Profile: Sol Kerzner, South Africa's most pugnacious empire-builder

Sol Kerzner has mellowed, says Graham Boynton in The Daily Telegraph. Twenty-five years ago, when he was building up his notorious Sun City resort in Bophuthatswana...

Sol Kerzner has mellowed, says Graham Boynton in The Daily Telegraph. Twenty-five years ago, when he was building up his notorious Sun City resort in Bophuthatswana one of South Africa's apartheid homelands' he came across as something of a gunslinger "strutting manically around his burgeoning empire, pointing fingers and barking commands in a faux Brooklyn accent".

Forced to leave in a hurry after a spate of scandals, Kerzner went on to build a second empire in the US. And a respectable one, says The New York Times: even those "most outraged by his past" are now firm allies, and on a recent return to the Cape he was hailed a hero.

Boxing clever

The 70-year old former hellraiser, renowned for kicking off business meetings with "What the f*** is going on?", credits the transformation to the soothing influence of his fourth wife, Heather, who recently checked him into the Betty Ford Clinic. "I thought I might be able to take Ricardo, my butler, with me, but they didn't agree to that," says Kerzner.

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It's a sedate image that few who knew Sol in the early days would recognise, says the Daily Express. The son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Kerzner grew up in the dirt-poor Johannesburg suburb of Doornfontein and was regularly beaten up at school until he learned to box. He combined pugnacity with hard work and outrageous ambition.

Three years after qualifying as an accountant, he sweet-talked clients into financing a hotel on the Durban coast, based on "pictures cut from a Florida brochure". South Africa's first five-star hotel, The Beverly Hills, opened in 1964. Within five years, Kerzner had built 31 hotels, "launching South Africa as a tourist destination".

The Sun King

In 1979, Kerzner embarked on his most ambitious project yet. The impetus for Sun City was the regime's decision to spin off the black homelands', says The New York Times. Casinos were banned in South Africa, but not in these quasi-independent puppet states. Kerzner struck a deal for exclusive gambling rights with the leader of Bophuthatswana and built Sun City on barren land two hours from Johannesburg.

The resort "drew white South Africans to gamble, ogle topless dancers and maybe have interracial sex, all of which were illegal in South Africa". Vilified by anti-apartheid campaigners, Sun City nonetheless attracted a welter of international cabaret stars. Ever the opportunist, Kerzner hosted Miss World and married the winner.

Licensed to thrill

Rumours of shady financial dealings continued to dog Kerzner, and in 1989 he was accused of bribing the government of another homeland, Transkei. In the ensuing scandal, the Transkei prime minister was jailed and Kerzner fled to the US, buying a bankrupt resort in the Bahamas, casinos in Atlantic City and Connecticut's Mohegan Indian reservation. Following an unlikely alliance with religious billionaire Philip Anschutz, he now plans a hotel/casino complex at the Millennium Dome.

The Kerzner International empire is worth in excess of $2bn, says The New York Times, but it could not exist without a gaming licence. Despite ruling that Kerzner had bribed the leader of Transkei, the US authorities ruled "it would be unfair to disqualify him for something he did long ago in another country". So why are they being so easy on him? The reason's not hard to see: "Sol Kerzner knows how to make money."

"Spiky on the outside, soft and generous on the inside"

The creation of Sun City was seen as Kerzner's "last hurrah", says South Africa's Financial Mail. But the country's most prominent prodigal son is back, with his Wall Street banker son, Butch', in tow, and a war chest totalling some ten billion rand.

They plan a slew of luxury resorts. The competition is tighter than in Kerzner's heyday, but these days he commands the highest endorsements. "Sol is by far the greatest entrepreneur in this country's tourist business," declared Nelson Mandela, extolling the Kerzners as "an example of a family not only interested in their own enrichment, but willing to give back to their own country".

Not everyone is prepared to forgive Africa's richest self-made man quite so readily, says The Daily Telegraph: critics still view Sun City as a symbol of apartheid's evils.

Kerzner offers a different perspective: "We created a place where people of all colours [could come together]. No conservative Afrikaner from Pretoria could visit ... and return home the same. I thought that was pretty good".

The truth is that, in 40 years of business, there have been few occasions when Kerzner has not got what he wanted, says the Daily Express. His past is full of "sex and scandal" (for his 50th birthday, he chartered a 747 with showgirls doing stripteases in the aisle). "But for every negative story, there seems to be a positive." Colleagues describe him as a porcupine: "spiky on the outside, soft and generous on the inside".

If he has a great talent apart from his perfectionism, it is speed. Happier in a construction hat than a suit, he can conjure a luxurious building from nothing in a matter of months.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.