South Africa's Sun king

Sol Kerzner throws most lavish launch ever for Atlantis marine resort, the biggest hotel in the Middle East.

atlantis dubai 88 (photo credit: )
atlantis dubai 88
(photo credit: )
Growing up in Durban, I remember Sol Kerzner well. He was probably the Jewish community's biggest celebrity, and he was called the "Sun king" after the Sun hotel chain he built. I knew his first wife, Maureen, his daughter, Beverly, and son, Howard (known as Butch), who was set to take over his father's empire but was killed tragically at the age of 42 in a helicopter crash two years ago in the Dominican Republic. Kerzner is no stranger to controversy, and spending $20 million to launch a resort in Dubai during a global financial crisis is just the latest extravagance in his exceptional career. The South African magnate, who has five children and six grandchildren, now lives in London with his fourth wife, Heather. His Florida-based Kerzner International Holdings Limited (formerly Sun International) and One&Only Resorts, his management company, own luxury hotels and casinos around the world, including seven five-star resorts from the Bahamas and Mauritius and Mexico to the Maldives. He is still planning a top One&Only resort on The World, a series of man-made islands built to resemble the Earth, another in Cape Town, and a third in Casablanca. But The Times reported last week that the credit crunch has affected him, and he recently laid off 800 employees (10 percent of the staff) at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. The British government's decision to backtrack on allowing an expansion of the casino industry has also caused him to drop plans for a new super-casino in the UK. The youngest of four children, Kerzner was born on August 23, 1935 in Johannesburg to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who opened a kosher guest house in Durban called the Menora. After doing his national service in the South African army, he graduated as a chartered accountant at the University of Witwatersrand and initially joined a top firm in Durban. But he soon followed in his parents' footsteps and built what became South Africa's biggest hotel group, then called Southern Sun. When he was just 25, he bought the Palace Hotel in Durban, built his first hotel, the five-star Beverly Hills hotel in nearby Umhlanga (named after his daughter) when he was just 29, and within five years owned dozens of top hotels in Durban and around the country. He became famous internationally, though, with the establishment of the glitzy Sun City game resort in the so-called Bophuthatswana homeland in 1979, to evade South Africa's strict laws against "immoral entertainment" such as gambling and topless shows. He also managed to bypass the international apartheid boycott, attracting big stars like Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Queen and Shirley Bassey, to perform. But this angered the anti-apartheid movement, and in 1985, the resort was targeted in a rock album titled Sun City by a group of musicians calling themselves Artists United Against Apartheid ("I ain't gonna play Sun City.") Although not getting involved publicly in politics, Kerzner has acknowledged giving money to the ANC and he became close to Nelson Mandela, who once called him "the greatest entrepeneur in his country's tourism business." He returned to South Africa recently for the launch of the School of Tourism and Hospitality at his alma mater. Kerzner donated R20 million to the new school, which is housed in the university's Kerzner Building. He is known to be an honest but shrewd businessman, with a charming personality but a bad temper. He has been investigated on several occasions for alleged corruption in his gambling resorts, but has been cleared each time. His third marriage was to former Miss World, Anneline Kriel, and he dated and was engaged to model Christina Estrada for a decade, but ended up marrying her best friend, Heather Murphy, who is 25 years younger than Kerzner, eight years ago.