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Revealing the lost kingdom of apartheid: A non-country, rife with poverty and despair, is hosting this year's Miss World extravaganza, writes John Carlin from Sun City

THIS YEAR'S Miss World contest is being held tonight in a city that is not a city, in a country that does not exist. The venue is the Superbowl amphitheatre at Sun City, a casino resort carved out of the bush, a glittering shrine to Mammon set in a sea of dusty desolation 100 miles north-east of Johannesburg.

The country is Bophuthatswana, a one-party black 'homeland' within South Africa's borders headed by a stooge-president and run by former Rhodesians which enjoys diplomatic relations with Pretoria, and no one else.

The idea of Bophuthatswana, as conceived by the apartheid engineers, was to create a dumping ground for blacks, hundreds of thousands of whom were forcibly transferred here so that whites could take possession of their ancestral lands.

In Sun City, which has no churches and is unhampered by South Africa's Calvinist gaming laws, the idea has been turned upside down. The 'unblackening' process has been reversed and a little white paradise has been created - a celebration of golf, gambling and porn - untouched by the despair, disease and poverty of those who inhabit the neighbouring township of Ledig.

The Miss World contest is being held here to publicise the inauguration of the most spectacular folly in the southern hemisphere, an African theme park within the Sun City complex called the Lost City. The centrepiece is the Palace Hotel, built from the ruins, the brochures would have us believe, of an ancient African kingdom.

The function of the 84 beauty queens on parade tonight, and of the celebrities who will judge their charms, is to adorn this pounds 200m monument to the entrepreneurial excess of the man who owns Sun City, Sol Kerzner - a tycoon of Russian parentage who used to sell fish and chips.

What Miss World will do, Mr Kerzner hopes, is help repay the investment by bringing in the foreign tourists. To this end, Mr Kerzner has flown out scores of European journalists and put them up free of charge. Their job, to take pictures of, and write stories about, the competitors and the celebrities, all of whom are lavish in their praise of the Lost City.

'The perfection of it, the uniqueness, the excitement,' gushed Brigitte Nielsen. 'It's, like, so dramatic,' breathed Deborah Shelton, of Dallas fame. 'It's amazing, isn't it?' Joan Collins said. Alan Whicker, another judge, has generally kept a glassy silence.

Ms Nielsen's chief contribution to the Kerzner cause this week was to appear in a leopard-skin swimsuit at the hotel's Olympic- sized pool. A female Robocop, 6ft 4in in high heels, she posed with a diminutive black waiter, kissed her Italian boyfriend, obligingly adjusted her outfit the better to display her titanic cleavage and generally indulged the whims of the photographers, most of them hardened pros from the British tabloids.

Joan Collins, also in regulation leopard-skin, posed arm in arm with 'Sol' and Jerry Hall, the Miss World presenter, sat on the leg of a live elephant with false tusks in front of a massive statue of a legendary dead one in bronze.

Elephants are important to this African never-never land. An archaeologist, thousands of years hence, might conclude that the inhabitants of the Lost City worshipped elephants in the same way that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats.

The Palace's interior designer, Trish Wilson, from Dallas, evidently concluded that the way to satisfy Mr Kerzner's desire to construct the hotel 'in the African style' was to have elephant motifs everywhere. The glass of the Italian-made chandelier in the Crystal Room, which serves Californian cuisine, is shaped in the forms of tusks and the Italian-designed, semi-precious stone mosaics all feature elephants, with the odd monkey and rhino thrown in.

Were it not for the pristine condition of the marble floors, one could be forgiven for thinking the hotel was a luxury elephant house: the wooden doors at the main entrance are 25ft high and the main bathroom in the royal suite would happily accommodate a family of three.

The view of the Palace up the hill from the Sun City 'entertainment centre' - home of a thousand slot machines, one of which announces the jackpot with a mechanical evocation of an elephant in full trumpeting cry - evokes images from Indiana Jones. A Windsor Castle-sized temple of doom.

Curiously, the no-expenses spared construction of the Lost City - which also features an artificial beach with artificially-induced eight-foot waves - has generated nothing like the storm there has been in Britain over the cost of rebuilding the Queen's home. All the more curious, because while the one is quite unnecessary, the other clearly is. And the inhabitants of Windsor do not, by and large, need help in the manner of those in Ledig. There is no reason why they should object particularly to the presence next door of a restaurant that serves 'Gamberoni grigliati con olio d'oliva profumati al limone' or a room service menu that offers, day and night, Beluga caviar for starters and 'peanut butter chocolate mousse terrine on Frangelica Anglaise' for dessert.

African National Congress officials in the neighbouring Western Transvaal - the organisation being illegal in Bophuthatswana - threatened to disrupt the Miss World contest in protest but were roundly reprimanded by ANC head office in Johannesburg, which declared this week that 'such acts of intimidation' were 'reprehensible'.

One clue to the ANC's bland acceptance of the Lost City - at one level, the ultimate monument to apartheid - is that Mr Kerzner has made a habit recently of wining and dining ANC leaders. Only last month he provided Nelson Mandela's daughter Zindzi with a free honeymoon in one of his Mauritius hotels.

Another possibility is that he has convinced ANC leaders with his oft-repeated argument that by building the resort he is providing employment for the needy.

A pity, then, that he did not provide employment for any of the local beauty queens - as he has for a troupe of performing elephants - at tonight's Superbowl spectacular.

The list of participants does not feature Miss Bophuthatswana. But perhaps this would have been stretching the fantasy a little too far.

(Photograph omitted)