BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Inside Soccer Shop, a local betting hall, men are glued to television and computer screens that show soccer games, horse races and dog races. Others study screens showing payout dividends and other information they hope will help them bet wisely.
The floor is littered with betting receipts and logs.
Nearby, Delight Mpatiwa, 25, scrambles to submit his bets just minutes before a France Ligue 1 soccer match between Lille and Toulouse begins. Mpatiwa says he’s been unemployed for a year. He recently started betting on soccer matches to earn money. His brother, who lives in South Africa, introduced him to gambling.
“He usually bets in South Africa and at times wins $200, which to me is a jackpot,” Mpatiwa says. “So I tried it out thinking maybe fortunes might land on me and I could win that amount.”
Zimbabwe’s economy is near collapse. With widespread cash shortages and unemployment, many have taken to sports betting to earn money. Across Zimbabwe, sports betting halls, once places for recreational activity, are filled to capacity every day by men who say they’re there because they want to put food on their tables.
Lindelwe Mgodla, GPJ Zimbabwe
The most popular betting halls in Bulawayo are Soccer Shop and AfricaBet, both of which have branches throughout the city center and high-density suburbs.
There are no strict laws which govern the gambling sector in Zimbabwe, as betting is something that was previously viewed as a hobby rather than a way of earning a living.
“In actual fact, sports betting used to be entertainment,” says Reginald Shoko, an independent economist and regional president of the Affirmative Action Group in Bulawayo. “But with what has become because of the current situation of the economy, it has become a survival skill. It has become some form of employment.”
Shoko cautions against expecting gambling to be a source of stable income.
“The truth of the matter is you cannot substitute betting with employment,” he says. “It’s just that in a Kia Kia economy like ours it’s just one of those things that you are to move, it’s not really something.”
Kia kia is a colloquial term that refers to people who try to make ends meet.
Even Norman Macheka, regional manager at Soccer Shop, says he doesn’t advise people to visit the betting hall because it can be addictive.
But legends about men who have won fortunes in sports betting spread through Soccer Shop each day, spurring people there to continue betting.
Mpatiwa says he heard about a man who won over $100,000 last year alone.
This isn’t his first choice of activity, he says. If the Zimbabwean economy wasn’t on the verge of collapse, he says he’d likely be working his dream job as a metallurgist, a skill for which he earned a diploma last year at the National School of Mines in Bulawayo. Instead, he says, the faltering economy has given way to nepotism, making it difficult to secure a job at one of the mines that isn’t shutting down because of the current financial crisis.
For the past year, between rigorous job searches, he has tried his hand at sports betting so he can have some money to buy himself clothes, give his siblings pocket money and go out with his friends. His winnings rarely exceed $200, but mostly range between $20 and $75. That money doesn’t stretch far enough to pay his rent and as well as other basic living costs.
Mpatiwa lives in the high-density suburb of Tshabalala with his mother and three cousins. His mother is the sole bread winner, and she’s responsible for feeding all five people in the home.
“If I don’t bet that means I have no money,” he says. “If my brother in the diaspora doesn’t send money, if my mother doesn’t give me money that means I am broke that month. As a 25 year old it isn’t appropriate to still be asking for money from your mother, so I have to bet.”
Artwell Moyo, 23, says sports betting is a way to make money, but it’s also a risk. He keenly remembers when he lost one of his biggest bets.
“My lowest moment was when I bet $50,” he says. “I will never forget that.”
A frequent visitor of both Soccer Shop and AfricaBet, Moyo, says another benefit of coming to the betting halls is that amid the cash shortage, they are one of the few places that have cash on hand. In Zimbabwe, accessing any amount of cash has become very difficult.
“If you walk into a betting shop you will notice that there are hundreds of people who will be depositing money every day,” he says. “As a result of that there is always cash in the betting house as betters deal in smaller cash denominations as opposed to the more substantial amounts, which they require from banks but are unable to access.”
David Matonho, a contract builder and frequent sports better, says he needs both sources of income to survive. He’s been betting on horse races for more than 20 years, but like Moyo, says it’s a risk business, especially for inexperienced gamblers.
“Betting is a problem. It finishes your money,” he says. “When we come here we get money to keep, but with young people, once they win, they want to keep betting on games that will finish all their money and they end up leaving with nothing.”
Shoko says revitalizing Bulawayo’s economy is the only way to reduce reliance on sports betting. Zimbabwe must start importing semi-produced goods that can be finished off in local industry, which will create local employment opportunities, he says.
Mpatiwa agrees that the country must find a solution soon. Relying on betting for income is stressful, he says, adding that younger betters should stay in school and reserve gambling for recreation.
Still, he comes to the betting hall each day with the hope of getting rich. He thinks of his potential winnings in terms of South African rand. He hopes that one day he will make win enough money that will not only buy him nice clothes but also further his education.
“With the current dollar-to-rand conversion rate, if I was to win $3,000 and convert it, it could give me 50,000 rand.” he says. “I would take a chunk of that, maybe $500, and go and bet on a ticket that would pay out $5, which when I multiply by the $500 I would have invested I can manage to pay my (school) fees.”
Lindelwe Mgodla translated some interviews from Ndebele and Shona.