Does gambling law in South Africa slow the economy of the country?

South Africa’s gambling laws go back a long way. The country was one of the first to take an active stance towards the regulation of sports betting, with initial rulings arriving way back in 1673.

In general, while there have been many laws and subsequent amendments over the years, it’s fair to say that the nation takes a dim view of gambling. In most instances, it’s completely prohibited.

With betting legislation just starting to be relaxed in other parts of the world due to the huge growth of the global gambling industry, it’s a good time to consider South Africa’s current position and to ask whether its laws are holding the country back from cashing in on a global boom.

South Africa’s current gambling position

While important gambling legislation was passed in 1996, 2004 and 2008, we can trace the origins of many current laws back to the Gambling Act of 1965. This effectively outlawed betting on any sport – with the sole exception of horse racing which survived the cull as a traditional South African sporting pastime.

In defiance of the ruling, a number of unlicensed casinos started to crop up during the 1970s and illegal gambling became rife. At the height of the epidemic, it was claimed that some 2,000 illegal casinos were operating across the country. This rise led to the next major development in legislation.

In 1996, the National Gambling Act set out provision for a single national lottery and the establishment of a small set of licensed casinos. Today, 40 land-based casinos have licenses in South Africa – and that’s what the government is basing its forecast for gambling revenues on. It’s expecting the industry to bring in 30 billion rand over the next year – but on the surface of it, this seems like a drop in the ocean compared with the value of the industry as a whole, and the country suffers huge problems with illegal gambling.

Online casinos challenging current policy

Shortly after the 1996 act came into force, a new challenge arrived – online gambling. In the modern day, the biggest challenge for countries where gambling is largely outlawed comes via the internet. Online trading makes it easier to cross territories and despite the best efforts of the South African government, unlicensed gambling continues to take place online.

Online gambling became largely outlawed under the National Gambling Act of 2004 – a time when key advancements in digital technology were taking place.

This ruling states that it is illegal to provide interactive gambling services via the internet and the ban extends to cover operators who are based overseas. But with the black market for online gambling and horse racing reportedly worth around 1.5 billion rand, some economists are calling for a review of policy.

Gambling in the UK: a vital source of public revenue

South Africa’s position is at odds with that in other major nations. In the UK, for instance, the gambling market is open to international operators provided they meet strict rules and regulations.

These primarily relate to an operator’s ability to verify players and their sources of funds, maintain high technical standards, and uphold high technical standards. As such, the industry has been able to embrace the huge advances in digital technology – passing on those benefits to UK-based players, who have more choice than ever before.

With so much competition in the market, gaming developers have had to raise their standards. Today there’s a huge number of online casinos operating in the UK, each one hosting a range of engaging casino games, immersive slot games and live casino gaming to players. If you haven’t yet seen how advanced these modern sites really are, you might want to visit what some people believe is the most exciting online casino in the UK. Some day, this could be on offer for players in South Africa.

The UK gambling industry is flourishing, bringing in revenues of £14.5 billion in 2019. Of that sum, £5 billion is provided by online gambling alone, while National Lottery ticket sales contribute to much of the balance. Of course, this revenue is reinvested back into public coffers to be spent on the likes of hospitals, transport and schools. A significant proportion is ploughed into responsible gambling schemes, helping to rehabilitate problem gamblers.

Those are huge sums for a country with a similar size of population to that of South Africa and the potential is obvious. Can South Africa continue to ignore the claims of the gambling industry when so much money is at stake? Even if you take money out of the equation, it’s easy to see how an open but regulated market would also be a safer one – protecting players while giving them a great range of choice.

What does the future hold for South Africa?

Despite the fact that South Africa’s entire gambling industry consists of just 40 licensed casinos and a national lottery, the sector still managed to generate 30 billion rand in 2018. That figure makes it one of the highest revenue earning industries in the whole country and the benefits of lifting certain restrictions should, therefore, be obvious.

Not only would there be an exponential increase in gross income, there are other ways in which South Africa can benefit. Legalising gambling in all its forms means tackling the illegal operators head on. No longer would bettors be at the mercy of scammers and chancers with strict rules in place governing a perfectly legal practice.

It would seem like a logical step – but the reality suggests we are a long way from a more enlightened landscape when it comes to gambling. In 2018 it was reported that the government was considering the implementation of even harsher rules relating to the gambling sector.

Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies revealed proposals that would clamp down on gambling further. Dog racing would be completely outlawed while a self-regulating body would be introduced for horse racing.

It’s hardly encouraging news for those who are looking for the relaxation of those previous acts of law. The benefits of an open gambling market are plain to see, but South Africa seems in no mood to ease the regulations any time soon.


Clearly, the anti-gambling sentiment remains strong in South Africa. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the road to a more open and regulated markets could reap significant economic benefits. While some ministers may be against going down this path, the issue won’t go away overnight – and under Cyril Ramaphosa’s new leaner government, the issue might rear its head once again.


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