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Is it time to stop buying that PowerBall ticket?

- Dr Christine Hobden

Read about the ethical dilemma as far as the Lotto goes...

As reports on wrongdoing at the National Lotteries Commission mount, those of us who provide the funding for its operation may want to consider whether we have an obligation to vote with our wallets.

As the PowerBall jackpot rolled over through a long January, there was increasing social media banter about what one would do if one won the jackpot ­– disappear into a life of luxury, walk out of toxic workplaces, or pay off family debt – and mock celebration of those small, taunting R7.50 wins that in most cases fail to even pay off the cost of playing.

The draw on 11 February saw a R165 million jackpot, and a single lucky winner, of whom we have not yet heard any details – for most then, hope is diminished, but not lost as the jackpot slowly begins to grow again. 

I too have found solace in the fun of dreaming big and losing small, at most spending R30 of my eBucks on an occasional draw. To me, the Lotto and PowerBall have always felt more akin to buying a raffle ticket at the church fair than gambling at the casino. While we know the casino always wins in the end, the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) is mandated to ensure that “net proceeds are as large as possible” and that these proceeds are used for “good causes” – for the upliftment of fellow South African citizens and residents. While I have consistently lost, never winning more than R15, losing to a good cause never seemed like much of a problem.

But now, belatedly and perhaps not unexpectedly, I realise that as in many of our government spaces, money set aside for “good causes”, or indeed basic human rights entitlements, has long been going into the pockets of private individuals and into legal fees racked up as they defend their behaviour. Slowly and steadily, Raymond Joseph and others at GroundUp have revealed the multitude of dubious and illegal goings-on at the NLC: from board members receiving millions linked to Lotto grants, to serious concerns that Lotto funds were used for ANC campaigning in the Western Cape, to a Lotto grant for a children’s centre in Limpopo not reaching any children. Despite investigations and numerous employees blowing the whistle, the NLC holds a firmly defensive position, spending millions on litigation against current and former employees and committing further legal fees to unsuccessfully applying to set aside the appointment of independent investigators by the minister of trade, industry and competition in June 2020.

The real horror of this story is that the bulk of these stolen funds comes from those who have little to no income available to contribute: a 2019 study by Unisa’s Bureau of Market Research found that nearly 28% of people who play the Lotto are unemployed, and 42%, live on incomes of R5,000 per month or less. Indeed, the Lottery has been described as a regressive tax  – a tax that more heavily impacts upon the poor. While not imposed by law, this impact is sanctioned by governments’ active (and arguably manipulative) advertising.

As early as 2019, Joseph reported on the suspiciously large increase in the NLC’s advertising spend from 2012’s R716,000 to a high of R43-million in 2016, and a lower but still-substantial R21.9-million and R22.7-million in the 2018 and 2019 financial years. This level of ad spend provides important revenue for struggling media houses across the country. But the advertising often takes an advertorial form, making it difficult to distinguish from reporting, and the NLC’s ability to be such an important source of revenue compromises the media’s independence on this issue. It is perhaps not by chance that GroundUp, a non-profit that does not run advertisements, has been the main source of investigative journalism into corruption at the NLC.

So, what are we to do? 

While it is important that these issues are properly and independently investigated and that those accountable be held so by our judiciary, corruption at the NLC provides us with a perfect opportunity to “vote with our wallets” to add to pressure on the commission to do better. My work on citizenship and political consumerism suggests that we should be more conscious of our collective consumer power as a tool to hold our government accountable.

This may not be possible for everyone: many who support the Lotto experience conditions that make it difficult to leverage consumer power, and make it morally problematic for others to demand it of them. But for those who do have that choice, for whom the PowerBall or the Lotto is idle entertainment, or a nice but not necessary dream, a public boycott of all Ithuba lotteries might put weight behind a call for the government to take action on the NLC.

Boycotts, of course, come with costs and we should cautiously think through the potential impact on many deserving recipients of Lottery funding. But boycotts do not have to be absolute nor open-ended to be strategically valuable. Think of the impact of a well-coordinated and well-publicised boycott of a single draw or a regular boycott on the last Friday of the month, until certain, tangible accountability demands are met.

As readers and subscribers we can also put pressure on media houses to join the boycott by refusing advertising from the NLC for a defined period or until certain steps have been taken to hold wrongdoers accountable. We can also call upon banks and shops who facilitate the sale and advertising of lotteries to similarly put pressure on the NLC with their own consumer power.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that we should think twice before providing any funds for the activities of the NLC, on principle and to avoid our own small-scale complicity in such wrongdoing. This may seem a little hopeless or even problematically self-righteous in a context where so much more is needed in our deeply unjust society. Yet we should not forget our collective power to put pressure on the government, both with our voices, and in this case, with our wallets.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick.