CAPE TOWN — Steven Kareka eagerly explains his quick-fix answer to a lifetime of poverty.
“I think I can win the lottery,” the unemployed 25-year-old says as he joins a long line of people waiting on a dusty sidewalk to buy lottery tickets at Ye-Ye’s Butchery in the working-class suburb of Langa.
In South Africa, with one-third unemployment and some workers earning the equivalent of $24 a month, many poor people view their chances of winning the lottery or hitting a jackpot in the country’s new casinos as better than those of getting a decent job.
Egged on by slick advertising campaigns, South Africans are expected to spend nearly $1 billion on gambling this year.
Under South Africa’s white apartheid rulers, gambling was banned in most of the country. South Africa’s few casinos were relegated to remote “homelands,” desolate regions ruled by puppet black governments where South Africa banished many of its blacks.
After the fall of apartheid in 1994, gambling laws were liberalized and the government decided to grant 40 casino licenses.
With 24 of those issued, casinos have sprung up in all the major cities. Now plans are in the works to issue licenses for 50,000 limited-payout slot machines.
South Africa’s gambling industry boasts it has created 15,000 jobs and invested more than $1.2 billion in new projects. This year it will pay more than $90 million in gaming taxes.
But politicians, who initially heralded legalized gambling, are having second thoughts, fearing it is making the poor even worse off.
“The practice in some of these Sg Online Casino is to pick up people from their residential areas in the evening, especially (retirees), and transport them to the casinos, so they can gamble away their meager savings,” said social-development Minister Zola Skweyiya.
Pawnshop owners near Cape Town’s huge GrandWest casino say their trade has soared, with housewives hocking household appliances for gambling money.
The lottery, which for 30 cents gives players a 1-in-14 million chance of winning a weekly jackpot of about $490,000, is regarded as even more of a problem by critics. Tickets are available at 7,000 outlets.
“It is easily available and appeals to the poorest of the poor,” said Rodger Meyer, treatment director for the National Responsible Gambling Program.
People have spent $410 million on the lottery since it began in March 2000.
Natasha Nkosi, 16, waiting outside Maggie’s takeout in Langa to buy six tickets for her mother, said it’s a waste.
“My mum is very poor,” she said. “She wants to win so she can buy a house for herself. Sometimes when she dreams the numbers, she uses the money (meant) for food.”
Meyer, at the gambling program, said there has been a steady rise in problem gambling. The program’s help line gets up to 500 calls a month.
The number of problem gamblers is proportionately higher than in developed countries, said professor Peter Collins, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Gambling at the University of Cape Town.
“For South Africans,” he said, “gambling is also a novelty, and one about which undereducated people are likely to have dangerous misconceptions — like gambling is a good investment.”
However, Meyer and Collins oppose outlawing gambling again. “If you prohibit it, you just create an underground economy,” Meyer said.