The man behind Sun City

Sol Kerzner, the man behind Sun City, was a business magnate whose name is synonymous with South African luxury hospitality. However, he wasn’t always destined for the world of five-star resorts and opulent casinos.

Born in Johannesburg in 1935 to Russian immigrants, Kerzner’s early life was a far cry from the glamour he would later create.  

His family ran a chain of kosher hotels, exposing him to the hospitality industry from a young age. However, Kerzner’s interests were not limited to business.

He was a talented musician who played with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. He also found success in the boxing ring, becoming a Varsity Welterweight Champion. 

After he matriculated from Damelin College, he wanted to become a mechanic, but his father encouraged him to pursue accounting. 

A few years later, he graduated with a B.Com Honours in accounting from the University of Witwatersrand and qualified as a chartered accountant while working at an accounting practice. 

Shortly after graduating, Kerzner took over the family business. This was when his entrepreneurial spirit took hold.  

In 1962, he bought a Durban beachfront hotel, laying the foundation for the Southern Sun hotel group. 

Following the success of that property, Kerzner built South Africa’s first five-star graded hotel in Umhlanga. He opened this resort in December 1964, named the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Following this venture, Kerzner built the 450-room Elangeni Hotel – now renamed Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani – overlooking Durban’s beachfront.

In 1969, in partnership with South African Breweries, he established the chain of Southern Sun Hotels, which operated 30 luxury hotels with more than 7,000 rooms by 1983. 

In 1975, Kerzner opened his first hotel outside South Africa on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, which he named Le Saint Géran.

Under the grip of Apartheid, South Africa had a burgeoning white middle class with disposable income but limited options for luxury leisure experiences.

This is where Kerzner saw an opportunity for what would eventually become Sun City, South Africa’s largest resort.

Kerzner’s initial concept, a resort in the Natal Midlands, was rejected by the government. 

However, he persevered and turned his sights to Bophuthatswana, a homeland created under Apartheid. Kerzner saw a chance to build a Las Vegas-style, world-class resort for South Africans.

The location, a remote area near Pilanesberg National Park, was far from ideal, but Kerzner saw its potential.

Therefore, over ten years, Kerzner developed Sun City – the most ambitious resort project in Africa.

He built four hotels, a man-made lake, two Gary Player-designed championship golf courses, and an entertainment centre with an indoor 6,000-seat multi-purpose arena

Sun City’s 1979 opening was a bombshell. Frank Sinatra headlined the extravagant launch, and the resort quickly became a playground for the rich and famous.  

Sun City was undeniably opulent, boasting a man-made lake, a championship golf course, and a luxurious hotel.  

Its success wasn’t without controversy. Critics denounced it as a symbol of Apartheid’s excesses during a time when Black South Africans were facing severe oppression.  

However, he argued that Sun City created jobs and boosted the Bophuthatswana economy.

One of Kerzner’s biggest controversies was the alleged deal he made in 1984 with Leslie Young, the Minister of Finance for the bantustan of Bophutatswana.

The deal was allegedly that any investments by his company, Sun International, that had the effect of advertising Apartheid abroad would be tax-deductible. 

As a result, it is alleged that Sun International paid next to no money for taxes in South Africa due to tax breaks.

Following Sun City’s success, Kerzner felt emboldened to take a big step forward in his hospitality career – acquiring the bankrupt Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas in 1994. 

Following a massive redevelopment, it was reborn as the iconic Atlantis Resort, complete with a marine habitat and themed waterpark.

This marked the beginning of Kerzner International, his luxury resort company with a global footprint.

While casinos were a significant part of Kerzner’s business model, he also recognized the growing demand for luxury experiences beyond gambling.  

He developed resorts in Mauritius, Dubai, and the Maldives, each catering to a specific clientele and offering a unique blend of relaxation, adventure, and unparalleled service.

Kerzner stepped down as CEO of Kerzner International in 2008 and passed away in 2020, but his legacy lives on. 

The company continues to operate some of the world’s most luxurious resorts, and Sun City remains a landmark in South Africa’s hospitality landscape.


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