South Africa's prodigal son Sol Kerzner, who left at the end of the apartheid era to build up his international hotel and casino empire, has returned home in style.
Kerzner made his name with Sun City, the extravagant apartheid-era playground for South Africa's rich in the "homeland" of Bophuthatswana. He was criticized for violating sanctions against South Africa for staging international events there.
Now, after a long, absence, he's back. Hoping to buck the global gloom, Kerzner has opened his latest luxury One & Only hotel in Cape Town's world famous harbor, edged by the glistening waters of the Atlantic and overlooked by mighty Table Mountain.
Such is the pulling power of the man that former South African president Nelson Mandela attended a private luncheon Friday after overnighting at the resort with his wife, Graca Machel.
Hollywood stars including Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Matt Damon and Sharon Stone graced the red carpet, nibbled on lobster and sushi prepared by star chefs Gordon Ramsay and Nobu Matsuhisa, and danced to the jazz of greats like Hugh Masekela at a lavish opening bash attended by 400 guests late Thursday.
Kerzner put the cost of the festivities at 10 million rands ($1 million) — a trifle compared to the $20 million party and firework spectacular at last year's opening of his Atlantis resort in Dubai. He said it was worth every penny to launch the 1 billion rand ($100 million) development — his first big business venture in South Africa since 1992.
"I think this hotel is going to raise the bar for the hotel industry in South Africa," the ebullient chairman of Kerzner International told The Associated Press in an interview.
Kerzner hopes the fabulously wealthy will combine a stay at his resort with luxury safaris and is looking especially keenly toward visitors from the Middle East.
Although the economic downturn has put other development projects on hold and forced layoffs at his flagship Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, the hotel mogul says occupancy rates in the super-luxury hotels have proved more resilient than in mid-priced hotels. He is determinedly optimistic.
"When you build these hotels, you look at how you are going to do in the medium term and in the medium term, it's going to be sensational," Kerzner told The AP.
Situated on the Waterfront — one of the country's top tourist attractions — the hotel is built around two artificial islands, with a huge swimming pool fringed by palm trees, and two restaurants operated by celebrity chefs Ramsay and Matsuhisa, stocked with 6,000 different wines.
The cheapest room starts at 5,500 rands ($550) a night in low season, with the presidential suite goes for 50,500 rands ($5,000) in the peak Christmas period.
Kerzner became known in the late 1970s for building hotels and casinos in apartheid "homelands" — poor black enclaves described as "self-ruled" states by the white racist government — to bypass a ban on gambling in South Africa.
He was criticized for violating international cultural and sporting sanctions against South Africa by staging international golf tournaments — even a Miss World pageant — and was dogged by allegations of bribery. But his business thrived.
In 1992 he opened a fantasy resort, Lost City, in the Sun City gambling resort, and in 1994 left South Africa for commercial legal reasons and focused on building up his casino and hotel empire in the United States, the Bahamas and other countries.
Kerzner declared himself "very happy and excited" to be back in South Africa — a view echoed by the stars who have become a trademark of Kerzner hotel launches.
Damon raved about the views as he posed for photographs with former South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar — the man he is portraying in a film directed by Clint Eastwood about post-apartheid South Africa. The film stars Morgan Freeman, who was also present, as Mandela.
De Niro put Kerzner's popularity with the stars down to persistence.
"He's tireless in his schmoozing with celebrities," said De Niro. Asked if he felt used, he smiled and shrugged: "That's OK."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.