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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 13:42 GMT
High stakes for Cape Town's novice gamblers
Gamblers have lost $20m in three months
Gamblers have lost $20m in three months
By Mohammed Allie in Cape Town

When one walks into the magnificent new Grand West Casino complex you cannot help but be struck by the vibrant atmosphere inside what has become one of Cape Town's most popular entertainment venues.


Gambling is becoming an everyday phenomenon - people run away from work to be at the casino

Grand West gambler
The first casino to be licensed in Cape Town is one of only three in the Cape.

And huge crowds have been rushing to strike it rich with more than 400,000 people a month passing through its doors.

Under apartheid only horse racing was legal giving rise to casinos like Sun City in so called independent homelands.

The government has been gradually relaxing restrictions since then and competition has been fierce for the few licences that have come up.

While the casino has already created three new millionaires, figures released by local authorities at the end of February reveal that gamblers have lost 130m rand ($20m) in three months.

Concerns

Capetonians from all walks of life have been flocking to Grand West, but questions are increasingly being asked about the social implications.

Grand West Casino
The complex includes cinemas, restaurants and bars
Kurt Peter, general manager of Grand West Casino believes the benefits outweigh the problems.

"Previously you had probably three times more gambling going on but in an unregulated, illegitimate environment. The legalisation of the industry has seen lots of taxes and levies flowing into the government's coffers.

"We have also provided 3,500 permanent jobs at the casino which probably impacts on the lives of about 35,000 people. We just have to be careful in this country that we don't go overboard with gambling."

Counselling

In terms of its licence conditions, the casinos have had to establish a hotline staffed by trained counsellors to assist problem gamblers and it has been fielding 500 calls per month.


We have many hoax callers but there are many serious ones too from people who have lost lots of money, their jobs and their families.

Dr Rodger Meyer
While many calls are from desperate gamblers, Dr Rodger Meyer, co-ordinator of the Responsible Gambling hotline, revealed that they also field calls from people who mistakenly believe the hotline provides tips on how to be a successful gambler.

"We have many hoax callers but there are many serious ones too from people who have lost lots of money, their jobs and their families. We also have referrals from the casino staff who are trained to monitor problem gamblers," says Dr Meyer.

Many are resorting to desperate measures to fund their habit.

Pawn

One regular at Grand West told me that people have become increasingly desperate to recoup their losses on the casino floor.

"I've seen people pawning their watches - I bought a designer watch which is worth 10,000 rands for 500 rands from a punter who was desperately looking for cash.

"People sell whatever valuables they have with them - gold chains, jewellery, everything. I've seen women trying to sell themselves for 500 rands just to get money to gamble. Gambling is becoming an everyday phenomenon - people run away from work to be at the casino."

Pawn shops in the nearby business district of Vasco have also reported an increase in business. Uncle Bob, as he prefers to be known, says his shop has doubled its customers since the casino opened in December.

"Housewives have been bringing in anything from jewellery to household appliances, furniture... you name it. The most popular items are probably television sets, video recorders and hi-fi systems."

With the unemployment rate believed to be as high as 30%, gambling has become an attractive option to many desperate people to get rich quickly.

But while it is always the lucky big-time winners who feature in the media spotlight, the sad reality is that many gamblers are facing severe problems such as losing their jobs, businesses and even their families.

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