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Racism remains a lingering disease

Will humanity one day look back on the days when people were regarded as greater or lesser beings because of their racial origins in the same way as we now look back on the era of witch hunting? This question assumes that at least some progress has been made in eliminating racial prejudice, and certainly that can be said to be the case. Having a darker skin in a society where light-skinned people predominate is not nearly as great a disadvantage as it was a few decades ago. That being said, traditional prejudices persist, even if they are largely unspoken and of a lesser degree of virulence than in bygone years.

A Talmudic lesson often invoked by the current Chief Rabbi is that the reason why the human race was made to descend from a single man and a single woman was to prevent one person saying to another, “My ancestors were more illustrious than yours”. More than anything else, this teaching has motivated me to confront my own lingering prejudices, which were always there even in the days when I hopped and bopped with my fellow protestors in anti-apartheid rallies. It certainly helps to realise that racism is not only ugly and stupid, but a heresy as well.

Racial differences are irrelevant when it comes to showing an individual the kind of respect and empathy that one is expected to show to anyone else. However, knowing this at an intellectual level is insufficient; it also has to be felt to be true at the very core of one’s being, which in turn must be reflected in one’s actions

Laying bare the material harm that apartheid did is comparatively easy. It is largely a matter of trotting out all the key pieces of apartheid legislation and showing which particular aspects of daily life this or that one negatively impacted on. Freedom of movement? Check out the influx control laws. Economic mobility? See relevant colour bar and wage level legislation. Ditto for education, political rights, access to public utilities and places of residence.

Far less easy to get a handle on, especially for some like me who never personally experienced it, is the emotional hurt that apartheid, and indeed the whole era of white on black colonialism as a whole, must have inflicted. The underlying justification for this kind of oppression was the belief that those being subjected to it were lesser human beings. How much this must have undermined the fundamental pride, dignity and self respect of those on the receiving end can hardly be under-estimated.

While overt acts of racial prejudice have long been outlawed in South Africa, covert racism by definition is harder to rout out. Take as an example how a white person might become angry and abusive over what is perceived as poor service from a black person. Only he/she can say whether, and if so to what extent, that irritation has an underlying racial basis. The test for someone in that situation would be to ask whether he/she would react to another white person’s actions in the same way.

Without creating an eternal albatross of inherited racial guilt to shlep about day after day, I believe that whites need to be aware of the continuing psychological damage that racism inflicted, and strive to reflect this awareness in how they interact with black people. This doesn’t mean being unctuous and patronising, which obviously would just cause resentment, but rather making a genuine effort to being warm, open and respectful. In the end, whites themselves will surely be the greatest beneficiaries of this kind of basic sensitivity.

Author

  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.

42 Comments

  1. John John 22 June 2009

    So….. you are of the school that believe that only whites can be racist. Puts your rationale in perspective.

  2. Na'ima Na'ima 22 June 2009

    John,
    I think you missed the point. When looking at modern history (20th century), it is white people the world over that have set up structures and enacted laws that are racist (i.e. white people institutionalised racism). And the whole world is still suffering the consequences of those racist structures and laws. Until white people acknowledge that we are living the consequences of those first causes, the cycle of racism and reprisal by the former victims of racism is just going to continue.
    At least that’s what I’m understanding. I stand to by corrected, David.

  3. Sipho Sipho 22 June 2009

    David, it gets worse when the perpetrators prescribe how the victims of racism should react. Most of them would even throw the racism tag back at you if you dare to question their racist behaviour.
    Most white political commentators have less than complimentary reasons why black people vote the ANC in their majority. From the claim that black people don’t mind corruption to the assertion that black people have sheep mentality, just like all the africans in the continent who voted dictator after dictator until their economies collapsed.

  4. Guy Guy 22 June 2009

    I would hope that being “warm, open and respectful” would be the way all people would react to others. “Doing to others as you would have others do to you” is not a spectacular new insight. Conduct should be objectively evaluated, and race and history are irrelevant.

  5. Mbuya Munlo Mbuya Munlo 22 June 2009

    I belive that the largest victims of racism on earth are blacks. The whole concept of racism did not originate from the black race and by and large they are yet to benefit from it. Opportunities the world over are distributed on racial lines and guess what blacks are on the periphery when it comes to sharing the spoils of world wealth even if they are sitting on it. On which other continent do blacks/africans own land, mines etc. Mbuya Munlo.

  6. Leon Leon 22 June 2009

    As a “Whitey” myself, I don’t read this piece as saying only whites can be racist. To the contrary, I believe that racism, is endemic to humanity. However, as a white South African, I can only “take ownership” of and combat white racism. But I do agree with Saks’s basic premise. I also believe that we all need constantly to fight our inherent prejudices, including racism and sexism.

    I won’t go so far as to say that any who says that he or she is altogether without prejudice is lying, but he/she is certainly one of only a handful of individuals. I fear I cannot, yet [I live in hope], count myself amongst those sainted few. All I can say is that I watch myself closely and try to pounce on any prejudice the moment it rears its ugly head.

  7. Lara Johnstone Lara Johnstone 22 June 2009

    What a load of bollocks. The biggest respect I give anyone of any colour is honesty, not fake niceness, or fake ‘warmth’ or anything fake. From me they get ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ every second of every single day, I don’t give a flying hoot what their colour is. My treatment of them is based upon their conduct, and thiers only.

    GEt yourself a copy of the documentary: A Conversation About Race, by Craig Bodeker.

    I cannot tell you how many blacks accuse me of ‘racism’, instead of simply saying thank you for treating them, without any regard for their skin colour!

    South AFrica’s Truth and REconciliation was a sham, a lie, a dog and pony show.. and the consequences of crime and violence and two faced hypocrisy… are the results, the karma of those lies.. and will only continue to get worse, until South Africans, start prcticing what they preach..

  8. david saks david saks 22 June 2009

    Naeema
    I agree. While blacks are certainly capable of being racist, it is a reality that anti-black racism is historically primarily a white pathology, with anti-white racism from the other side is by comparison rare and inconsequential.

  9. Expat in Holland Expat in Holland 22 June 2009

    The fact that you have racial prejudice does not make you a racist. In fact we all have these unconscious attitudes. A fantastic book exploring these ideas is “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. He writes that in North America about half of the African Americans subjected to an Implicit Association test (IAT) “have stronger associations with whites than with blacks”! This result can be “utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values”. I encourage you to take such a test at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/southafrica/ to see for yourself.

    It is important to realize that your environment plays an important part in your racial attitudes. The same holds for gender equality. Gladwell also writes on how orchestras have obtained an equal gender distribution. Not by “affirmative action” type activities but by “blind” auditions. In this way decisions were made on merit without creating resentment of one group to another.

  10. Hugh Robinson Hugh Robinson 22 June 2009

    Oh what sanctimonious clap trap. If you are guilty of your actions and beliefs then so be it.

    On one side many who are called racists are in fact realists who look at the hard facts then take a stand.

    On the other there are those who will until their dying day feel absolute guilt and make excuses for those same facts.

    Does the President invite me to supper, not surprisingly nor does Nikki Oppenheimer? In your eyes because there are those do not wish to associate with another Black or white these are racists. There will always class rule as there will always be a scramble to be within the inner circle.

    Our maid’s husband has near horsewhipped their daughter for wanting to marry a white. As he says, oil and water should not be forced to mix and his daughter should not sally her heritage or forefathers. Is he too a racist?

    When questioned closer his alternative reason was that the white male has no real future in SA. That whites are being tolerated and if things continue the way they are White males and females will be systematically removed from the work place. Now that not a true realist.

  11. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 22 June 2009

    David

    You are trying to paper over the cracks.

    Expose the problems to the open air first, or the wounds will never heal.

    And the racial conflict in SA lasted from 1948 to 1994 (if you don’t re-write history).

    The religious conflict in Ireland which had no racial element lasted 260 years.

    Racial conflicts are much easier to solve than religious ones.

  12. ThaboM ThaboM 22 June 2009

    @Lara Johnstone, perhaps your belief in your self-honesty masks that you are not a pleasant person to deal with.
    In South Africa, in a black-white situation it would be misintepreted as racism, when the actual problem was perhaps rudeness. Actually I am sure it is rudeness (based on the start of your comment) they were responding to. That may not be a national crisis but maybe do some self-introspection.

  13. Leon Leon 23 June 2009

    @ Lara:
    Eish, Lara, eish! and for good measure, ouch!
    But then again, I’ve just found myself, having read your diatribe, having to practice what I’d just preached. So, well done. You called me out. And having examined the gamut of reactions to what you had written, my ultimate reaction is: what I said yesterday is my story and I’m sticking to it.

  14. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 23 June 2009

    What is it other than racism when David berates Jews, in another article, that marry outside their own group?
    What is it other than racism the way that Palestinians were driven from Israel or the way Israel treats its neighbors? One would have expected more compassion from one Semite nation to another Semite nation – much more than one could expect between the divergent groups that makes up South Africa.
    If an Afrikaner or any other group would do the same, the labels of racist or worse will be soon be applied. Or is it a matter of “Do as I, a member of God’s Chosen People, preach but not practice.”

  15. Andrew Andrew 23 June 2009

    mmm…This blog reminds me of a experience I had in home affairs a few months ago. There was something wrong with the home affairs fingerprint recognition system so I kicked up a slight fuss. The official reacted by saying that everyone is facing the same problem, and not just me, the implication being that just because I am white I should not expect better service. To me this is totally unacceptable and has nothing to do with race. Bad service is bad service, no matter which racial group is bearing the brunt of it.

  16. Lara Johnstone Lara Johnstone 23 June 2009

    ThaboM,

    I have never stated I am a pleasant person. Being ‘pleasant’ is not my life purpose; being honest, is far more accurate. When I am pleasant it is sincere, it is what I really sincerely feel. I do not fake being pleasant, I am not a two-faced hypocritical sycophant; not even in a court of law. I only have one belief, and it is not the one you think I have.

    I prefer honesty (even if someone else would interpret it as rude); if you prefer politeness, even if it is fake, and two-faced. That is your choice.

    As for introspection; I am not the one hiding behind ThaboM! What I had to say to Thabo Mbeki, I said to him in writing for his attention!

  17. Lara Johnstone Lara Johnstone 23 June 2009

    Leon:

    Your comment is unclear, if you could clarify it, I’d be happy to give you my honest response.

  18. Amy Amy 23 June 2009

    Malcom Gladwell has a book called Blink which deals with unconscious associations the mind often makes. The conclusion at the end of one of his chapters and theories about unconscious associations, he states: “if you are a white person who would like to treat black people as equals in every way, who would like to have a set of associations with blacks that are as positive as those you have with whites, it requires more than a simple commitment to equality. It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture, so that when you want to meet, hire, date or talk with a member of a minority, you aren’t betrayed by your hesitation and discomfort’. How true.

  19. Richard Records Richard Records 23 June 2009

    An interesting piece thank you, but I think there are very few whites that really want to look at themselves and admit that their history has given them an advantage over others. But as whites we need to acknowledge that we have had an advantage even if we carved this out for ourselves.
    There is one aspect that the piece does not touch on though and that is that the foundation of racism seems to be the belief that a group has somehow been or become the chosen ones. The missionaries who came to Africa with the colonalisation project firmly believed that they were the chosen ones and the indigenous peoples where not (is that not the origin of the dreaded K word). So my argument is that because white was considered pure and chosen, they viewed indigenous peoples as sub human. I think that many of the world’s religions have that attitude which fosters racist and racial thinking.

  20. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 23 June 2009

    David Saks

    You are hysterically funny.

    When the white settlers and Rhodes were stealing Matabele land from Lobengula, he sent his people and missionaries to Queen Victoria to stop the whites taking his land.

    Fred Selous, a Victorian hero, spoke against him, because he was close to the Shona.Otherwise it might have worked.

    When Lobengula wanted slaves he raided a Shona village, killed the men and took the women and children and cattle.

    Lobengula killed his ambassaddors and all their family for not being successful with Queen Victoria.

    tribalism = xenophobia (proper name neo-racism) = racism.

  21. ThaboM ThaboM 23 June 2009

    @Lisa
    My surname is Monare. All you had to do was ask. .
    I would suggest that you confuse aggressiveness with honesty. The negative feedback you receive merely seems to convince you further of your forthrightness instead of letting you know that you are really just angry.
    I am certain that Thabo Mbeki personally read your letter and now knows and cares exactly what one Lara Johnstone thinks of him. lol.

  22. Tlanch Tau Tlanch Tau 23 June 2009

    Nice article and unfortunately there will always be racism in South Africa because of the superior attitude of whites.

    A lot of them are unfortunately racist subconsciously so and they are not even aware of it. We work with them in the corporate world and I have come to a point of knowing immediately when I meet a person whether they are racist and prejudiced. I meet a person and within seconds I can tell whether they are racist or not, and that is not based on their mood or anything like that. The moment a person starts saying “I am not racist, but…, then I automatically write them off as I know what is to follow is either racist or prejudiced.

    Then you get people like Lara Johnson and Lyndall Beddy who claim that they are not racist but honest yet their attitude towards blacks just tell you all. I have been reading thought leader from the time we left Blogmark and Amagama and I have never for once seen a positive comment towards blacks by Lyndall Beddy. Now I call that racism and prejudice unfortunately.

    When I talk about stats I talk about stuff that I encounter on a daily basis and unfortunately I can safely say that at least 70%+ of white South African are either racist or prejudiced towards black South Africans. They just tolerate us for business purposes.

  23. Mlungisi Mlungisi 24 June 2009

    Racism? what racism? we live in a rainbow nation, you who talk about it are the ones who are still racist. we don’t want to talk about it because we are not racist.

  24. ian ian 24 June 2009

    tell us more Tlanch – that within seconds you can tell the whites are racist? is it only when they open their mouths to say ‘i am not a racist’? what happens if they don’t open their mouths? can you still tell? do racists smell different? do they look different? or perhaps is it your prejudice that makes them all racist?

  25. Lara Johnstone Lara Johnstone 24 June 2009

    Thabo, who is Lisa? Hanging on the wall in the Louvre? Monare, sort of like I am Zhivago?

    Confuse aggressiveness with honesty: considered the rape staticists in South Africa, yet? Negative feedback? Galileo, should have accepted the negative feedback and conformed?

    Actually, President Mbeki did read what I had sent him, unless you think his Spokesperson Mr. Khumalo was lying. I do not think he was lying. I do not call anyone a liar, whatever their colour or ethnicity, unless I have some circumstantial or evidentiary proof, thereof. I never said TMbeki agreed, nor he cared.

    The only black people who think I am a racist; (there are quite a few blacks who do NOT think I am, my former husband one of them), are the one’s who prefer to keep the information of Dr.Horowitz and Dr. Boyd Graves, et al, regarding the Iatrogenic Origins of AIDS from the black masses; who prefer to keep the black masses ignorant, and enslaved to their slave and cannon fodder breeding patriarchal African hateful procreation breding culture.

    So I dont bother myself with accusations of ‘racism’ from blacks who deny their own black poor information about the iatrogenic origins of AIDS, and the motives for its creation; I spent time in prison to inform them of, thereof.

    And you wonder why some white people look at African black culture, and wonder if it cognitively understands ‘honour’? Do your homework, Mr. ‘Monare’!

  26. Lara Johnstone Lara Johnstone 24 June 2009

    Tlanch Tau,

    Only whites can be subsconsciously racist, right? Not blacks?

    I have never denied being ‘racist’, depending on how you define ‘racist’. Because there are many things i am superior at, than other people; and I do not see why I need to deny that, just so they can pretend they are equal. Where I am inferior in any matter, I do not expect the person who is superior in that field, to consider me an equal.

    Being inferior, does not bother me; my ego is not so senstive, that I need to be a victim to that sense of inferiority my whole life. To the contrary, I consider detailed and clear and concise honesty about how I am inferior, in any aspect, helpful, for me to work on those issues, so that one day I can, with enough hard work, be really equal.

    Do yourself a favour and inform Mr. Demian Emile Johnson [S.Times][You], how you made a fully informed impartial enquiry (including the evidence thereofre), and concluded his former wife is a racist!

  27. Mlungisi Mlungisi 24 June 2009

    Question to all of you. Does a racist person ever admit or do they ever admit that they are racist? if you can answer this question Ian i think you will have got your answer. personally,i believe there is a hell of a lot of denial out there from the different races particularly from my white country mates about there still prevalent racist attitude in this country which i as a young black man is confronted with day after day where ever i go.

  28. Mlungisi Mlungisi 24 June 2009

    Ok, before we go any further, Laura im very disappointed with your comments not only are they insulting to my black culture but to the race as a whole.
    let us be mind full of the fact that because i am black it does not make you more intelligent than me or me a less intelligent being than you are. So your above statement is really uncalled for and out of line.

  29. ian ian 24 June 2009

    Mlungisi
    I am sure they do, but if a non racist doesnt’ admit to being a racist does that make him a racist? or if a racist admits to being a racist does that make her a non racist?
    Although my question to Tlanch still stands on how he can tell within seconds that a person is racist, in his case – white = racist. Which is itself a little on the prejudiced side eh?
    Also, how does one define the racism that a young man such as yourself encounters in SA every day? In a country in the grip of crime and xenophobia doesn’t everyone look a little suspiciously at everyone else? Does that then get taken as a prevalent attitude of racism?

  30. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 24 June 2009

    Tlanchu tau

    Can you quote me on a positive statement about white history?

    Richard

    My ancestors were missionaries. They were from well off families. If you think they abandoned all the comforts of home with proper medical care, education, support structures etc to live in the bush for money you nead your head read.

    Actually they even turned down free farms when offered them.

  31. anton kleinschmidt anton kleinschmidt 24 June 2009

    To all of you

    This is becoming profoundly tedious because we are all racist to some extent. No exceptions.

    MOST perceptions of racism are directly correlated to the fragility of the perceivers ego. Do try and deal with the reality that there are people out there who do not like you or your group, and then get on with your life and stop snivelling.

  32. Tlanch Tau Tlanch Tau 24 June 2009

    @ian on June 24th, 2009 at 11:23 am
    You ask do racists smell different? No they don’t smell different they just act in a racist manner.
    To answer your question Ian I will ask that you go and re-read my first comment and you will understand that I didn’t generalize about whites being racist. I mentioned that those that I come across that are racist I just write them off and deal with them accordingly. Actually you I need not answer your question, you will just have to go and re-read my previous comment and you will understand.
    @Lara- Re:only whites can be subconsciously racist.
    A whole lot of black South African are more than willing to work together towards healing and moving forward in this country and yes there are those who are so hurt that they can’t even see right from wrong, bottom line is “Majority of blacks are not racist and majority of whites are racist.”

    @Lyndall Beddy
    Say what? Please go and read all your comments on Thought Leader and you will know that most of them are racist and prejudiced but yes as always you will say they are all telling the truth etc. And may I add that you have a way of re-writing history to suite your arguments.

  33. Lara Johnstone Lara Johnstone 24 June 2009

    Mlungisi,

    Which exact statement was “insulting to [your] black culture [and] to the race as a whole.”

    As far as I am concerned your colour has nothign to do with your intelligence. You may think it does, I do not. I evaluate your intelligence by how you listen, and how impartially you enquire, and how fully informed your deicison making is.

    So clarify for me your thinking and decision making; by answering in clear detail, which exact statement i made that was “insulting to [your] black culture [and] to the race as a whole.”

  34. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 24 June 2009

    Jesse Jackson, icon of Black Consciousness said that when he walks in a dark street and hear footsteps behind him, he is relieved when it is a white person.
    Is Jesse a racist or is he extrapolating from previous encounters in the dark?
    Is “Black Consciousness” not in itself a form of exclusivity? Racism?

    We are, whether we like it or not, representatives of the group(s) that we belong to. If a farmer mistreats a worker, all farmers gets tarnished with the same brush. The same goes for Afrikaners, Indians and even Blacks. The only way to break this negative cycle is to be aware of how your actions reflects on the group that you belong to. Through time, people’s perceptions do change.

  35. The reason that society is incapable of addressing the racial issue is because we view it from the wrong perspective. We talk all around the fundamental, underlying reasons for racism, and make it an emotional issue. How does one expect to cure the cancer without focusing on the cancerous cells? Focusing on the symptoms is an ineffective mechanism to employ. Consider this: http://www.tinyurl.com/aq4cdb

  36. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 24 June 2009

    Consider the following.

    About 10% of America is black. The majority is white. So the whites voted in Obama.

    How likely would it be in SA for the blacks to vote in Helen Zille, even if she is more competant and more honest?

    So who is the racist?

  37. Mlungisi Mlungisi 25 June 2009

    Well first, Ian regardless of the fact that this country is in a grip of crime , xenophobia and the sort, we should not try to conflict issues even where there is a clear distinction. We all know crime is crime, racism is racism etc. why do I say that, it is because if you look at the crime statistics in this country its not only white people who bare the brunt of crime and visa versa it is the entire society, however when we speak of racism, we speak of the mentality that still elevates certain races in society be it white or black over the other.

    Having been through the experience as a country of xenophobic attacks that does not make people look suspect, same applies with crime just because a young black man walks into a shop in a mall in the northern suburbs, that does not mean he should be followed around by security guards because he looks suspect, however with racism we are talking about a mentality instilled into people and perpetuated from all platform that because the other is different from you therefore you are of a superior make than him. It’s a mentality we are talking about here and it more often than not manifests itself into action.

  38. Tlanch Tau Tlanch Tau 25 June 2009

    @Lyndall Beddy on June 24th, 2009 at 9:12 pm
    No why should we vote for Hellen Zille? Rather why don’t you say why can’t the ANC take Kortbroeak(forgot his name) or any of white people in the ANC and make them a president and see if we will vote for them and the answer will be yes. Take Hellen Zille and get her to join the ANC and I will vote for her anytime. I guess what I am trying to say is we vote for Policy and not colour. Get that in your head once and for all. Your argument is tired now. Reality is Black South African’s are not racist, yes there might be 1 or 2 out of 10 but not like 9 out of 10 white South Africans.

    Go ask COPE, they are a victim of white people’s moral support. They gave COPE moral support and went to vote for their parties, because they are trying to use Divide and Destroy on the ANC.

  39. Tlanch Tau Tlanch Tau 25 June 2009

    @Mlungisi on June 25th, 2009 at 7:11 am
    I believe you are wasting your time with these people, they know what the core of the problem is and they will do whatever it takes to avoid addressing the real issue about this post in the first place.

  40. ian ian 25 June 2009

    Tlanch:
    “there will always be racism in South Africa because of the superior attitude of whites” – that’s a generalisation right there
    “A lot of them are unfortunately racist subconsciously” #2
    “I can safely say that at least 70%+ of white South African are either racist or prejudiced” #3

    Mlungisi
    I may have clouded the issue there with crime and xenophobia. Unless its overt (racial slurs, attacks, security guard following you in the northern burbs mall etc) where its easy to classify, it could be hard to claim its prevalent – i.e. non overt racism (i.e. that what you perceive to be racism) might be due to entirely different reasons? E.g. you are walking down the street, I come round the corner and am walking down the same side of the street towards you. I cross over and carry on walking. It could because I am a racist. Or could be that I’m used to big city living and avoidance of confrontation so colour is totally irrelevant. Is the person walking towards you mad, drunk, spoiling for a fight? Is it worthwhile finding out or just removing the possibility altogether. Guess my point (which I’m not sure I made very well) is that you can’t know what the other persons thought process is, and given SA’s past its probably to easy to simplify a multitude of perceptions into that of racism.

  41. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 25 June 2009

    Tlanch Tau

    Why should Helen Zille join the ANC? A small elite group who spent the apartheid days in exile as spoilt pets of the sympathetic west, and then came back to claim the country when the war was over?

    There were so few of them with such a small gene pool that our minister of justice was married to our minister of safety and security, and our deputy president the ex-husband of the minister of foreign affairs.

    Where else in the world? Pathetic!

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