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Much at Stake for S. Africa's Gamblers

While the industry has been a cash cow for the government, deep losses among those who can least afford it are a growing concern.

September 20, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The line outside the cramped supermarket in a low-income neighborhood snaked for several yards one recent Saturday evening, as the working poor -- maids, gardeners, janitors and taxi drivers -- waited to buy lottery tickets.

On prize days, the line in the Soweto township sometimes stretches half a city block.

"I'm trying my luck," said Musa Mhlongo, 47, a street trader who sells sweets and knickknacks and unfailingly spends about $2 of her $20 weekly income on lottery tickets in the hope of winning whatever the week's multimillion bonanza happens to be. "I want to be a millionaire."

Her sentiments echo those of millions of South Africans who have helped turn the gambling industry into a cash cow for the cash-strapped government -- but not without a price. As financial desperation bites, false hope in lottery tickets and slot machines is bleeding the nation's poor.

Although gambling has contributed between $415 million and $830 million to the country's gross domestic product since 2000, created about 50,000 jobs and spurred economic development, the increased obsession with gambling, particularly among the financially deprived, is causing alarm.

"We are concerned about the impact on society and what the effect may be on poorer people," said Chris Fismer, chairman of South Africa's government-funded National Gambling Board, which advises the state on gambling policy.

Research presented to parliament by the gambling board in June found that 72% of all South Africans gamble -- up from 67% two years ago. While 27% of unemployed people play the lottery, 22% visit casinos, the study showed. On average, poor people spend about $11 a month gambling, and more than 70% of those who gambled said they would have spent the money they lost on household essentials.

The minimum monthly wage in South Africa for domestic workers, such as maids, is the equivalent of just over $100, according to the country's Department of Labor.

"Where people are relatively poor and relatively uneducated ... they don't have to gamble very much before they have gambled more than they can afford," said Peter Collins, executive director of the country's National Responsible Gambling Program, an industry-funded organization that assesses the impact of commercial gambling. He added: "There are reasons for being worried."

South Africans have a high propensity to gamble, averaging an expenditure of 1.9% of disposable household income in 2002, compared with 0.6% in the United States, according to gambling officials.

Except for horse racing and a few casinos far from its urban centers, gaming was banned under South Africa's former apartheid regime. An illegal industry flourished underground. The democratically elected black-majority government legalized gambling in 1996.

Since then, 32 casinos housing 20,000 slot machines have opened. Sports betting and horse racing have continued to thrive, but no form of gaming has been more enticing than the lottery, analysts said. More than 70% of South Africans buy lottery tickets, compared with the 20% who frequent casinos.

And a survey published last month by Collins' group found that more than 58% of the people who play the lottery earn less than the minimum wage.

"The lottery sells fuel for your psychological fantasies about becoming stupendously and utterly rich," Collins said. "It offers a stupendously high prize very conveniently and very cheaply."

It is also easily accessible, with lottery agents established at thousands of convenience stores and supermarkets across the country.

Desperation is causing many of the nation's working poor to gamble away their rent, their savings and their children's school fees. It is also driving many to put their faith in superstition and false beliefs.

Conservationists say the country's vulture population is under threat because large numbers of the birds are being killed for their heads. Many people believe that the birds are clairvoyant because of their excellent sight and ability to arrive at a carcass within a very short time of the animal's death.

Traditional healers make potions from ground vulture bones, particularly from the head, which many users of traditional medicine believe can be used to predict the future and winning lottery numbers, explained Kerri Wolter, manager of the Vulture Study Group at the Johannesburg-based Endangered Wildlife Trust of South Africa.

"Because of the lottery, a lot more vultures are being killed," she said.

Gerhard Verdoorn, chairman of the trust's Poison Working Group said that over the last two or three years, there had been several incidents of mass poisoning of vultures -- in some cases more than 50 birds at a time. He estimated that upward of 250 vultures were probably being slaughtered annually for muti, or traditional medicine.

"If you find a carcass without the feet and head, you know it's for muti," Verdoorn said, noting that the African white-backed vulture was the most affected.

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