Picture: Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

Themba Ngobese fumes every time he drives past the internet café, he believes it is an illegal gambling establishment. 

It is just a stone’s throw away from his home in Midrand. 

It is impossible to take a peek at what goes on in there because the café has pitch-black windows.

“These kinds of places are set up as internet cafés or entertainment lounges, but really, they are running illegal gambling operations,” says Ngobese.
The café is just one of hundreds of illegal gambling spots that operate without consequence in the country.

These spots can be found in the suburbs as well as informal settlements, and host all the popular games one finds in casinos, like poker, roulette, slot machines, blackjack, baccarat and craps.

As the CEO of the Casino Association of SA (Casa), Ngobese has for years been trying to tackle the contentious issue of illegal gambling. But, as an advocate, he says he is helpless.

“Not nearly enough is being done to combat illegal gambling. There are laws in place, but they are meaningless without a firm and consistent commitment to enforce them.

“Unfortunately, there will always be people who believe that this is a victimless crime, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
Ngobese says Casa doesn’t have the legal authority to arrest anyone operating an illegal gambling facility.

“The only thing we can do is try to persuade law enforcement to do something.
“Every time we address the issue, they tell us that they have more serious crimes to worry about, like murders and cash heists.

This week, Casa, the body that represents the interests of South Africa’s legal casino gambling industry, as well as the public, wrote to Minister of Police Bheki Cele, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the shocking rise in illegal gambling in South Africa.

“We’re waiting for them to come back to us, and hope that this time, they’ll take us seriously.”
There are currently more than 300 illegal gambling spots in Gauteng, according to the Gambling Board, and the numbers continue to grow at an alarming rate.

“People don’t realise how big the industry is and the associated problems with it. That is why we are pushing for the government to do something.”
Ngobese says it is not just legal casinos that are feeling the pinch as a result of illegal gambling; it is the entire country.

He says it is negatively impacting everything from job security, corporate social investment budgets to their ability to support the economy through taxes.

The National Gambling Board estimated that about 4 000 jobs are being lost because of this industry.

Ngobese says it is responsible for funding other criminal activity because the money made at these illegal casinos cannot be kept in banks, so it ends up further funding other criminality including child prostitution, human trafficking, and drug trafficking. 

“It has also opened the door for a rise in under-age gambling. There are no rules.”
He says Casa has even seen an increase in gambling games, and Fafi (a lottery game) and dice have reached epidemic proportions in townships.

Ngobese says he hopes the government intervenes soon. “The government needs to step up with a deliberate and concerted effort to enforce its laws to protect the regulated gambling industry and the public.

“We are hoping that, as the government struggles to collect the tax debt shortfall, at some stage they realise that they need to tighten the tap and not be losing money where they shouldn’t have to.”

The Saturday Star