South Africa’s kitsch casino
The kitsch Sun City casino complex is located incongruously in the South African bushveld. (Eric Nathan/Getty)
The kitsch Sun City casino complex rises incongruously from the South African bushveld, a muted landscape of scrub-covered hills and dusty pink roadsides, 187km northwest of Johannesburg. It is a spit-and-sawdust area, with chunky bakkies (pick-up trucks) speeding past along the freeway toward the Kalahari Desert or the Botswana border. From the small city of Rustenburg, Route 565 leads 45km north from the freeway through platinum-mining country to the casino gates, where stilt walkers entertain queuing cars and signs forbid firearms.
As you ride the monorail from the car park to the main complex, looking down on treetops and stubbly slopes in the surrounding bush before ornate towers and fountains come into view, this African pleasure dome’s very existence defies logic. It was the brainchild of billionaire hotel magnate Sol Kerzner, who exploited conditions under apartheid to bring a slice of Vegas to Africa. The Jewish entrepreneur negotiated a deal for an exclusive gambling licence in Bophuthatswana (“Bop”) – one of the semi-autonomous Bantustans, or homelands, established by the apartheid regime to contain South Africa’s various black ethnic groups, in this case the Tswana -- with Bop’s despotic president Lucas Mangope.
With more relaxed laws than neighbouring South Africa under the Calvinistic National Party, homelands were popular destinations for gambling, strip shows and prostitution. Sun City in particular became a poster child for the hypocrisy and moral decay of apartheid. Opened in 1979, the resort’s infamy spread worldwide, as its Superbowl auditorium, which pulled big crowds from the nearby cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, attracted international stars from bands to boxers. Many musicians were avoiding South Africa as part of the UN cultural boycott that had begun in 1968, but a long list of performers including Frank Sinatra, Queen, Elton John and Tina Turner skirted the sanction, thanks to Bop’s nominally independent status, and played the Superbowl. In 1985, the protest group Artists United Against Apartheid which included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and U2 took a less nuanced stance and pledged (in a song titled Sun City) not to play there.
Bop imploded at the end of apartheid, with fighting between Mangope’s Bophuthatswana Defence Force and Eugene Terre’Blance’s white supremacist AWB group. The Bantustans were officially reincorporated into South Africa in 1994 and Sun City continued to grow, now employing more than 7,000 people on its 65sqkm of land. Many of the employees are Tswana locals and the visitors are a multicultural mix of black, white and Asian people – mostly tourists and day-trippers from the Johannesburg area.
The monorail deposits visitors on the first floor of the Entertainment Centre, the core of Sun City. Walking past a few of the resort’s dozens of boutiques, you will find yourself in the Jungle Casino, one of its two gaming centres . Beneath the domed ceiling covered with murals of African animals are fast food restaurants and line after line of slot machines. To get your bearings before exploring the rest of sprawling Sun City, head downstairs to the Welcome Centre for information on activities, ticket sales, car rental and shuttle buses.
From the Entertainment Centre, the Bridge of Time lined with life-sized elephant statues leads to the Lost City amusement park. This is Sun City’s apex of kitsch, honouring African culture and heritage with its theme of a mighty ancient kingdom -- but in fact, it is more like a demented, Disney-fied take on ancient Egypt. Hourly mock volcanic eruptions take place on the bridge with sound effects and billowing smoke. At the far end of the bridge is the imaginative Monkey Spring Plaza; according to the fictional legends of Lost City, the plaza’s towering circle of monkey statues, squatting with outstretched palms, commemorates the troop of simians who saved the city’s ancient tribe from starvation during a terrible drought.
The plaza overlooks Lost City’s centrepiece, the mind-boggling Valley of the Waves waterpark, an outdoor tropical island environment of artificial white-sand beaches fringing turquoise waters, palm-dotted islands and thickly forested slopes. In the distance beyond the bobbing bodies and blowing whistles the African bush rolls quietly away, a reminder of the terrain that covered the area before Kerzner realised his bold vision.