Sun king of Sin City rises above bribery charge

Sol Kerzner, the multi-millionaire who laid the foundations of his international casino empire in apartheid South Africa's reviled black homelands, is at the centre of a political storm after bribery charges against him were dropped.

For Mr Kerzner, 61, who seemed to suggest last month that he was just too rich to face prosecution, the decision by Christo Nel, attorney general for Transkei, to drop his decade-long campaign to bring Mr Kerzner to court is a vindication of his innocence.

But others claim that political pressure has helped to free Mr Kerzner of allegations that in 1986 he gave a ruler of the Transkei - one of the nine "independent" homelands in which blacks were condemned to live under apartheid - a bribe of 2m rand (pounds 286,000) to secure exclusive gambling rights.

Last year, Bantu Holomisa, a former ANC minister and one-time favourite son of President Nelson Mandela, was expelled from the ANC after repeating allegations that Stella Sigcau, the public enterprises minister, had received a cut of Mr Kerzner's alleged bribe.

He then went further, claiming that senior ANC members - including Thabo Mbeki, the deputy president - had accepted favours from Mr Kerzner, and, in 1994, that the magnate made a 2m rand pre-election donation to the ANC, along with a polite request that the criminal charges against him be reassessed.

After initial ANC denials, President Mandela admitted that he personally received the donation from Mr Kerzner. Oddly, the President said no one else in the party knew about it.

Mr Nel insists his decision is free of political pressure and is the result of new evidence which weakens the state's chance of a successful prosecution.

He has refused to elaborate.

Mr Holomisa said yesterday that Mr Nel owed South Africans a full explanation.

"Let us hope he dropped the charges on his own and not through political pressure," he said.

A month ago Mr Nel failed in attempts to have Mr Kerzner extradited to South Africa from the United Kingdom. Nor did he fare any better with David Bloomberg, the former mayor of Cape Town and an alleged accomplice.

Mr Holomisa, struggling to form a new opposition party since being cast out by the ANC, warned that those he had accused should not relax yet.

"This case will continue to haunt those who were recipients of Sol Kerzner's favours," he said.

The removal of the threat of legal action has come at a crucial time for Mr Kerzner, most famous for Sun City (Sin City to critics who accuse him of collaborating with apartheid), the spectacular gambling complex, complete with synthetic beach and luxurious jungle-covered "lost city", set in the midst of the arid poverty-ridden plains of the former homeland of Bophuthatswana. Since South Africa's transition, his empire, once cramped by international anti-apartheid action, has grown at a phenomenal rate. Mr Kerzner now has gambling complexes in the Bahamas, Mauritius and France. Last year he teamed up with a North American Indian reservation to open a pounds 180m casino complex.

But attempts by the man once described as the Donald Trump of the Southern hemisphere to gain a full licence in lucrative New Jersey have been stalled by the pending case in South Africa. The disappearance of charges almost certainly means full steam ahead.

Mr Kerzner says he is very pleased his name has been cleared. But members of the public remain cynical about the ease with which big business, once so National Party-friendly, has made chums with the ANC.

One caller to a local radio chat show yesterday quoted an old Xhosa proverb - a dog with a bone in its mouth does not bark. The caller said Sol Kerzner had ensured both the National Party and the ANC got their bones.

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