South Africa has a complicated relationship with online gambling. Current gaming laws make it illegal to offer or play casino-style games or poker online, but sports betting is legal in all its forms. Although there have been efforts to legalize South African online casinos, those efforts have all been shot down. It appears as though things will remain this way for quite some time.
On the other hand, what the law says and what really happens are not always the same. Many people do play casino games online at gambling websites hosted in other countries. The current situation in South Africa resembles what we’ve seen in other countries that attempt to prohibit online gambling: authorities try to shut it down, but the players keep on playing.
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One key difference between South Africa and most other anti-gambling nations is that local laws actually make it a crime to play poker or real money casino games online. In most other jurisdictions where online gambling is prohibited, the laws are targeted at operators and financial institutions only. South African gambling law actually says it is illegal for players to participate in any form of gambling that is not explicitly legal.
In practice, however, South Africa functions much like any other country. Even though the law declares it illegal to play casino games online in South Africa, we have been unable to find a single account of someone actually getting in trouble for visiting an offshore casino site. We cannot honestly tell you the risk is zero, but we believe it to be very low in practice. South African authorities appear to focus their efforts on the industry side such as those who run gambling operations and banks that process payments.
The vast majority of South African casino sites therefore operate from foreign jurisdictions where online gambling is legal and regulated. Some of the big international gambling brands respect the law of South Africa while others argue that foreign laws do not apply to them in their home nations. Thus, there are quite a few options open to South African players when it comes to finding a place to play casino games online.
Online Gambling Law in South Africa
South Africa’s first effort in modern times to address gambling came came about as a a result of a large and unregulated gambling industry that has grown completely out of control by the mid-1990s. In 1995, it was estimated that roughly 150,000 illegal slot machines were operating across the country that were totally unregulated and often associated with other criminal behavior.
It was clear that something needed to change. Lawmakers took up the issue in 1996 with the passage of the National Gambling Act of 1996. This act legalized gambling in the real world and created the National Gambling Board to oversee gambling across the country. Some of its duties include monitoring gambling establishments for compliance with the law, creating guidelines and issuing licenses.
The 1996 Act also laid out the key principles and objectives guiding the regulation of gambling in South Africa. The most noteworthy of these include:
- Gambling activities shall be effectively regulated, controlled, policed and licensed
- Members of the public shall be protected
- Society and the economy shall be protect against the over-stimulation of the latent demand for gambling
- Standardisation and quality in respect of equipment used by any license holder shall be promoted and maintained
- The issuing of licenses in respect of any gambling activity shall be transparent, fair and equitable
The Act set a maximum cap of 40 gambling licenses to be issued across the country, with each province allowed to issue a maximum of 3 to 6 licenses.
Noticeably absent in the 1996 Act was any mention of online gambling. Online casinos did exist at the time, but the entire industry was still in its infancy at the time. Little did the drafters know just how quickly online gambling would blow up shortly after the law was enacted.
The need for a new and updated act eventually became apparent and lawmakers went back to work to draft something new. The end result was the National Gambling Act of 2004, intended to repeal and replace the previous Act.
The 2004 Act is a much longer and more-detailed piece of legislation compared to the 1996 Act, but the basic guiding principles were carried over. Lawmakers still wanted to keep gambling controlled, protect the public, ensure standardization and maintain a licensing system for operators.
A supplementary piece of legislation called the National Gambling Regulations was put into law around the same time as the 2004 Act. The National Gambling Regulations get into the specifics for how gambling is regulated in South Africa. The regulations cover a wide range of topics to include everything from the maximum bet that may be accepted by a slot machine to the acceptable hours of operation for casinos.
Most importantly for our purposes, the new National Gambling Act addressed online gambling in South Africa. The sad news for gamblers is the act clearly outlaws online casino games, poker, bingo and every other form of wagering except online sports betting. It is illegal to offer games except sports betting online and to participate as a player.
A 2010 legal battle between a casino operator located in Swaziland and the Gauteng Gambling Board reaffirmed South Africa’s ban on online gambling. In that case, Casino Enterprises (PTY) Limited contended that its online casino did not violate the National Gambling Act due to the casino and its servers being located entirely on Swaziland territory, which allows online gambling.
The Gauteng Gambling Board, National Gambling Board and the Minister of Trade and Industry in South Africa argued that the online casino did violate South African laws due to the players being located in South Africa. A protected legal battle ensued, but ultimately a judge ruled against Casino Enterprises and its online casino.
The High Court Judgment ruled that both operators and players who participate in online gambling in South Africa are in violation of the law. The ruling also made it possible for internet service providers, radio stations, print media, television and outdoor advertising agencies to be held in violation if they advertise for online casino sites in South Africa. The punishment for which can be as severe as a fine of R10 million, ten years in jail or both.
There have been other efforts to expand online gambling in South Africa since then, but none of those efforts has succeeded. MP Geordin Hill-Lewis has long supported legalizing additional forms of online gaming and most recently proposed a new Remote Gambling Bill to the National Assembly. That bill was rejected in 2016. For now, only online sports betting remains legal in South Africa.
Wes Burns co-founded OnlineCasinoSites.com with a mission to help gamblers understand and navigate the regulated online casino market in all countries around the world. Wes is a respected gambling journalist, working in the industry since 2008.