She regards South Africa as her second home, away from the oil-rich but politically turbulent Middle East, and former Miss Iran, Melika Razavi, who has for years comfortably settled in Cape Town, says she loves everything about the country except its rigid laws regulating online gambling.
As a world-acclaimed online poker player, Razavi yearns for a day the department of trade and industry (dti) relaxes online gambling laws – “making it possible for me to spend more time in South Africa”.
“Online gambling in South Africa is a problem because all online gambling is banned – something which has led to my account being taken away.
“If your account is blocked, it becomes impossible to play. You get an e-mail notification that your account is blocked and your money is refunded. This is unfortunate because many South Africans love playing online poker.
“So I end up travelling to Europe and other continents to play in international poker games,” said Razavi.
Gambling in South Africa is regulated by the National Gambling Act of 2004 (NGA), which also established the National Gambling Board (NGB), and provincial laws aligned with the Act.
Razavi’s live earnings to date are $84,582 (just over 1.2 million rand).
In April 2016, the dti published the National Gambling Policy, stating that “no new forms of gambling will be allowed at this point” and “improved provisions will be included in legislation to deal effectively with illegal gambling”.
Instead of allowing regulated online gambling to derive the much-needed revenue on taxes, the dti has taken a stance that online gambling should be prohibited completely, in order to prevent illegal operations.
Trade Minister Rob Davies has gone on record as saying the Financial Intelligence Centre will work with financial institutions to verify and intercept online winnings. Non-compliance may not just lead to criminal liability but you could find your winnings being deposited in the Unlawful Winnings Trust.
Davies has warned: “If you go online, we may not be able to stop you when you play the game, but when you win, we get you.”
In South Africa, legal gambling is restricted to casinos, limited payout machines, bingo, horse racing, sports betting through a licenced bookmaker and the national lottery.
According to NGB figures, casinos account for 70.5% of the total gross gambling revenue (GGR) of over R26 billion, creating 64,000 jobs. Bingo accounts for 3.6% of the GGR and horse racing generates over R1.9 billion.
South Africa is not alone in discouraging online gambling. Russia, China, the Netherlands and Switzerland, among many others, also do. While Australia allows operators of casino websites, it prohibits their use by its own citizens, while the United States has a federal ban on all gambling, allowing individual states to permit it within their borders.
While the SA gambling debate drags on, Razavi believes the skills one could have learned, could have gone towards building international poker stars of tomorrow.