The pugnacious creator of “Sin City”, much beloved by members of South Africa’s apartheid government, and later also by the country’s black rulers, has died.

29 March 2020 By Paul Martin

Paul Martin was chosen by the BBC, because he had reported from sSouth Africa for it, to discuss the liefe and role of Sol Kerzner, who died days before. His conversation with Last Word begins at 7 minutes 49 seconds into the BBC’s audio file.

Sol Kerzner’s vast hotel and gambling resort in South Africa, Sun City, became known as ‘Sin City’ thanks to all the white politicians spotted there with their mistresses.
For many years reckoned Africa’s richest and perhaps most controversial businessman, Kerzner has died of cancer aged 84.

His hotels, gambling and leisure empire eventually embraced luxury resorts all over the world, but he was always associated with the creation in his native South Africa of one of the most conspicuous symbols of the apartheid era.

  In the late 1970s South Africa was a rigidly conservative place that prohibited even such mild diversions as betting or the opening of cinemas on Sundays. Kerzner, who had already developed a string of five-star hotels, reasoned that there was a still bigger fortune to be made if he could legitimately provide his white countrymen with the wherewithal to let off a little steam.  

Astutely he thought, too, that the government would tolerate the offering of such entertainment if it took place at a remove from the big cities and brought in substantial taxation or tourism revenue.  

His solution, which had about it a touch of unscrupulous genius, was to create a den of relatively harmless iniquity in one of the semi-autonomous black homelands north of the Cape, Bophuthatswana, which had no laws against gambling. In its desert landscape he built a sort of tropical version of Las Vegas, albeit one marked by his own brand of excess and remarkable architectural vulgarity.  

The hotels, slot machines and Gary Player-designed golf course of Sun City, as he named it, proved irresistible to well-heeled South Africans. Soon, each year one and a half million of them were making the two-hour trip from Johannesburg and Pretoria, many on the coaches that Kerzner provided, often drawn by the rare opportunity to see entertainers such as Frank Sinatra (to whom Kerzner paid $2 million for a week’s engagement in 1981).  

Other singers felt less able to connive at this subversion of the principle that they would not perform in apartheid South Africa and recorded a hit single entitled Sun City (1985), with its chorus of “I Ain’tGonna Play Sun City”.

  The resort’s attractions also included pornographic films on the hotel televisions, topless chorus lines and the opportunity for races to mix and socialise; the frequency with which white politicians were seen there with black mistresses was just one reason it was dubbed “Sin City”.  

Such witticisms did not prevent SunBop, the company that ran the development, from increasing in value from £40 million in 1985 to £600 million by 1992, nor did they deter Kerzner from building another 13 casinos elsewhere in the homelands.  

In 1992 Kerzner opened a £150 million-extension to this cash cow, the Lost City. Surrounded by 80 acres of newly-grown jungle, including a million imported palm trees, this was designed on the theme of a lost African civilisation, complete with a style of building that included towers topped with giant elephant tusks.  

At precisely half past eight every evening, the whole complex was gently rocked by a mock earthquake. Kerzner publicised the new venture by hosting that year’s Miss World competition there.  

Not without validity, Kerzner always insisted that there was little he could do about the government’s apartheid policies, and that Sun City at least created many jobs for the local black population.


Yet the image he liked to project of the straightforward businessman was regularly, and perhaps inevitably, tarnished by accusations of corruption and political chicanery. In South Africa, at least, he came to be admired for his entrepreneurship, but also disliked for his hard-nosed approach to every matter. 


In 1989 he admitted having paid a bribe of two million rand (worth nearly £770,000 today) to Chief George Matanzima, the prime minister of Transkei, in return for acquiring exclusive gaming rights in the homeland. He was briefly forced to resign from the board of his company, but the scandal soon seemed to have been brushed under the carpet, and he quickly managed to establish good relations with the ANC when it took power in the early 1990s.   An explanation for both these things emerged in 1996, when Nelson Mandela admitted that Kerzner had given his party another two million rand just before the 1994 election, but he denied allegations that it had played any part in the earlier charges against Kerzner having been dropped. Most observers felt, however, that Kerzner had once again proved himself a masterful judge of human weakness.     Solomon Kerzner was born in Troyeville, a suburb of Johannesburg, on 23 August 1935. His parents were Jews from Ukraine who had emigrated to South Africa at the end of the 1920s. There they opened a café, and later ran a boarding house.  

Sol, their youngest child, went to Athlons High School in Johannesburg, where he was taunted for being Jewish. His father encouraged him to take up boxing to defend himself, and such was his talent that when he went on to study accountancy at the University of Witwatersrand he represented it at welterweight level. He was also in the wrestling team.  

By his mid-twenties Kerzner had become a junior partner in a Durban accountancy firm but felt that his destiny encompassed better things. At 29 he took the bold step of opening the country’s first five-star hotel, in a fishing village north of Durban.

Kerzner decided on the development more on instinct than on the basis of any market research, or even any experience of luxury hotels. He had never travelled outside South Africa, nor seen a five-star hotel except in brochures he had ordered from America.   With the resort almost complete, in964 he flew to Miami to check that his vision was not too wide of the mark. He returned convinced that his hotel would be a success. He called it The Beverly Hills – he had already learned that in the hotel business understatement did not pay.  

A short, pugnacious man, with a short, pugnacious temper, Kerzner began relentlessly to build up a hotel business across southern Africa, and by 1983 his Southern Sun company owned 29, including the Chobe game reserve in Botswana, where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had held their second wedding.  

Kerzner became a celebrity in his own right in South Africa, being known not least for the troubled progress of his marriages. The first of these, to Maureen Adler, ended in divorce, while his second wife, Shirley Bestbier, committed suicide in 1978. In 1980 he married a former Miss World, Anneline Kriel, but this too came to an end, in 1985.  

For much of the next decade his companion was the model Christina Estrada, to whom he became engaged, but when he finally did marry for a fourth time, in 2000, it was to one of her friends, some 35 years his junior, Heather Murphy. They were divorced, however, in 2011.   Despite the success of Sun City Kerzner found it difficult for many years to expand outside South Africa because of worldwide opposition to the country’s businesses.

In 1987 he moved his main office to London and took up residence in the Chilterns at Ibstone, formerly the home of the writer Rebecca West.   Once the ANC were in government, he was able – and felt it sensible – to diversify his operations around the globe, adding to his properties in the Mauritius resorts in Mexico and Morocco, among others.   His two most important developments were in the Americas. In 1994 he built Atlantis, a vast £250 million themed hotel on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. It rapidly became one of the most popular holiday destinations for Americans, and soon afterwards, rotating his workers in 24-hour shifts, he doubled its capacity to more than 2,000 rooms.   By the end of the century it was running at a remarkable 90 per cent rate of occupancy and for a time boasted the world’s most expensive hotel room.  

The profits from it, however, came – as at Sun City – principally from the high-rollers who visited its casino, and from its serried ranks of slot machines, which retained seven cents of every dollar inserted.   Gambling was also central to his other coup of the 1990s, the creation of the world’s largest casino, the Mohegan Sun, at a cost of £275 million on an American Indian reservation in Connecticut. Betting was illegal in the state, but as Kerzner knew from experience this legislation did not always extend to areas governed by minorities.

Profits from the operation soon dwarfed those of all his other enterprises.  

Although Kerzner gave millions to good causes, he frankly admitted to having a short fuse – he would start meetings with a cheery “What the f—k’s going on!?” – and to being demanding. His hotel staff had to master a four-page manual on how to pour a pint of beer. He smoked furiously, and in 2006 was admitted to the Betty Ford Clinic after his fondness for drink became a concern.  

By the early 2000s, with leisure an increasingly important part of people’s lives, Kerzner owned half a dozen of the most luxurious and prestigious hotels in the world, among them Le Touessrok and Saint-Géran in Mauritius, and the Ocean Club in Nassau (which was featured in the James Bond film Casino Royale). Their décor, cuisine and clientele became only too familiar to the readers of glossy magazines.  

Nonetheless, these resorts helped to pioneer the new trend for more relaxed, boutique hotels, contributing markedly to the raising of standards at the top end of the industry. Kerzner subsequently opened other Atlantis hotels in China and, in 2008, at the Palms in Dubai. It was opened with what was billed, at $20 million, as the most expensive launch party ever, featuring the largest fireworks display in history and Michael Jackson.  

Kerzner’s son Butch, who was the chief executive of Kerzner’s companies, died in a helicopter crash in the Dominican Republic in 2006. Kerzner never seemed to get over the blow.

Moreover, just before the financial crash of 2008, he had decided to take the business private again, adding $3.6 billion of debt.   His empire subsequently ran into financial difficulties and, having sold off many assets cheaply, he largely retired in 2014 after investors from Dubai had taken a substantial stake in the business.  

Sol Kerzner, born August 23 1935, died March 21 2020. He is survived by a son and three daughters.