Peter van der Merwe
Peter van der Merwe

Casino culture rots our souls

Here’s one suggestion for helping ease South Africa’s economic and moral woes: close all casinos. Right now. For they have utterly no redeeming features whatsoever.

And while we’re at it, let’s draw a knife across the throat of that monstrosity called the lottery. At a time when South Africa is crying out for good old-fashioned thrift, we have been conditioned into thinking that the good times — financially, emotionally, morally — are but the press of a button or the shake of a dice away. You may not have enough money to buy bread this weekend, but don’t forget your lottery ticket! And then get down to Over The Barrel Casino, and win one of 12 luxury vehicles.

We’re in the midst of a global economic recession. But instead of doing something useful, like feeding the poor and educating our youth, the best thing the casino industry can do is to offer false hope to sad people. Their gambling halls are hideously garish caverns of noise and light, all designed to seduce people who can’t afford it out of their money.

Casinos are places that rob people of their basic human instincts. Once inside the belly of the beast, people forget how to be parents. They lock their children in cars in the parking lots, or desert them for hours in supervised child cages. They forget the value of hard work. After all, the big one is just around the corner. Didn’t you hear about so and so who won R1-million last week? I tell you, I’ve got a system. I’m going to beat them yet.

But the real deceit of casinos is the way they sell themselves to the public as places where you go to have fun. There’s nothing fun about a casino. There are two basic emotions in play: utter desperation, and overwhelming greed. You have people who either don’t have the money, and hope they’ll strike it rich; or people who have too much money, and have become so desensitised to its value that they can toss away eye-watering amounts of it on a whim.

Take a walk through a casino in the early hours of the morning. You’ll see the reception areas littered with the empty shells of people who have been chewed up and spat out by The Machine. Hollow-eyed and gaunt, they often don’t have the petrol money to get back home, let alone feed the families that are waiting for them. Now that they have no more money, they are barely tolerated. We’ve bled you dry; now go away. And don’t come back until you have more money.

The casinos will trot out the standard line about how they don’t force people to gamble. It’s adult people making their own choices. This is entertainment, after all! They will even tell you how they put little stickers on the machines warning people that they have to be over 18 to gamble. That winners know when to stop. That there’s a toll-free helpline available to you if you think you’re in trouble. Please. Spare us the horse manure.

Fact is, the casinos don’t care for a moment if you have a gambling problem that is tearing your family apart. They don’t have people patrolling the casino, finding patrons who look as though they may be in trouble, and gently counselling them. Their responsible gambling campaigns are not only pathetically inadequate, but deeply disingenuous. And they know it. Silly little billboards and stickers are about as likely to stop habitual gamblers from tossing away their money as a sticker on a bottle of booze is likely to make an alcoholic think twice about drinking it.

It is also strangely disconcerting that two of the biggest venues for live entertainment in Gauteng — the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City and Il Teatro at Montecasino — have sprung up on the back of casino operations. Have we become so tiny-minded as to be unable to attend a show without having to have a quick flutter afterwards? Why is the Civic Theatre engaged in a daily battle for survival, but Montecasino can stage Disney’s latest candyfloss? It is a sickening indictment our society that we are starting to believe the casinos’ spin that they are valid sources of entertainment.

So why does the government allow casinos to continue to spring up like poison mushrooms all over the country? The answer to that is fairly obvious. Money. Lots of it. The casinos make money hand over fist — the house really does always win — and their tax revenues keep Trevor Manuel beaming. But the real cost of these monstrosities — the shattered families, the traumatised children, the inexorable moral decay — is uncountable. If we are really serious about moral regeneration, we’ll shut down casinos right now and turn them into community education centres, where people are taught real skills — like how to work for your money.