‘Grooming’, irrationality & Covid-19

Posted on August 5, 2020


Irrationality and inconsistency by powers that be breeds contempt among the citizenry. This is something the government should bear in mind as it persists in demanding Covid-19 rules that defy common sense while ignoring apparently blatant illegality in a public “grooming” process that South African law specifically prohibits.

Grooming is a practice where often vulnerable people are enticed by individuals and groups via various means in order to manipulate, exploit and abuse those who are groomed. It is a practice associated with anyone from drug pushers, ensnaring young people as addicts to confidence tricksters promoting pyramid schemes.

Such behaviour is rightly condemned and is usually undertaken far from public scrutiny. Yet right now such grooming is taking place on national television. And, according to the National Gambling Board (NGB), is illegal. As is the encouragement to indulge in illegal acts.

This dual illegality comes in the form of glossy ads starring young adults ecstatically celebrating having won considerable amounts of money on any of a variety of featured casino games. These games, a silken voiced announcer says, can be played “anywhere, anytime”. To make the point, a young woman is seen gleefully gambling on a tablet in the back seat of an up market convertible.

These advertisements, on the DSTV platform, have become prominent since the Covid-19 lockdown that has put increasing numbers of working people in desperate financial positions. Because men and women, frantic for money, become ready prey for the groomers of the online gambling business.

Many retrenched workers, with just R100 left between starvation and a throw of the dice are tempted to “take a chance” at perhaps winning enough to live on. To entice waverers and others, these “online casinos” offer “automatically credited” bonuses ranging from R100 to R300 with free gaming up to R10,000 and more.

One of the online sites, Play Casino, spells the message out enticingly: “You may enjoy playing at online casinos for free, but the real reason we gamble is to make some money while having fun.” In other words, unless you use real money, you don’t win — and don’t have real fun.

As a result of such inducements, one of Britain’s leading addiction charities reported this month that “interactions with problem gamblers” had increased from 30 to 1,000 a month from April to June. According to the Gordon Moody Association, this might be “the first signs of a storm” of addictions and the social, psychological and financial chaos it can cause.

British Labour Party MP, Carolyn Harris, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper, noted that lockdown conditions created the perfect conditions for online gambling. “Gambling companies may see this period as a huge opportunity to increase their profit margins,” she said.

But all such games are rigged in favour of the “house”. Thousands of desperate punters, acting individually, may together wager perhaps R2 million before — usually to much fanfare — one of their number wins perhaps R1million.

And, once hooked, gamblers try all the harder to win back their losses, often being driven, much like hard drug addicts, to cheat and steal. All the time they are encouraged that there is gold at the end of a “fun” rainbow made of games such as money wheels, roulette and blackjack.

As the Betway website notes: “We love what we do and intend (sic) on sharing it. We aim to provide our customers with quality products and a thrilling online gambling experience. Always bringing them closer to the action. Win or lose, it’s all for the love of the game.”

Betway, a Guernsey island registered company, is one of the major DSTV online gambling advertisers and is headed by South African born Anthony Werkman, with Stellenbosch graduate, Ricky Serfontein as his financial director. In March this year, the company was fined a record £11.6 million (R243.6 million) by the UK Gambling Commission for failing to take adequate steps to prevent money laundering and problem gambling by effectively enticing big losers to lose still more.

Half the fine was allocated to victims from whom money had been stolen by gamblers betting with Betway with the other half going to the Gambling Commission. Inquiries reveal that Betway, a private company, apparently registered initially in Guernsey in 2006, operates out of Guernsey, Malta and Cape Town. And it appears to hold a gaming licence from the Western Cape province.

However, such apparently licences cover only bookmaking for horse racing and sports events. Casino sites and the individuals, internet service providers and banks that process payments for online gamblers, along with those who advertise such facilities, may still be subject to a fine of R10 million or 10 years of imprisonment, or both. The situation is con fused.

Because, although the South African National Gambling Board (NGB) does not mention possible fines and/or imprisonment, it makes clear that online gambling (outside of horse racing and sports undertaken by licensed bookmakers) is still illegal. At the foot of each entry on the NGB website are stark warnings:

If you gamble online your winnings will be confiscated by your bank before they reach your bank account
You will not receive your winnings
You will be investigated and could face criminal charges — this will impact the rest of your life

What happens to losses incurred is not stated. But there you have it: an apparently flagrant breach of quite sensible regulations which only government can act on. At the same time, the law is paraded continually as an ass with lifestyle rules that defy common sense.

At least, as history has shown, when any law or regulation is perceived by a majority of citizens to be irrational — and enough people decide simply to ignore it — the irrational becomes irrelevant. Short of using brute force through the armed might of the state, there is nothing much any government can do.

Good examples now exist in many coastal regions. Beaches, without any reason being given, are still, legally, off limits to the public. But the public, certainly in the Western Cape, followed the example of hundreds of surfers and, in the clear, warm, winter days this past week, have “gone to the beach”, wearing masks and social distancing. This, in the same week that the ban on beaches was reiterated.

Then there is the farce surrounding the ban on cigarettes and “tobacco products”, which started with co-operative governance (Cogta) minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma confusing dagga “zols” with cigarettes. Zols, until recently, wholly illegal, were traditionally shared, and such sharing does increase the danger of coronavirus transmission.

Cigarettes, relatively cheap and legal, were seldom shared, until now. Smokes today are still readily available in a burgeoning parallel market run largely by criminal gangs. But they cost R65 or more a packet and are therefore often shared by hard up smokers.

This is all part of a series of sometimes contradictory and apparently irrational orders, including the bungling approach to restaurants, that have emanated mainly from Dlamini-Zuma. It has seen her dubbed, by one newspaper, the “Nanny of the Nation”. Unless the existing confusion and legal ambiguity — let alone the horrendous damage, mainly to working class families — is cleared up, she and the government should not be surprised if they end up being regarded as the National Inanity.