Jozi City Feature

The downtown gamble

It’s Tuesday afternoon and the Noord Street taxi rank is alive with activity. Throngs of people bustle along the pavement, vendors sell their goods and street gamblers bet their salaries on card games and dice. In the corner of the rank, a group of men are gathered around in a circle cheering. Someone has just won R150.

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Batota is a gambling game commonly played at Joburg taxi ranks

“The game is called batota,” says one of the dealers, “it means casino.” He explains that the game is played with a full pack of cards and the rules are fairly simple. A punter calls a card and places money on the table. The dealer in turn shuffles the deck of cards and deals up to 14 cards. If the card the punter called appears, he doubles his money. If not, he loses.

After a swift change of shift, the dealer introduces himself as Victor and says he deals cards to make an extra income. “This is not my full-time job, I do it part time to make more money. But I can’t rely on gambling, I sell airtime too,” he says.

“We spend about five hours a day playing, but the game is not official; if the cops come they can arrest us, so we play in different places.”

Victor says he has built up a good clientele. “It’s the same people who come back almost every day, even if they don’t win. Sometimes they can get lucky, but they always know where to find me.”

As the stakes get higher the jovial mood around the table is soon replaced with a cloud of tension. “Now I am warmed up,” says one of the punters as he excitedly lays three R100 notes on the table.

He calls the number 10, and the deck of cards is shuffled. A spectator cuts the deck and an anxious-looking dealer begins to deal out the first of the 14 cards. The fifth card is a 10 and it is met with a wave of cheers from bystanders who have gathered around to watch.

“This is how we can lose all our profits in 30 seconds,” says Victor with an edge of irritation.

“But I am not too worried because the thing with people who gamble is that they can play until they lose everything.”

The dealer reluctantly lays out six crumpled R100 notes on the table and, as predicted by Victor, the punter subsequently puts four of those notes back on the table for his next bet.

He calls a queen, but this time loses.

Just then a metro police car drives past and the money quickly vanishes off the table.

The crowd casually disperses, retreating innocently to their day-to-day business.

“That’s it for the day,” says Victor as he puts the cards in his pocket and starts walking away from the angry looking punter, whose chance to win his money back has just disappeared before his eyes.

“He’ll be back tomorrow,” says Victor confidently, unperturbed by his dissatisfied customer.

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Ukdlala icard: A game of batota is played on the pavement at the Noord Street taxi rank

 

When games turn violent

The next day at the same place and time, there is no game to be found.

On enquiry I’m told by a vendor to go to Gold Reef City if I want to gamble. “There is no casino here.”

But a parking attendant catches up with me as I begin to walk away. “Don’t ever do what you did yesterday,” he warns. “You don’t know what you are doing, these guys are dangerous. What would you have done if they started to fight?”

While luck is very much the order of the game, cheating and robbery are common, and knives and spilled blood are not unusual.

“If someone loses all their money they can become very moody and want to fight for it back. I have seen it happen. People are dying in this game, it’s not a joke, go home wena!”

The police seemed less concerned about the street gambling industry.

“I wouldn’t say illegal gambling is a widespread issue,” says Constable Barlan Mutan, a communications officer at the SAPS.

“It happens here and there, but mostly around taxi ranks where everyone is out to make a quick buck.”

Mutan says that while illegal gamblers are arrested for conducting unlawful activities, their punishment is light.

“Most of the time they will have to pay a fine of R400 or R500. We don’t consider it to be a major issue like drugs, and perhaps in certain areas it is overlooked.”

Police reports have however linked street gambling to gangs, and gambling squabbles have been known to turn deadly.

“They come with knives, and if they lose all their money they can stab someone just like that,” says the parking attendant, “I don’t want to tell you about the things I have seen.”

It seems he knows a lot more than our watchful policeman.

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Rolling the dice: Under a shade canopy at the Bree Street taxi rank, punters are hoping to get lucky in a game of dice

 

Types of street gambling

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Dice games are seen as a way to make quick cash

Illegal gambling or “ukudlala ngemali” takes many different forms on the streets of Johannesburg. While “batota” or ‘call-a-card’ seems to be the popular choice, dice games are common too. The most exciting of the dice games is a variation of craps which generally involves rolling the dice to get a seven or an 11 which is considered an automatic win.

Traditional games such as “itoti” and finder-finder (played with bottle tops and stones) can also be found. A stone is put under one of the bottle tops and they are moved around. The game entails having to guess under which bottle top the stone is hiding, and this game can also be played with matchboxes or cards. It has a reputation for scamming the people betting out of their winnings.

Another game called “fafi” is played mainly by women and was brought to South Africa by the Chinese. The game is based on the translation of dreams into numbers which are then bet on. It is composed of numbers from one to 36 and each number has a name or character.

A draw takes place twice a day, morning and afternoon, and for every draw only one number is chosen. Anything dreamed of will have an associated number. For example if you dream of crooks (izigebengu/amasela) you will bet on a seven. If you dream of a white person (umlungu) you will bet on number three, while if you dreamt of the sea you could bet on both 18 for a ship (inqanawe) and 26, which is the corresponding number for water (amanzi). The game requires a “runner” who carries the bag of bets (with the names of those betting and their money) to the Chinese person in charge. He then takes the bag from the runner, whispering the winning number to her. The runner will then indicate symbolically with her hands to the people betting to indicate which number has won, and that person will be paid out.

 A street gambler’s story

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Thapelo spends most weekends gambling at the Bree Street taxi rank

Although Thapelo is only 20 years old, gambling is a part of his daily routine.

He works at a factory in Langlaagte where he is paid weekly, but complains that the money he earns is “small” and he can’t afford to buy groceries.

“With this money I can’t afford to do nice things and all the things I want to do. To gain extra cash I come to the Bree taxi rank to gamble.”

Thapelo usually plays dice with R300 and says he can make more money out of gambling than work.

“That R300 can last me the whole night. There’s a possibility I will leave without winning or losing, and there’s a possibility I can leave with maybe R3 000, which is more than I came here with. It’s a win or lose situation.”

He says he gambles with a mindset expecting to lose, but hoping to win.

“I just have to try my luck, sometimes I can win, and sometimes I can go home with nothing. I know it’s just a game, but I see it as a way to make cash because I am not getting paid the way I want to be.”

Thapelo admits his gambling habits are a problem, but because he is still young, his only responsibility is to himself.

“Nobody looks after me and I don’t look after anybody, so what I do with my money is my choice.”

Thapelo never knew his father and his mother passed away when he was eleven, leaving him to look after his three-year old sister. He was forced to drop out of school and get a job to support himself and his sister, as they didn’t have any other family to depend on.

A year later his mother’s sister tracked him down, and took his sister to live with her in Shweize-Reneke so that Thapelo could go back to school. He found himself completely alone again and struggling to pass. He dropped out of school to find work and says he was too embarrassed to tell his aunt that he wasn’t going to get his matric certificate. Thapelo tried out a few jobs and was finally employed at the factory he still works at today.

He rents a room in Langlaagte but says he is often unable to pay his rent because he lost his money on dice. He resorts to borrowing money from loan sharks and having to pay back with increased interest.

“When I have to pay these guys back I get scared because I know they can kill me over R500 so I never gamble with their money,” he says openly.

While Thapelo confesses to have lost more money on gambling than he has made, he says he won’t give it up.

“I can say I am a gambler because I can spend the whole weekend gambling without going home until Monday morning when I have to go back to work.

“Sometimes I go to work happy with more money, and sometimes I go back to work stressed and looking for more money so that I can go gamble again.

“This is the life of a gambler.”

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Just like montecasino: A makeshift casino being set up at the Bree Street taxi rank using chairs from a taxi. Punters stand by waiting for the game to begin

 

The history of gambling in South Africa

According to research conducted by the National Responsible Gambling Programme, gambling in South Africa can be traced back to indigenous populations. Pre-colonial Bushman (San) paintings depict that people engaged in a type of gambling activity designed for pleasure and gain.

The settlement of the Dutch at the Cape during the 17th century saw the first ban on gambling in 1673. It was, however, the gold rush in the Witwatersrand area that attracted gambling on a grand scale. Prior to 1996, all formal, commercial gambling in South Africa was illegal, except for betting on horse races and the hotel casinos established in the former “homelands” in the late 1970s.

Banning gambling only drove the gambling business out of sight from the police, and made it an industry often managed by criminals and organised crime syndicates. Street gangs, such as the Msomis, the Spoilers and the Sherif Khan Organisation, were involved in managing illegal gambling. Despite it being outlawed, there was much gambling in the form of illegal slot machines (often in shebeens), illegal casinos (an estimated 2 000), and street card and dice games.

When the democratically elected government came into power in 1994, it took the decision to legalise gambling. In 1996, certain forms of gambling were made legal, allowing people to gamble as long as they were not harming society. With this decision came the government commitment to make counselling services available for people who gambled excessively or became addicted to gambling.

There are now 40 licensed casinos, including those re-integrated from the old “homeland” casinos, a national horse racing totalisator (“tote”), a few bingo halls and the national Lotto. Despite this, illegal gambling still appears to be a popular choice for working-class South Africans.

Whether it’s a friendly card game with R2 stakes or a serious game of dice, street gambling has inevitably become a part of Johannesburg city life. If you want to join a game, you won’t need to search very far because, despite their illegality, these games are not exactly discreet. And, perhaps, part of the thrill of street gambling is the added gamble of being caught.

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About Stephanie Hodes

Stephanie graduated with a BA in English and international relations from the University of the Witwatersrand. Her love of words and politics inspired her to pursue a career in journalism. She has worked extensively in the broadcasting industry, at one stage presenting the Breakfast Show on 101.9 Chai FM while completing her undergraduate degree. Her interests lie in hard news coverage, particularly the political beat. She also has a special interest in Middle East politics. Stephanie interned at The Jerusalem Post prior to her honours degree and plans to move to Israel, where she hopes to kickstart her career in reporting.

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