CAPE TOWN (AFP) — After building mega-resorts from the Bahamas to Dubai, tycoon Sol Kerzner is back home in South Africa with a posh new 100-million-dollar hotel, 15 years after pulling up his stakes here in a cloud of controversy.
Richer, older, and with more celebrities in tow, South Africa’s most infamous billionaire last month opened the One&Only hotel in Cape Town, featuring a 4,000-dollar a night suite with commanding views of the landmark Table Mountain and the ocean.
“It takes hotels to another level in South Africa,” he told AFP in an interview.
It’s the latest jewel in a byzantine business empire reportedly worth at least two billion dollars, which he studiously avoids discussing.
“We just don’t talk the details and numbers,” he said.
Once the epitome of hedonism under calvinistic white-minority rule, the diminutive 73-year-old made his name skirting an apartheid-era ban on gambling by building the Las Vegas-style Sun City resort in the 1970s in an ostensibly self-governing black homeland.
Just about two hours drive from Johannesburg, the resort was a place where black and white could mingle and drew in performers like Elton John and Paul Simon.
But the resort sparked international controversy as global opposition to apartheid grew in the 1980s, painting Kerzner as profiteering from the violently enforced system of segregation.
He’s also been the target of a series of bribery investigations around the world, but never convicted.
His gruff demeanour has only fueled an unflattering media image.
He is known to make those crossing his path quiver in fear with his notorious temper, with the Daily Mail once reporting he liked to start meetings declaring “What the f%$k’s going on?”
Kerzner said he “doesn’t care” about his image, which has softened over the years as he pulled celebrities into his circle and opened a series of larger-than-life resorts around the world.
“People have called me a perfectionist and that’s what I expect,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a limit to one’s imagination.”
“For me, it’s quite emotional. I always say in our business you can’t afford to fall in love with your assets,” Kerzner tells AFP of the journey back to South Africa.
He sold his stakes in South African hotels during the transition from apartheid, as the democratically elected government moved to legalise gambling.
Kerzner went on to build the Atlantis in the Bahamas and the Middle East’s biggest hotel — the outerwordly 580-million-dollar The Palm in Dubai. With properties from Mauritius to Mexico, Kerzner has been dubbed South Africa’s Donald Trump.
Dubbed the Sun King after the name of his first hotel chain, Kerzner says his new One&Only Cape Town hotel, is his best to date.
A penthouse on top of the hotel sold last year for 110 million rand (12 million dollars), making it the most expensive property in Africa.
He counts among his friends no less than Nelson Mandela, whom he met shortly after his release from prison in 1990.
“We became really good friends and had dinner from time to time at my home. It was very unusual,” he said of the 90-year-old who joined him for a private lunch at the hotel’s opening.
“He was in very good form, he is one of my oldest friends I am proud to say. He doesn’t appear much in public but he came out to do the lunch as a friend.”
Other friends such as Sharon Stone, Robert de Niro, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon and Mariah Carey swept into town for an intimate and shmoozy cocktail party celebrating the hotel’s opening, which he says is a vote of confidence in the new South Africa.
“I have been an optimist all these years. The fact that we built this hotel, and as I say it is about as good, the best we’ve ever built, says more than anything that I believe in the future of the country as a growing dynamic economy.”
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