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Wansell

The vulgar tycoon who loves boxing, blondes...and buying influence
by Geoffrey Wansell: Daily Mail, 30th January 2007.

There could hardly be a more vulgar or notorious billionaire than South Africa-born casino magnate Sol Kerzner, now 69.

Four times married and with an appetite for expletives - he likes to begin business meetings with the delicate phrase, 'What the f***'s going on?' - Kerzner is famous for his passion for blondes, booze and boxing.

• Sun King takes a shine to Labour

He is also behind some of the world's most outrageously over-the-top casinos complete with fake Mayan temples, artificial volcanoes and lagoons filled with sharks.

He created the infamous Sun City in an independent black state within South Africa, symbol of the worst excesses of that country during the apartheid years. There, white people could indulge their every whim, be it soft porn or gambling, and blacks were there only to serve them.

He has made many enemies on his way to creating a fortune estimated to exceed £100million.

Suddenly he seems to have a lot of powerful friends in Britain where he sees enormous business potential. Yet the diminutive Kerzner is hardly the sort of person one would have thought the New Labour establishment would want to welcome into its midst.

He has a record of being, shall we say, financially generous to politicians who have been in a position to help him establish his casinos in South Africa.

In the U.S. he has been investigated by the New Jersey gaming authorities who concluded that he had bribed a leading African politician - although it must be said that they decided the bribe was an "aberration" and that he had since "convincingly demonstrated good character, honesty and integrity".

It is little short of extraordinary that a New Labour government should consider him a 'fit and proper' person to usher vast casinos into Britain.

But there is no denying that he has plans to spend more than £600million on three gambling palaces here. And to get an idea of what they will be like, you need to look no further than his vast £900million Atlantis Casino on the Bahamas, where according to one recent visitor you can find children of 12 playing some of the 1,200 slot machines.

Notoriously secretive about his business empire, Kerzner likes to keep outsiders guessing about how much he is worth, and where his money is.

He has houses in Chelsea, the South of France and Cape Town but he spends the vast majority of his time in the Bahamas, or visiting his nine One and Only hotels around the world.

"He's always moving," says one former employee, "jumping into his private jet and rushing off at a moment's notice".

Solomon Kerzner was born in Johannesburg on August 23 1935, the youngest of four children and only son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had arrived in the country six years earlier. He was brought up in the poverty-stricken district of Doornfontein, where he was regularly picked on and beaten up for being Jewish.

His response was to learn to box - "to beat up all the boys who beat me up".

It was a talent which was to see him become welterweight champion at the University of Witwatersrand, where he studied accountancy. He qualified at 26 and became a junior partner in a firm of chartered accountants.

His parents, who had originally run a cafe, had graduated to a small boarding house in Durban where Kerzner used to help out. In 1964, inspired by new hotel developments in the U.S., he borrowed money from clients to build South Africa's first five-star hotel, the Beverly Hills, in a fishing village north of Durban.

Within five years he had founded the brash Southern Sun Hotel franchise which was to grow to 31 hotels and transform the leisure industry in South Africa. The vulgarian was born.

His first marriage, to Maureen Adler, with whom he had three children - sons Howard, always known as Butch, and Brandon, who both now work with him, and a daughter, Andrea, now 44 - ended in divorce in the early 1970s.

Butch Kerzner, 40, was chief executive of Kerzner International, while his father is chairman, but was killed in an air crash in October.

Kerzner's second marriage, to Shirley Besthier, came to an end in 1978, when she killed herself. The couple had a three-year-old son and a ten-month-old daughter at the time.

"Shirley killing herself was obviously a huge setback in my life," he said afterwards.

"Shortly after that I threw myself into the planning of Sun City."

It was his creation of Sun City in 1979 in the so-called independent homeland of Bophuthatswana, two-and-a-half hours' drive from Johannesburg, which was to transform his fortune, making him "the richest man in Africa" and leading to his nickname of the Sun King.

And it was this deal which saw Kerzner first make use of his political skills, in his relationship with Lucas Mangope, leader of Bophuthatswana. He was said to be "in Kerzner's pocket".

There can be no denying the success of Sun City, with its simulated earthquakes and 7,000 imported trees.

Kerzner delighted in holding elaborate extravaganzas there including world heavyweight title fights and Miss World contests, and playing host to celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli, as well as to countless politicians.

Not that everyone was quite so keen to accept Kerzner's lavish hospitality. Many saw Sun City as the hideous, patronising and manipulative face of apartheid.

By 1985 his third marriage, to South Africa's first Miss World, Anneline Kriel, was on the rocks - amidst rumours of a stormy and violent parting.

Unbowed, Kerzner celebrated his 50th birthday in August that year by chartering a Jumbo jet and flying 150 friends to Mauritius, where he had established a casino-hotel. On the flight he replaced the stewardesses with strippers.

 

In December 1986, Kerzner was embroiled in fresh bribery allegations, this time that he paid the then Prime Minister of Transkei, George Matanzima, to gain exclusive gaming rights there.

Documents discovered by the New Jersey gaming authorities a decade later confirmed that one of Kerzner's companies had indeed transferred £600,000 to the trust account of a middle man "for the ultimate benefit of G Matanzima".

Matanzima was jailed for nine years and a warrant was issued for Kerzner, but he was never to stand trial. Although Kerzner eventually admitted paying the money, he insisted that it was extorted from him.

Not long afterwards, he began to remove himself from South Africa, initially selling his hotel chain but keeping Sun City.

Kerzner settled on the Bahamas where, with backing from the Cayzer shipping family, he bought a resort on Paradise Island and started work on what was to become the uniquely graceless Atlantis resort.

It has lagoons featuring sharks, sting rays and barracudas, as well as a six-storey-high fake Mayan temple containing a 60ft water slide, not to mention 24-hour gaming halls.

A lifelong 60-a-day smoker, Kerzner had a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 54 and has not smoked since, replacing cigarettes with a now ever-present string of worry beads made out of solid gold.

But the illness didn't slow him down, or cause him to lose his appetite for the company of beautiful young, women.

Sol Kerzner

Sol Kerzner and Christina Estrada.

With the long-legged Californian supermodel Christina Estrada, now 39, at his side, Kerzner flew round the world in his private jet, expanding his luxury hotel chain and investing one last time in South Africa, where in 1992 he launched the equally over-the-top Lost City, complete with artificial rain forest, alongside Sun City.

But two years later, after making a secret donation of £600,000 to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress party - in what one South African Minister described as an attempt to escape the attentions of the law - Kerzner severed all remaining South African connections.

With his Atlantis project in the Bahamas under way, he also targeted the U.S. and in the 1990s bought the £300million Resorts casino hotel in Atlantic City then established the £200million Mohegun Resort-Casino in Connecticut.

The loud-mouthed Kerzner had lost none of his ruthlessness. Even though he had formally proposed to Estrada, he dumped her early in 2000, and shortly afterwards married her best friend, New Yorker Heather Murphy, who was then 33, half his age.

There seems little doubt that Kerzner - "a toad, but one who's happy about it" in the words of one City figure - will become as controversial a wealthy friend of the Labour Party as Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, and the Hinduja brothers before him.

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For a synopsis of any of Geoffrey's books, please click on the appropriate cover above.

 

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