Does South Africa Have An Online Gambling Problem?


The boom that online gambling has enjoyed since its inception in 1994 has been unprecedented; the result of its phenomenal reach, allowing players access thousands of gambling games from the comfort of their homes.

However, with such variety being offered and easy access comes the ominous threat of problem gambling. And the popularity that online gambling enjoys in South Africa begs this question: does South Africa have an online gambling problem?

Crisis Level

Studies indicate that South Africa is indeed facing a crisis of sorts when it comes to online gambling problems. It may not have reached alarming levels yet but the problem definitely exists. At the heart of the explosion in online gambling’s popularity is commerce, and that is also the primary reason behind the rise in problem gambling in South Africa.

In South Africa, the rise of online gambling is as much driven by the urge to co-opt income as by other more generic issues like the love for games of chance. And that is at the heart of the steady rise in gambling problems that the country has been witnessing in recent times. For the younger generation and indeed for anyone from any age group, the opportunity to increase their earnings without having to work too hard for it – all you do is sit at your computer or now, your mobile device, and wager money playing games of chance – is a very tempting proposition.

A study published in February of 2018 lays bare the threat of gambling problems not just in South Africa but in the entire sub-Saharan region. Especially among the younger generation it is fast becoming a serious problem bordering on a public health issue. So much so that gambling addiction is now considered a biopsychosocial disorder and first mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – III and listed along with substance-abuse related disorders like alcoholism and drug abuse.

A study conducted on 3 879 members of the younger generation in the sub-Saharan region found that the number of youngsters in the age group of 17 to 35 years who engaged in some form of gambling – not just online gambling – stood at a mammoth 54 percent. Another study a while back in 2017 showed that South African women with gambling problems including gambling addiction stood a strong chance of facing health issues – physical, emotional and mental. At the base of this discovery was another startling number: 50 percent of South African women had engaged in some form of gambling at some point in time.

Women and Gambling Addiction

An even more alarming discovery showed that South Africa was indeed facing a gambling problem and that the time taken for it to set in was shorter for women than for men. This was encapsulated in a statement by the South African Responsible Gambling Foundation. The stories are everywhere, and they have an eerie similarity to them: one of them was about a female gambler who got down to gambling as a means to alleviate financial pressures. For all the money she spent over 2 years, her earnings stood at a measly R17 000.

Another player who has suffered as a result of the flourishing online gambling scenario in South Africa is the government itself. The loss in taxable income is substantial as the revenues generated by legalized establishments like land-based casinos has gone into the negative side of the sheet because of the preference of people to sit at home and gamble online. The revenues from horse racing and casinos suffered a 0.6 percent loss in 2014 – total revenues of R21.4-billion against tax paid to the tune of R2.2-billion and that number has only been rising.

Unregulated Market Not Helping

Online gambling has flourished across the world ever since the first online casino emerged on the scene in 1994. It has flourished despite laws in numerous countries that decree gambling to be illegal. A classic example for long has been South Africa; the laws here have declared most forms of gambling illegal since the first enactment of the Gambling Act in 1965. Later laws like the National Act of 2004 and its upgraded version launched in September 2015 have sought to include online casino gambling in the list of illegal gambling activities, but the industry has continued to flourish.

Another big contributor to the scenario of gambling problems in South Africa is the vague and unclear legislation on the topic. Today gambling in South Africa, including online casino gambling and other forms, are regulated by the National Gambling Board. The laws are stringent for local operators, but overseas operators are able to cater to players from these countries. It could be winked away if we were talking of this happening in the legislation from 1965, since online gambling had not surfaced at that point in time. But unfortunately the vague verbiage can be seen in recent legislation as well.

The National Gambling Act of 2004 and even its successor, the amended version from recent times, does not state that online gambling is illegal; it basically says it is okay to gamble at regulated avenues. The laws have always been severe on local operators while allowing overseas and offshore operators to cater to the South African online casino fan.

The Problem is Not Going Away

It is this kind of incomprehensible language that has contributed to the rise in online gambling and thereby problems that it brings along with it. One of the suggestions that a significant cross-section of people, from general society and also leading economists, have been pressing for is the legalization of online gambling in all forms. The reason for this is two-fold: to avoid gambling problems as much as possible. And then there is also the fact of the government finally legally getting a share of the revenue generated from it.