nominally independent homeland of Bophuthatswana.

The so-called homelands -- known derisively as bantustans -- formed a pillar of apartheid, created to strip black South Africans of citizenship and assign to them a nationality based on the ethnicity of their notional new states. Bophuthatswana was intended for people of Tswana descent.

The homelands won no international recognition and were re-absorbed into South Africa after the 1994 all-race elections that brought Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress to power.

In the late 1970s and '80s, however, even as South Africa nudged into ever-sharpening conflict between its white minority leaders and its black majority, Sun City seemed a creation of staggering chutzpah. Bophuthatswana had no restrictions on gambling and did not share apartheid's puritanism in matters of sex and race.

White South Africans could thus drive a couple of hours from Johannesburg to play the tables, feed the slots or watch topless revues at Sun City. And there, black and white people could do what was forbidden in the rest of South Africa: mingle and frolic freely.

"It was a place all South Africans could enjoy irrespective of their race," Mr. Kerzner told The Financial Times in 2010. Brash and flashy, the complex became known as Sin City, and the flamboyant Mr. Kerzner, often in the headlines because of his succession of romances, became known as the Sun King. Some people called the complex South Africa's Las Vegas.

In 1992, he expanded Sun City with the addition of the 62-acre Lost City, described by The New York Times as "the most audacious and most deafeningly hyped theme resort in the Southern hemisphere, at least."

By arguing that Sun City was a place apart from the encircling South Africa, Mr. Kerzner lured an array of entertainers and sports personalities to appear there, paying them huge fees. Jack Nicklaus, Elton John and Freddy Mercury were just a few who showed up. There were boxing and golf events with lucrative payoffs.

To anti-apartheid protesters outside the country, however, Sun City became an emblem of all that was wrong about the system of racial separation. In 1985, a group of entertainers called Artists United Against Apartheid produced a song called "Sun City," whose chorus line proclaimed, "Ain't going to play Sun City."

Asked by The Financial Times in 2010 how he dealt with criticism, he replied: "I don't. I have a saying: The dogs bark and the caravan moves on."

Nonetheless, he was hounded by charges -- later dropped in South Africa -- that in 1986 he participated in a roughly $900,000 bribe to the leader of Transkei, another so-called homeland, in return for a monopoly on its gambling industry. Mr. Kerzner was quoted as saying that the money had been extortion demanded by its recipients.

In 1997, after Mr. Kerzner had applied for a license to operate a casino in Atlantic City, N.J., the state's Casino Control Commission ruled that while he had "committed bribery under New Jersey law by a preponderance of the evidence," the "unsavory aspects" of his dealings in Transkei were an "aberration that occurred a decade ago." Adding that he had "convincingly demonstrated good character, honesty and integrity," it granted him the license.

There was controversy, too, about a contribution of 2 million rands -- worth about $500,000 at the time -- that he made to Mr. Mandela's election campaign in 1994 at a time when Mr. Kerzner was still under investigation in the Transkei affair.

Mr. Mandela easily won the presidency and invited Mr. Kerzner to arrange the celebration of his inauguration. "Theirs was a genuine friendship that would endure until Mandela's own passing in 2013," the Kerzner family statement said.

Mr. Mandela was quoted as saying that the Kerzners were "an example of a family not only interested in their own enrichment, but willing to give something back to their own country."

Solomon Kerzner was born on Aug. 23, 1935, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who ran a chain of kosher hotels and lived in a down-market neighborhood of Johannesburg known as Bez Valley. He was the youngest of four children and the only son.

He once said that his father, identified in one account as Morris Kerzner, had been the greatest influence on his life, persuading him to secure a degree in accounting at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. His father was also credited with persuading him to take up boxing in his early teens after he had been bullied at school because of his Jewish faith. By the time he graduated from college, he had become its welterweight boxing champion.

Mr. Kerzner's first venture as a hotelier began in 1962, according to the family, when he abandoned accounting and bought a modest inn, The Astra, in the Indian Ocean port city of Durban, which became one of South Africa's principle vacation resorts. He went on to much bigger projects, opening what the family described as South Africa's first five-star luxury hotel, at Umhlanga Rocks, north of Durban. He called it The Beverly Hills.

In partnership with South African Breweries, Mr. Kerzner established a company called Southern Sun Hotels, which was operating 30 luxury hotels by 1983.

In 1994, he acquired the bankrupt Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas and converted it into a 2,300-room resort called Atlantis -- a brand that he also used in Dubai in 2008, when he opened the $1.5 billion, 1,500-room Atlantis, the Palm, in Dubai. His company said a firework display, the centerpiece of a $20 million launch party, had been the world's biggest and had been visible from space.

Working with his son Howard, who is known as Butch, Mr. Kerzner built his first casino in the United States in 1996, on an Indian reservation in eastern Connecticut, naming it the Mohegan Sun.

A decade later, the Kerzners took their company private for $3.6 billion, including debt -- a move described by some analysts as a rare misstep in light of the financial chaos that was about to roil the global tourism industry.

By 2011, the company had renegotiated the debt, effectively becoming a management company rather than an owner-operator, Reuters reported. He retired to his family's 25-acre estate near Cape Town in 2014, four years after he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to the Bahamas.

His personal life, well-chronicled by gossip columnists, was one of extravagance and ostentation punctured by tragedy. In 2006, Butch Kerzner was killed in a helicopter crash in the Dominican Republic. The second of his four wives, Shirley Bestbier, committed suicide soon after the birth of their second child.

His first marriage, to Maureen Adler, ended in divorce. His third marriage, to Anneline Kriel, who, representing South Africa, was crowned Miss World in 1974, lasted from 1980 to 1985. In 2000 he married Heather Murphy, a model; they divorced in 2011.

He is survived by four children, Andrea and Beverley, from his first marriage, and Brandon and Chantal, from his second.

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