A casino quandary in Africa

Vegas-style meccas may boost South Africa's economy, but many of the poor risk addiction

Sitting on a bench outside Gold Reef City, one of a growing number of casinos in South Africa, Jonathan Damons, his mother, and best friend, ponder life's latest lesson.

The three had hoped some luck and savvy would help them close the gap between Mr. Damons's savings - about $200 - and a second-hand Volkswagen he was eyeing.

But after three hours at "the game that spins around" (roulette), Damons didn't have enough money to buy himself a single pair of roller skates.

The electrical engineering student asked, "Do you think I can sue them?" When told no, he vowed never to return.

Many South Africans harbor similar naivete about gambling.

No other country has legalized as many different forms of gaming in so short a time, experts say. Horse racing was the only legal way to wager in South Africa until 1978, when the government allowed a few casinos to open far from major cities.

Then in 1996, the new democratic government passed legislation to allow up to 40 casinos throughout the country. Lawmakers had high hopes for pumping revenue into South Africa's sluggish economy. Now, the country boasts 21 casinos, with more opening each month. In addition, bingo, lottery, and betting machines in bars have been legalized.

Suddenly, this struggling third-world country, where almost 1 in 3 adults are unemployed, and the vast majority of those with jobs earn less than $500 per month, is caught up in games of chance. And this city, founded by gold miners just over 100 years ago, is once again hungering to strike it rich.

The casinos' fanciful Greek and Roman motifs, stained-glass domes and perpetual sunsets fascinate this population still waking up from the isolation of the apartheid era. The casinos' blinking lights, glittering brass work, and American staff straight out of Las Vegas are the most glamorous places many South Africans have ever visited. These wonderlands have drawn a remarkably integrated crowd.

Cars, buses, and pedestrians too poor for bus fare pour through the casinos' gates day and night. Within hours of its grand opening in September, Caesars reported more than 12,000 patrons - that's eight gamblers for each of the casino's slot machines. Revenue from the five casinos operating in and around Johannesburg totaled some $270 million last year.

"It is a lovely day out," says Vivian Rodgers, who traveled to Gold Reef City with her two sisters and a friend. "We forget about the children, the house.... At home I look like a mop. But when I come here, I put on nice clothes and make up."

Many here wager that casinos will deliver more than just a day's entertainment.

Hundreds of South Africans gather in classes held throughout the country each month to learn how to "beat the casinos at their own game." Last week, about 40 gamblers here attended a free introductory class in a dingy hotel meeting room to hear how, with a small initial investment, they too can "play the slots for profit."

The price?

For about $650, gamblers can take exclusive "Executive Training" seminars. If they cough up $133 for VIP membership in the "Slots Club," they receive monthly reports on the best machines and most popular times to play.

"Do you want to join us on the red carpets?" the organizer asked his class at the end of his two-hour lecture. "And win enough money to support you and yours for the rest of your lives?"

The answer throughout South Africa is apparently yes.

"The lure of rapid returns hasn't yet been dispelled here," says Rodger Meyer, treatment director for the National Responsible Gambling Program.

The unexpected popularity of both the lottery and casinos has startled both the government and some South Africans. Some politicians have denounced gambling as "the new national sport of South Africa." Callers to radio talk shows have urged the government to bar poor people from the casinos, or to even prohibit all South Africans from participating in any form of gaming.

The government has launched a study to identify harmful effects of this boom.

"In a developing country, you have to be careful," cautions Peter Collins of the University of Cape Town's National Center for the Study of Gambling. "People are inadequately educated. They can be beguiled into believing that gambling is an easy way to solve their financial problems.

"We have a large population of poor people," the professor adds. "They don't have to gamble very much before they are damaging their family."

The gambling industry has thus far appeared sensitive to these issues.

Casino companies fund a 24-hour help line for problem gamblers. It receives about five calls a day from addicts. The industry also provides free counseling to anyone with a gambling problem. Caesars has a resident psychologist. The casino also offers "barring service." Give the casino your photo, and they'll make sure you don't make it to the gambling floor.

That is something Adelaide Mapalala's family has urged her to consider. The unemployed mother of two from Soweto has played the slots here every day for the past five months. Last week, an exhausted Ms. Mapalala finished a marathon 30-hour gambling session. "Whenever I get some money, I buy my food first," she said. "Then I come here to play."

As she shuffles to the exit, she turns and says: "Okay, I'll see you tomorrow."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.