Sol Kerzner: back with a bang

2 January 2004

He’s back. Luxury hotel and casino magnate Sol Kerzner, one of South Africa’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, has come home in typical style – with the announcement of one of the most expensive hotel developments Africa has ever seen.

Kerzner and his son, Butch, announced on Friday that their New York-listed company, Kerzner International Limited, had reached agreement with the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront company to develop a new six-star luxury hotel in Cape Town, under the new ultra-smart One&Only hotel brand.

Kerzner International will work with local partner Matemeku Investments to develop a 150-room One&Only luxury hotel at the V&A Waterfront, part of Cape Town’s waterfront and harbour, at a cost of more than R450-million.

The V&A Waterfront, set against the backdrop of Table Mountain, is one of the most successful dockland renewals in the world, attracting some 22-million visits annually.

Cape Town’s One&Only, to be built in the exclusive V&A Marina Residential area, will be positioned “at the highest end of the market”, Butch Kerzner, president of Kerzner International and CEO of One&Only Resorts, said in a statement. “We aim to make the One&Only in Cape Town Africa’s flagship hotel.”

Construction on the new hotel is expected to start in 2005 and be completed by the end of 2006.

The Kerzners are also eyeing a number of other tourism projects in the country. Their alliance with Matemeku Investments, headed by local businessman Moss Mashishi, was formed earlier this year, and is reportedly exploring a number of hotel and game lodge development possibilities in the country.

The Kerzners also marked their return to South Africa with a R20-million donation towards the construction of a new hotel school in Johannesburg.

Sol Kerzner, chairman and CEO of Kerzner International, said he was “pleased to be returning to South Africa, the country where it all began for us”.

The new hotel, he told the Saturday Star, was “not just another hotel for me. I started up in this country, and now I’ve come back. I’ve always thought South Africa was one of the greatest tourist destinations in the world, and that Cape Town is without equal.

“And now people are marketing this country properly, and I’m really pleased about all of this.”

Kerzner received a warm welcome home from Nelson Mandela. At a breakfast to mark the hotel school donation, Mandela declared that Kerzner was “by far the greatest entrepreneur in the tourism industry”, and that he and his brother came from “a family not only interested in their own enrichment, but willing to give back to their country.

“Having the Kerzners back in South Africa, and having them herald their return with this generous donation to this new institution, is a tribute to the transformation that South Africa has enjoyed and the fact that we are now on the international tourism map”, Mandela said.

South Africa’s ‘Sun King’
Known in South Africa as the “Sun King” – and often described as the Donald Trump of SA – the 68-year-old Kerzner’s golden touch has made him one of the country’s wealthiest entrepreneurs.

David Cohen, in an article for British newspaper The Evening Standard (The man after our casinos, 24 September 2002), relates how, at the age of 29, the boy who was born and raised in one of Johannesburg’s poorest suburbs built South Africa’s first five-star hotel, the Beverley Hills in Umhlanga Rocks just north of Durban.

“Within five years”, Cohen writes, “Kerzner had started the Southern Sun Hotel franchise, the South African hotel chain that transformed the leisure sector in South Africa and grew to 31 hotels.

“But his big break came in 1979, when he built Sun City in the so-called independent homeland of Bophuthatswana, striking a deal – which would later be attacked as highly suspicious – with the then homeland leader, Lucas Mangope, for the exclusive gambling rights.”

In 1992, on the same bushveld site, Kerzner built “the even more flamboyant Lost City, creating an artificial rainforest replete with waterfalls, a beach, a sea with waves, a golf course with real crocodiles – and, of course, thousands of slot machines.”

The Palace of the Lost City was Kerzner’s last big project in South Africa. Dogged by allegations of bribery in the acquisition of exclusive casino rights – not just in Bophuthatswana but in the Transkei, another former South African “homeland” – Kerzner left for London in the late 1980s.

With his South African interests sold, Kerzner turned his sights on America – aiming big, very big, as always (or as the slogan on the front page of www.kerzner.com declares: “core value no.1 – blow away the customer”).

“Based in the Bahamas”, Cohen writes, Kerzner “set about building an international empire even more extravagant and fantastical than his South African one. His flagship is the hugely successful Atlantis on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, where his £1.4-billion casino-hotel is set amid the world’s biggest man-made aquarium, a water-slide marine park inhabited by 100 000 marine animals including piranhas, sharks and stingrays.

“He also built the £200-million Mohegun Resort-Casino in Connecticut, owns the £300-million Resorts casino-hotel in Atlantic City, and has eight other beach resorts at exotic locations in Mauritius, Dubai and the Maldives.”

And in the UK, Kerzner International is now looking to shake up the British gaming industry. Last year, the firm bought into one of Britain’s premiere casino businesses, London Clubs International, perfectly placing itself to enter the soon-to-be-deregulated British gaming market.

“Each time he has sought to open a casino in a new territory”, Cohen writes, “his controversial reputation has travelled before him and he has had to convince the local gaming board he is a person to be trusted. Each time he has eventually prevailed.

“Now, as he contemplates his next move, British casino owners may well be wondering which Sol will turn up: the misunderstood genius with the Midas touch who some say has mellowed with the years, or the pugnacious, uncouth, roughhousing man-boy not shy to tell his fellow board members to buck up or f*** off.”

SouthAfrica.info reporter