In the twenty years since a democratic government was established in South Africa, gambling has gone from a totally illegal activity to a liberally-restricted industry. South Africans spend some $13 billion a year at government-regulated betting venues, and since hundreds of illegal operations are shut down on an annual basis by the National Gambling Board, it's likely that's a soft number.
The story of betting in South Africa is similar to the story of the country's tumultuous past. As the government clamped down on gambling, outlawing all forms in 1965, it just happened to be in the height of its Apartheid period, when the government enforced strict racial segregation laws and other atrocities.
Then, in 1993, as the nation's first democratic Constitution is being written, as members of local and national government agencies crossed political lines in order to hold the country's first non-segregated election, legislators immediately begin talk of relaxing the anti-gaming laws. It's as though the right to play roulette or pull a slot machine's lever is itself a democratic right.
Today, clearly, South Africans love to place wagers on a variety of contests. The most popular form of gambling is the raffle-style National Lottery, though plenty of other games of chance and skill common around the rest of the world are also available for play within South Africa's borders.
What you'll find on this page:
- Top-ranked gambling sites for South Africans
- Information about legality of gambling online
- History of gaming laws in South Africa
- Which game types are popular in SA
Is It Legal to Play Online?
In 2010, the National Gambling Board acted to explicitly outlaw gambling online, regardless of whether the host of the game was in-country, foreign, or offshore. To confuse things more, South African citizens can place certain types of online bets - namely, wagers on sporting events and horse and greyhound races. Online bookmakers are popular among South Africans, and many are licensed to operate within the country's borders.
But any traditional game of chance or skill played online, like poker or roulette, is illegal in South Africa. The government first acted against online betting with the passage of the National Gambling Act 2004. This legislation is responsible for the current prohibition against placing bets online, or what the South African government then called "interactive gaming." By the definitions of the law, this refers to games ". . . such as casino games, poker, and bingo."
Recent findings by the High Court indicate that legal Internet casinos won't be opening in South Africa anytime soon. A 2010 High Court ruling further limited legal Internet bets to only ". . . province-licensed horse racing and online sports betting." The High Court also saw fit to establish a hefty penalty for illegal online betting. Anyone who takes part in any illegal Internet wagering is subject to a fine of $10 million or 10 years in prison. That's one of the harshest penalties for the crime anywhere in the world. Even the advertisement of an illegal form of online betting is punishable by a hefty fine and prison sentence.
History of Gaming Laws in South Africa
South Africa has had a contentious relationship with gambling stretching all the way back to 1673 during the reign of the Dutch East India Company. Things didn't improve much over the next few hundred years, and the Gambling Act of 1965 officially put an end to all forms of gambling except horse racing.
Of course, this law didn't actually put a stop to gambling. It simply gave the government the right to penalize anyone who was caught in violation of the policies. By the 1970s, a number of illegal casinos were operating in the Bantu homeland, which was territory set aside for blacks under the government's policy of apartheid. While this gave native residents plenty to do on the weekend, most of the country's white minority either could not or would not venture into the areas.
The longtime policy of restricting gambling was reversed in 1994 when Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were voted into power. By then, however, residents were used to disregarding the law in order to get their gambling fix. Just one year later, an estimated 2,000 underground casinos were in operation despite the government's progressive legislation.
The ruling party, however, remained steadfast in their efforts to regulate and promote responsible gambling for the citizens of South Africa. The National Gambling Act of 1996 created a single national lottery and issued 40 gambling licenses throughout the provinces for the creation of legal casinos. The National Gambling Board was also created during this time and tasked with keeping a watchful eye on the growing gaming industry within the country.
The 21st century once again saw new changes in the gaming landscape, as the 2004 National Gambling Act dissolved the previous legislation from 1996. Four years later, the National Gambling Amendment Act would be introduced into law, and it was intended to have a major impact on those wishing to gamble online in South Africa.
Types of Gambling
Modern-day South African citizens have a number of options for legal regulated wagers.
National Lottery - The raffle-style version of the National Lottery is played by an estimated 80 percent of South African citizens of legal playing age, according to numbers released in 2010 by the National Gambling Board. If those numbers are true, they would be among the highest percentage of any national or regional lottery worldwide. Scratch cards are popular as well, just not as widespread as the raffle version. The same report by the Gambling Board suggests around 1/4 of South African citizens will buy and play a scratch card in the next year.
Casino Gambling - As is true around the world, the most popular casino-style game in Johannesburg or Cape Town is the venerable slot machine. The National Responsible Gambling Programme issued a survey in 2006 of the country's estimated profits from all forms of gambling - lottery, casino, and race betting. According to that study, some 30% of profit from all those forms of betting comes directly from slot play. In terms of table games, the most popular casino titles in Vegas or Macau are available in South Africa as well.
Race Betting - The only gambling legal in South Africa during Apartheid was betting on horse races, a cultural holdover from the imperialist English and Dutch that colonized the nation. Because race wagering was legal during Apartheid, and because of the nation's new freedom to play lotto and slot games, the popularity of race betting has been on a decline. The number of South Africans who bet on a horse race in the past year is about the same as the number who didn't place a bet at all, according to Gambling Board figures, around 11%. Still, the nation is home to ten live race courses, and 1 in 10 adults is still a significant number, trend-wise.
Popular Forms of Sports Betting
When a SA resident decides to wager on a sporting event, he or she has plenty of options to choose from. That's because citizens of the Rainbow Nation are extremely passionate about any kind of athletic competition, although the popularity of individual sports is still largely divided along racial lines.
The next time you have enough rands in your bankroll, consider one of the following betting options:
Football - Known to the heathens in America as "soccer," football is the biggest sport in the nation thanks to its overwhelming popularity with the black majority. The South African national team competes for the World Cup every four years, and their hosting of the event in 2010 brought in an unpresecedented number of wagers. The South African Premier Division is the top level of the sport, with teams such as the Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates competing for the annual league title.
Cricket - South Africa is one of the 10 countries sanctioned to play test cricket, and it's regarded as the nation's second most popular sport. Its appeal cuts across racial lines, but cricket is especially loved by the Asian and English-speaking white communities.
Rugby - White residents of Dutch descent (Afrikaners) are especially fond of rugby union play, and the national team won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and 2007. Rugby league play also exists in the country, but it's less popular.
Golf - A number of notable pro golfers hail from South Africa, including Gary Player, Ernie Els, and Retief Goosen.
Tennis - While the fortunes of South African tennis players have waned in recent years, it remains a popular sport throughout the nation, both for recreation and gambling purposes.
Boxing - The nation has produced over 70 world champions throughout various weight classes, and it continues to draw a great deal of interest despite a lack of television coverage and hometown title bouts.
Largest Casinos in South Africa
By far the most popular bet nationwide is a simple National Lottery ticket. The next most-popular game is the slot machine, as beloved in Johannesburg and Cape Town as in Atlantic City or Reno. Because of a heavy English influence, games like blackjack and poker are common and often crowded on South African casino floors. But other European influences, including the colonizing Dutch, made games like roulette and baccarat as popular here as in anywhere on the Continent.
Montecasino Fourways - Known affectionately as "the Monty," Montecasino in Johannesburg is not just one of the biggest in the nation's largest city, it's one of the biggest in all of Africa. Built as part of a leisure complex for an upper-class suburb, Montecasino is home to 78 gaming tables, thousands of slots and video poker terminals, and amenities like an 11-theater cinema, full VIP service, fine dining, and entertainment. The Monty may be the closest thing South Africans have to a true Vegas experience.
Sun City - Another casino that started its life as a piece of a larger entertainment complex is Sun City in Pilanesberg. As of this writing, the casino has swelled to host some 50 gaming tables, a poker room open year-round, hundreds of electronic gaming machines, and an activity park for kids. The larger Sun City complex is one of the most popular tourist resorts in-country, and the Sun City casino is growing as tourism expands nationwide.
Gold Reef City - Built around an actual gold mine from the gold rush days of the late 19th Century, Gold Reef City is Joburg's feisty and fun casino tucked in among the Apartheid Museum and other cultural hotspots. It's not as large as Montecasino Fourways, but unlike that suburban gambling venue, Gold Reef City is within walking distance of major tourist attractions in the capital city. Expect to find three dozen table games operating on any given days, as well as banks of hundreds of slot and video poker games (including 100 different titles with a progressive jackpot), and amenities like a steakhouse and live jazz club.