Ask anyone to name a prime gambling destination and we guarantee South Africa probably isn't on the list. Despite the lack of reputation enjoyed by places like Las Vegas, Monaco and Macau, South Africa is still has plenty of casinos, racetracks and even lottery outlets.
Gambling hasn't always been as widespread as it now is however, with laws that restricted gambling stretching all the way back to 1673, when the country was limited to a small Dutch colony. The country-wide ban on gambling was officially enforced in 1965, with a gambling act passed that outlawed all gambling activity, apart from wagering on horse racing, which was viewed as a sport. Despite this ban, several states (notably ones where the population was predominantly native South African) either decided to allow casinos and gambling, or saw a rise in illegal casinos and gambling houses that operated outside the law.
Following the abolition of apartheid in the 1990s, the South African government decided that legalising gambling would not only help crack down on the hundreds of illegal casinos operating in the country, but also provide a valuable revenue stream from taxes. In 1996, the National Gambling Act was passed, which allowed for 40 gambling licenses to be distributed among the provinces. This act was then superseded by another updated act in 2004, and then the National Gambling Amendment Act was published in 2008, but has not been officially passed.
Now, South Africa has a very healthy gambling industry, despite there still being some problems with illegal casinos and underground betting. Although the national lottery is the most popular form of gambling (close to 96% of the country takes part), slot machines and horse racing are still very popular, with just under a third and a tenth of South Africans regularly enjoying both respectively.
South Africa's biggest casinos
Most of South Africa's casino gambling is limited to large resorts located close to urban areas. One of the most notable casinos that operated legally in South Africa well before gambling was legalised was Sun City, in Bophuthatswana, now North West Province. Sol Kerzner, a business magnate, saw the opportunity to open a casino in territory that had been declared independent by the apartheid government and the gigantic resort opened on the 7th of December 1979. As South Africa was then blacklisted by the UN thanks to its stance on desegregation, Sun City attracted few visitors from outside of Africa, and Kerzner had to pay large sums to attract musicians and entertainment. One of the most notable acts to play at Sun City was British group Queen, who insisted that they only played to mixed audiences. The casino is now one of the biggest in the country, offering hundreds of slot games and over 40 table games. Visitors can also enjoy a full Safari experience, thanks to the on-site game park, complete with elephants, zebra and even lions!
Sun City isn't the biggest casino in South Africa however. This title in fact goes to The Rio Casino in the city of Klerksdorp, a gigantic casino resort that is one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Visitors can enjoy every variety of table game and slot machine imaginable over 266,000 square feet of casino floor space, as well as relax, dine, sunbathe and swim across the multiple on-site hotels and gardens.
Online gambling still outlawed
Despite a much more relaxed approach to gambling, one set of gamblers in South Africa are still severely restricted by the law. Some forms of online gambling are still illegal, including casino gaming, but gambling sports and horse racing over the internet is allowed through the right channels. Casino sites, individuals, internet service providers and banks that process payments for online gamblers can be fined R10 million (£6 million), or face up to 10 years in prison, or both. However, there is no direct law affecting those who gamble, so players could technically gamble online without breaking any rules; it is the gambling provider who must face the consequences.
This is one area that presents a big opportunity for South Africa. Gambling revenues are expected to rise to R30 billion (around £18.1 billion) in 2019 according to a recent PwC report, just showing how popular gambling is in the country. In relation to the UK, this is around £4-£5 billion more than the project figure for the end of the decade, and the UK has both an additional 10 million or so more people, as well as a developed gambling industry that is heavily regulated.
Could South Africa learn anything from the UK?
In the UK, online gaming is heavily regulated but still legal, leading internet gambling sites like 888 online casino are thriving on regulated markets where there is less competition as it’s much harder for the small casinos to comply with the stringent regulations. Given the chance, they could really flourish in an active market like South Africa. Of course, registered online gambling sites in the UK contribute to the economy, the tax they pay helps improve public services among other things. There are many areas in South Africa are in need of some desperate care and attention, and there is no doubt that the legalization of online gambling could help to fund it. With such a grey area for players, and more tax revenue to be collected from online gaming, the National Gambling Amendment Act could well be the solution. The amendment would include a specific entry on 'interactive gaming', which would address the legality of virtual casino gaming. If the law was amended, then South African casino operators could well make the jump online, and already established brands could begin operating officially.
South Africa isn't alone when it comes to being on the border of huge gambling changes. Countries like the US and China, who also have strict enforcements, but also workarounds, are very likely to change their stance on gambling, especially with proof that legal gambling can be managed effectively and controlled adequately as it is in countries like the UK. Until the 2008 amendment is brought back to the table however, South African online gamblers will have to make do with operators who operate outside the law. But with incredible casinos like Sun City and the Rio within reach, there isn't too much to complain about for the time being.