Inkatha and the one-armed bandits

Tom Rymore takes an irreverent look at Inkatha's interest in casinos.

Inkatha's appetite for a slice of the gambling pie has never been assuaged, despite a vigorously denied allegation in the Mail & Guardian that Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi had banked millions donated by an illegal casino. In 1998 Kwazulu-Natal Premier Ben Ngubane was told that an IFP-linked casino licence application must win, preferably the R650-million bid by UK millionaire John Aspinall, in which the Inkatha Freedom Party took an acute interest. In early 1999 the gambling board chose a R1,65 billion "ANC" proposal from Durban Add-Ventures, backed by Johnnic. Since provincial cabinets may only ratify gambling board decisions, Ben tried to tata ma chance and strip the KwaZulu-Natal board of its powers and hand them to his cabinet.

The ebullient Ben's hardegat finance MEC Peter Miller warned him in a letter that his plan was: "unconstitutional, irregular and unlawful." Alas, Ben's losing streak got him kicked upstairs into the arty-farty stratosphere as National Minister of Arts, Culture, Etcetera.

In came Lionel Percival Hercules Mbeki Mtshali: an old-fashioned ex-headmaster, a dictator who loves to carpet a hapless underling in his office for a tongue-lashing. This blustering bully, whose abuse of the provincial jet made national headlines, soon established himself as alpha male. He took the gambling portfolio from Miller and amended the provincial regulations to give the KZN Gambling Board complete autonomy; whereupon this browbeaten body promptly re-started the licensing process from scratch.

Geriatric John Aspinall's departure for the big casino in the sky left Inkatha without a preferred project - until former Gauteng IFP chief Musa Myeni came in on Tsogo Sun's second bid. Surprise - Tsogo plucked the plum on the second attempt! Durban Add-Ventures went to court, with the leaked Ngubane-Miller letters as exhibit A; but dropped the case to save time and legal costs in a joint venture with Tsogo. Their Suncoast megacasino opened last November, and began indirectly taxing Durban's untaxables, a task where casinos surpass the South African Revenue Service (SARS).

Lionel's latest loony project puts him on a collision course with the National Gambling Board (NGB), which will launch an industry based on "recreational" slots, or Limited Payout Machines (LPMs). These bowdlerised bandits are intended to empower the small man. LPMs, up to five per location, are destined for clubs, betting shops, race tracks, shebeens and bingo halls; maximum stake is R5 and the top jackpot is R500.

The casinos remain openly hostile to LPMs, and gambling boards seem dubious. Nevertheless, they will soon make their debut in Mpumalanga. The launch has been delayed four years by regulatory logjams and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) dithering that prompted UK heavyweight investors Bass Leisure and Ladbroke Hilton to pull out, after burning hundreds of millions in pursuit of an ever-receding target. To control the LPMs, the NGB awarded a contract to Zonke Monitoring - whose shareholders include Tokyo Sexwale - for a national Central Electronic Monitoring System (CEMS). Schabir Shaik, whose bid had bombed, took the NGB to court, but later withdrew to concentrate on his core business, which includes advising our Deputy President on finance.

Lionel dreamed of an "Inkatha network", with shebeen keepers and faithful supporters as nodes in a web where all the threads lead to a server in Ulundi, and announced that his province would have its own CEMS. NGB chair Chris Fismer appealed to the Constitutional Court, but the lawgivers ignored the merits and ruled that all means of reconciliation between two organs of state had not been exhausted. Which leaves Alec Erwin vainly seeking rapprochement with Lionel as the KZN board weighs up network tenders. There was only a single bid, almost as if the candidate had been pre-selected. But then a second tender came in and was accepted - after a scuffle in the corridor. The winner has not yet been announced.

Will Inkatha's one-arm bandit compulsion ever be cured? It's doubtful. Maybe the party should consult a problem gambling counsellor.