So long, Sol Kerzner

Solomon (Sol) Kerzner, the flamboyant hotel and casino magnate who rolled the dice when he brought legal gaming to one of South Africa’s fictional Bantustan states, died on Saturday, 21 March aged 84.

The National Party that enforced apartheid with an iron fist liked to pretend that it was Calvinist to the core, and that no-nonsense Christian outlook left no room for vices such as gambling. In a state that prohibited sexual relations based on something as artificial as skin colour, restrictive measures knew no bounds.

Sol Kerzner saw a way around this dilemma. The citadel of apartheid also included the fiction of the “homelands” that were or would become independent states, catering to their ethnic group or tribe. Some of these homelands, or Bantustans, happened to sit on some of the world’s richest deposits of platinum group metals, but Kerzner saw a pot of gold waiting to be tapped.

The result, of course, was the sprawling casino, golf and entertainment complex known as Sun City, which sits alongside the Pilanesberg game reserve, with a habitat that, among other things, is extremely suitable for rhinos. Kerzner would build other gambling and entertainment complexes – and would found the hotel groups Southern Sun and Sun International – but Sun City, launched in 1979 and hacked out of the bush in the Bantustan of Bophuthatswana, would be one of his crowning achievements.

“The casino complex was screened from the eyes of passing Ba Tswana by the outer walls of the Pilanesberg. In Bophuthatswana, as elsewhere, the poor could see the rich at work but not at play – a glimpse of the former carrying with it a positive and elevating message, the latter provoking only negative and undesirable comparisons. Gambling without guilt was to be part of the Sun City experience,” writes historian Charles van Onselen in his marvellous work of social history The Seed is Mine, about the life of Kas Maine, a South African sharecropper who constantly had to move his family and possessions while navigating the treacherous economic and political forces of apartheid.

Maine was among those who used the grasslands of Pilanesberg, now grazed by white rhino and a host of antelope species, for his cattle. Those decent grazing lands would be cut off as the fence was erected.

“Through careful planning, he had managed. But now there was a difference: instead of being threatened by advancing tractors and sprawling maize fields, which he could understand even if he did not like them, his oxen were having to make way for baboons, leopards and ostriches! It defied comprehension,” writes Van Onselen.

Sin City also became a target of the international movement against apartheid. In 1985, Artists United Against Apartheid released the song Sun City in which they vowed not to play there. It featured lyrics such as this:

“I ain’t gonna play Sun City Bophuthatswana is far away But we know it’s in South Africa no matter what they say You can’t buy me I don’t care what you pay Don’t ask me Sun City because I ain’t gonna play”

Despite this background, Kerzner deftly made strong connections with the ANC. This correspondent once interviewed a former environment and tourism minister in the early 2000s and the person who was next in line for a meeting in the reception area was Kerzner. Much of Sun City’s apartheid past was effectively airbrushed from history.

Kerzner was born in Johannesburg but his roots were Lithuanian-Jewish, a group that includes Joe Slovo, Helen Suzman, Tony Leon and many others who have made a significant impact on South African public life. Many of their ancestors came to South Africa when what is now Lithuania was part of the old Tsarist Empire, which had long been infected with the virus of anti-Semitism, and they were fortunate. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, you did not want to be Jewish in what is now Lithuania. Historians estimate that more than 90% of Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

Kerzner’s family was fortunate, and so was he. He rolled the dice big-time and came out on top. His colourful and controversial life featured four marriages, including to a former Miss World. But, perhaps with his passing, spare a thought for poor old Kas Maine, the sharecropper who was incredulous that his oxen had to make way for “baboons, leopards, and ostriches!”

Sun City may be on the verge of shutdown as this is written because of Covid-19, and perhaps it was already much quieter than usual when Kerzner passed away on a Saturday evening when normally the place would be abuzz. But its legacy of forced removals lives on in this benighted land. DM

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