Gambling is not a new phenomenon. From the gleaming slot machines on casino floors to playing dice on a street corner, it remains popular among young and old. However, online gambling, made accessible largely by smartphones, has become an even more attractive option to those wanting to try their luck.
On social media, Twitter especially, young people routinely share their personal gambling experiences on sites such as Lottostar, Betway, Hollywoodbets and World Sports Betting.
Many young men bet on football games, and talk openly about it, even sharing screenshots of their hefty winnings. What has been missing, however, are the converse narratives. What about the rest who are losing?
In 2020, author and media personality Khaya Dlanga opened up on Instagram about his younger brother’s suicide. He talked about his struggle with online gambling and a “spiral of an addiction he could not get himself out [of]”. In a particularly heartwrenching reflection, Dlanga wrote: “Everyday I look at the R5.40 he left next to the suicide note. Four one rands, two 50 cents and two 20 cent coins.”
Addiction of any kind rarely only affects the addict, but loved ones, friends and family as well. It leads to many stories of pain, loss, regret and shame. And in the world of gambling there are rarely stories about people overcoming it all and what that takes.
Melissa Morris (27) from Cape Town began gambling online in 2015 when radio station Kfm was promoting Lottostar. “What bothered me the most was that I had fallen into this trap before I was even 18,” she says. “I’ve had an ugly taste in my mouth about Kfm for the past six years. I think they got into a partnership and it just felt like it was predatory. You can’t swear on the radio but you can advertise gambling?”
Morris says depositing money into Lottostar was simple, as it is on a number of platforms. Growing up, she was exposed to slot machines in pubs that her father frequented. While other children sneaked in to score a drink or two, Morris saw the potential for making some money. So, what might have seemed to be a harmless advert for Lottostar on the radio landed quite differently for someone already primed to be vulnerable to the vices of gambling.
“Initially, I would say, ‘What’s R100?’ and eventually began putting in between R500 to R1,000,” she says. “You could do it on the phone and it mimicked the slots I was already used to. I kept putting my money in a black hole and eventually didn’t even have money for food. I would get some money back but use that as credit to earn more money in an endless cycle.”
Addiction thrives in secrecy. Morris hid her struggles with Lottostar from family and friends because she was embarrassed. Not even the lack of food was enough for her to reveal her reality to them.
“To be honest, there were times I just didn’t eat anyway because of my previous eating disorders.”
While Morris acknowledges that no one forced her to make those decisions, she feels more can and should be done to protect vulnerable individuals. “Not enough is being done to blatantly show that this is a trap. There’s nothing being done to protect vulnerable people. It shouldn’t be advertised on a daytime radio station. If I had had a bank card I could have linked it to this platform in the hopes of winning this elusive jackpot.”
Johannesburg resident Kamogelo Motsiane (25) says her close friend, 30-year-old Linda Myeni*, has been addicted to Hollywoodbets for several years.
“Her obsession with gambling came from wanting to make a quick buck so she can maintain her drug habit. She’s been on CAT on and off,” Motsiane says. “She can bet as little as 10 cents so she can win enough for her to believe that she can then up the stakes.”
Myeni initially kept her gambling addiction a secret, Motsiane says. But once it was out in the open she became a lot more comfortable with showing her friend the reality of her addiction. “She was now comfortable with asking me to buy her a voucher or airtime. Now we’re at a point where, when we spend time together, she spends the whole day on her phone gambling.”
Myeni, who has a diploma in information technology, struggles to hold down a job. “She doesn’t have a hard time getting a job, but doesn’t keep it for very long. It’s hard to maintain a job when you’re devoting all your time and money to gambling,” says Motsiane. “She has been unemployed for a year and is living with her mom now. She’ll constantly try and hassle her mom or me for airtime or a voucher to use to gamble.”
Her friend’s mother too has a history of gambling, Motsiane says, although she has not gambled in the past two years. Like Morris, it is apparent that Myeni was exposed to gambling when she was a child. She saw her mother consumed by it.
Arguably, there is a biased perception of certain addictions. People tend to be a lot more accepting of substance or alcohol addiction, but not those to do with food or sex – those are taboo. While gambling is now being recognised for what it is – an addiction – it is difficult for people to accept that somebody will spend most, if not all, of their income on something that is purely dependent on chance.
Keitumetse Disemelo, a clinical psychologist based in Pretoria, describes addiction as a condition with many moving parts. “It impacts one’s daily functioning, and there is a lack of control in staying away from the specific behaviour. Individuals become dependent on this behaviour and make spontaneous decisions despite negative consequences that they themselves are aware of. Denialism is also key to addiction.”
She says several factors appear to be fuelling the growing tendency among young people to turn to online gambling. “It’s not just about the accessibility of these platforms. The current state of South Africa’s economy with the pandemic and the pressures that the youth are facing are key. There are high levels of poverty and unemployment and daily trauma that exacerbates them seeking out these platforms.
“The commonality of any addiction is the compulsion,” says Disemelo. “First, the addict must want the help. Second, it’s important that the family is aware of it as a psychological disorder and understands that it can occur with other conditions such as severe depression or anxiety.
“The family being supportive is important as well as the understanding that the addiction cannot be overcome overnight. Also, trying to remove the things that cause the behaviour is possible. For example, removing the internet with regards to online gambling.”
Preying on vulnerable youngsters
The house always wins is a well-known adage, and gambling in all its forms is based on statistical odds. Notwithstanding the jackpot winners and rags-to-riches stories, the house always wins. The average gambler keeps betting in the belief that any day could be their lucky day.
A documentary by BBC Africa Eye explored the effects of sport betting in Uganda. Hosted by 25-year-old Collins Muhinda, an unemployed graduate, it highlights how large betting enterprises target vulnerable communities where unemployment is rampant and young people desperately need an income. Having succeeded in terms of market share in other countries, Africa is the last emerging market for these large corporations and profit is naturally the bottom line.
While there are standard regulations for online gambling, some can be easily circumvented. Unlike physical casinos that can request identification to prove gamblers are older than 18, simply checking a box is all that is required when creating a profile on many betting platforms. Young people are lured by “free credit” upon signing up and data zero-rating, among other things.
Requests for information from Betway and World Sports Betting about active South African users on these platforms and what their corporate social responsibility mandates are, went unanswered. However, a preliminary evaluation of South African traffic to Betway and Hollywoodbets, between September and November 2021, reveals that the sites are ranked 16th and sixth respectively in the country across mobile and desktop users. World Sports Betting is ranked 292.
Issues such as these, especially ones with clear socioeconomic ramifications, must begin with a conversation that centres on the human beings who are most affected. Questions around industry regulation and the government’s role in protecting its citizens are necessary. In addition, addiction thrives in secrecy, so if we’re to sensitise our society to the growing stranglehold of online gambling on young South Africans, we need to let the secret out. DM168
* Name changed to protect the individual.
This article was first published on New Frame, and appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.