By Doris Klein Bacon
August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

Rising out of the arid scrub in the South African “black homeland” of Bophuthatswana, the $85 million resort complex of Sun City surely is the world’s unlikeliest tourist mecca. But in three years South African hotel entrepreneur Sol Kerzner has transformed this impoverished backwater, where the annual per capita income averages $700, into the Las Vegas of the Dark Continent. Using interracial chorus lines, soft-core porn films, discotheques and slot machines, he draws more than 11,000 tourists per day. Last month Kerzner took the next giant step in establishing his hotel-casino as a world-class resort: He shelled out $2 million to pay superstar entertainer Frank Sinatra for a nine-day stand. Even Ol’ Blue Eyes was impressed. “The job Sol has done here is incredible,” Sinatra observed.

Luring Frank was, of course, a coup. Other performers have been leery about playing in Bophuthatswana, a controversial state created in 1977 by South Africa as an “independent” black country within the country. Critics have consistently labeled Bophuthatswana a puppet of South Africa’s segregationist government—and, indeed, no other country on earth has granted it diplomatic recognition. Trying to overcome that stigma, Kerzner signed black entertainers Ben Vereen and Gladys Knight earlier this year, but both backed down. Helen Reddy did appear in June and earned a whopping $900,000 for 18 performances. Reddy’s husband-manager Jeff Wald says that Sinatra’s decision to perform in Sun City influenced hers. “I knew Frank would never consent to going down there if there was any segregation at all,” he explains. Buoyed by Sinatra’s signing, Kerzner has since lined up such Vegas regulars as Cher and Glen Campbell for future dates. In December Sun City will play host to Severiano Ballesteros, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller in a $1 million golf tournament. Says resident pro Gary Player: “When Sol signed Frank Sinatra to come way down here, it was the biggest thing to hit this part of the world since [British empire builder] Cecil Rhodes.”

Before accepting the lucrative offer, Sinatra sent his attorney, Mickey Rudin, to check out arrangements. “I wouldn’t have any part of segregation,” Sinatra, 65, insists. “That was part of the deal here, part of the contract. I play to all—any color, any creed, drunk, sober.” (Because of the $85 top ticket price, the audience was overwhelmingly white.) That settled, Sinatra set out in royal style. Four jets ferried him, wife Barbara, sidekick Jilly Rizzo, 33 New York musicians and others from Johannesburg to Sun City, a 30-min-ute flight away. The group was met by a Bophuthatswana security force large enough to protect any visiting head of state. “I don’t carry security with me,” Sinatra explains. Certainly Bophuthatswana President Lucas Mangope was taking no chances: He arrived at Sinatra’s second performance with an additional force of 400 soldiers, including Israeli security experts. Raved an obviously thrilled Mangope: “It was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen.”

No one was more elated by the extravaganza than Kerzner. An ex-accountant who 12 years ago renovated a seedy dockside saloon in Durban, Kerzner now owns 12 percent of Southern Sun Hotels. The chain claims to have played host last year to three-quarters of South Africa’s foreign visitors. The flagship of that empire is Sun City; it generates $75 million of the nation’s annual $400 million tourist revenue. The complex is nicknamed “Sin City” by locals; the draconian laws that prohibit nudity, casino gambling and interracial socializing in South Africa don’t apply in Bophuthatswana, which has a population of 1.5 million. With an $11 million profit last year, Kerzner could well afford Sinatra’s fee to inaugurate his new 7,000-seat arena. But there was more than money in it for Sinatra (who will pick up $2.4 million more this week for six concerts in Buenos Aires). To demonstrate Bophuthatswana’s appreciation, Magope invited the singer to address parliament, awarded him the “nation’s” highest decoration, the Order of the Leopard, and made him an honorary tribal chief. Magope’s salutation at that ceremony, which included bare-chested women dancers, must have made the Chairman of the Board feel right at home. “We consider you a king,” the President told Sinatra. “King of the entertainment world.”