Pretoria's ban raises stakes for Sun City: John Carlin in Johannesburg on a gambling bill that has drawn accusations of hypocrisy

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The Independent Online
ONCE you've negotiated three sets of iron gates at King's Casino, on Johannesburg's Louis Botha Avenue, the gaming room itself has a homespun feel to it. The fish fingers and the cheese and tomato sandwiches are free, and a blonde waitress in skin-tight jeans minces around the tables asking, 'Anybody here for spaghetti?'

Mercifully, the Israeli, the Latvian and the two Italians in the blackjack huddle I was observing did not express a great deal of interest in spaghetti, mesmerised as they were by the black female croupier's dexterity with the cards, and the insouciant nimbleness with which she hoovered up their 20 rand chips ( pounds 4).

A bill the South African government plans to table in parliament this week threatens to put the waitress, the croupier and the man who makes the spaghetti out on the street - along with 15,000 others employed in South Africa's burgeoning gambling industry.

Political killings may be the order of the day, constitutional negotiations may be in peril and the economy may be sliding way beyond John Major's worst nightmares, but President F W de Klerk has deemed the time has come to put his foot down and appease the moral majority. All gambling on South African soil, he has decreed, is to be outlawed.

Uproar has been the response. A protest march has been held in Cape Town and the media have been inundated with calls and letters from indignant punters. On the talk shows it is the only issue.

In an article in the Star, a national daily, Tony Leon MP, of the liberal Democratic Party, denounced the government's 'double standards and hypocrisy'. 'The Gambling Amendment Bill,' he railed, 'is legislative junk food. It bloats the system, takes time to digest and diverts attention from the main course . . . making progress towards a democratic South Africa.'

The double standards and hypocrisy eating at Mr Leon derive from apartheid's greatest aberration, the system of independent homelands, devised as dumping grounds for blacks not wanted in the big cities. The creation within South African territory of the sovereign states of Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei - all of which entertain diplomatic missions from just one country - gave the entrepreneur Sol Kerzner the smart idea of building a business around the principle of the forbidden fruit.

Black leaders Pretoria appointed to head these statelets did not share their Calvinist masters' scruples about gambling, topless dancers and dirty movies. Mr Kerzner established Sun City in Bophuthatswana, and it spawned 30 Sun Hotel complexes in all four homelands.

It has made Mr Kernzer colossally wealthy - it is reported he will be paying Ronald and Nancy Reagan their usual fees to attend the opening later this year of his latest venture in Bophuthatswana, the Lost City, venue of the Miss World contest in December.

Mr Kerzner is among the most enthusiastic proponents of the anti-gambling bill. Desperate not to lose his billion-rand investment in the homelands, he has been appearing on radio and television fiercely arguing his case, the essence of which is that he is a philanthropist with a job-creation scheme under threat.

Mr Leon sees it differently. 'In effect, it means the monopoly enjoyed in the homelands by Sun International will be shored up by an Act of Parliament.'

Grant Kaplan of the South African Gaming Association explained that the monopoly was broken in July last year, after a court ruled that a local variation of blackjack was not 'a game of chance', but - as betting on the horses is legally defined - 'a game of skill'. Exploiting the loophole, 500 casinos have mushroomed, with a turnover of more than pounds 20m a month.

Mr Kerzner has been the loser. Gamblers in Johannesburg no longer have to drive two hours north to Sun City for their fun. They can drive around the corner to King's, or to Sleepy Hollow, a converted mansion in the Spanish colonial style, in the affluent suburb of Sandton.

The co-managers of Sleepy Hollow, Chris from Ottawa and Kevin from Birmingham, struggle to restrain their loathing for Mr Kerzner and their contempt for the government. 'We're crucifying some of Sun International's establishments,' said Kevin, a former Sun International employee.

If he spoke with relish it was because he was present last year when the police, in the company of two Sun employees, raided the casino he was working in and locked him up for 24 hours, because he did not have a work permit - a detail his former employers had overlooked. The fear now is that he will be locked up for far longer.

'It's ludicrous,' Chris said. 'I mean, they'll put us away for 20 years, but if we go out and murder, if we go out and kill eight blacks on the streets like that guy Barend Strydom, and then say it was political, they'll let us free after a couple of months. Meanwhile, a couple of hours up the road in Sun City, people are playing roulette and everything and it's all perfectly legal.'

A curious twist, Chris and Kevin remarked, is that the furore is bringing the African National Congress support from the most unexpected quarters. The ANC position, founded on non-recognition of homeland sovereignty, is that the proposed legislation is biased, illegitimate and absurd and, at a time of economic hardship, will deprive thousands of jobs.

'Lots of our staff and many of our clients,' Chris said, 'are saying they're going to vote ANC.'