Fantasy rises in S. African poverty Critics say resort lives off apartheid

December 03, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

SUN CITY, South Africa -- Set in the midst of the harsh poverty of the black homeland of Bophuthatswana, a white man's fantasy opened this week with fanfare and fireworks.

The Lost City is a 42-acre theme resort with man-made waterfalls and rain forests and an ornate 330-room hotel named The Palace. Based on a myth about a lost African civilization, it is the jewel in Sol Kerzner's gambling empire and a fantasy designed mainly for well-off tourists from Europe, Asia and America.

It is typical of Mr. Kerzner's resorts -- flashy, costly and controversial. One Johannesburg newspaper called it a "loud, brash monument to extravagance."

The hotel looks like an attempt to cross Buckingham Palace with the Wonderful World of Disney. It has elephants, leopards or monkeys carved and painted onto every conceivable surface, including the domed towers and the indoor gas lamps. There are jungle tapestries, imitation zebra-skin chairs and massive columns rising from bases that look like elephants' feet.

Eduardo Robles, the California architect who designed the project, described the style as "jungle baroque." He said it was based on Mr. Kerzner's vision for a unique African theme park and hotel.

"I thought, in the middle of the jungle let's put one of the great hotels of the world," said Mr. Kerzner, 57, in an interview at his Sun City casino complex where the Lost City is located, about 100 miles northwest of Johannesburg.

"It was important to make it an African experience. It had to be all about Africa."

The hotel lobby is a seven-story-high rotunda with a jungle scene painted on its ceiling. Mr. Kerzner's publicists brazenly compare the workmanship to that of Michelangelo's at the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

In one courtyard stands a life-size statue of Shawu the Magnificent, a gigantic bull elephant that had the longest tusks on record in southern Africa. The elephant died in 1982. He is a South African legend, the only real one linked to this $270 million project.

The rest is make-believe, an "African" palace conceived by American architects and Mr. Kerzner, the son of Russian immigrants. There is nothing like it in sub-Saharan Africa, where real tribal chiefs and kings historically lived in compounds with clay and grass huts.

It remains to be seen whether foreigners traveling the distance to southern Africa will want to see a Disney-style fantasy rather than the real thing.

The Lost City is a gamble, particularly with the world in recession and with South Africa's future so uncertain. But gambling has been Mr. Kerzner's life for the past decade, since he started his 31-hotel casino business.

Gambling is illegal in official South Africa; that is, in the part that used to be for whites in pre-reform days. Mr. Kerzner is fighting to keep it that way. His resorts are in South Africa's impoverished homelands, where gambling is legal.

Black activists and labor union leaders charge that Mr. Kerzner's Sun International corporation is built on apartheid and depends on the homeland system devised by the architects of South African segregation.

International performers boycotted Sun City for years to protest apartheid before the government initiated political reforms. Now black unions inside the country are calling for a boycott of the new Lost City.

The unions are planning demonstrations to disrupt scheduled events, including the Miss World contest Dec. 12. Ivana Trump, ex-wife of Donald; Brigitte Nielsen, ex-wife of Sylvester Stallone; and actor Billy Dee Williams are among the cast of characters here for the beauty contest.

They could get a small taste of South African politics as well. The black homelands have been widely criticized as corrupt and repressive. Unions are not allowed in Bophuthatswana. Nor is free political activity. Only last week, a group of clergymen was roughed up by homeland police when they tried to stage a march for human rights.

"Sol Kerzner opts for homelands where he knows exploitation can be at its greatest," said Bheki Nkosi, a national spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

"They have been profiting from apartheid," said Papi Kganare, leader of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), which represents black hotel and restaurant workers across South Africa. "As far as we can see they are not in a hurry for any change."

Mr. Kerzner argues that he has created a tourist industry that provides jobs in the homelands. "We've established industries, we've established jobs, we've developed the people, the skills. What would the critics prefer? That those people still be impoverished?"

Members of the nearby 170,000-member Bakgatla tribe say Sun City has indeed brought jobs but it also created problems among their people, such as prostitution and crime. The neon lights and the slot machines lure young people from their desperately poor villages, most of which have no electricity or running water.

Dan Ntsala, a community development worker for a nearby park and a member of the Bakgatla tribe, believes Sun City has an obligation to do more to upgrade the surrounding communities, which gamblers drive past on their way to the blackjack tables.

Mr. Kerzner said his company does assist black villages, "but the best contribution I can make is doing what I'm doing. It's creating jobs. It's creating hopefully a real boost to international tourism. If we're going to survive here we've got to have a growing economy."

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