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Tales from Dystopia XVII: Ethnic cleansing and Christian objections to it

23 April 2014

Fifty years ago today, on St George’s Day, 1964, Christian students at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg arranged a protest meeting against “blackspot removals”. “Blackspots” were black marks on the apartheid map showing land owned by black people in areas designated by the government for occupation by whites, and the government was dedicated to their removal by expropriating the land from the owners. Most of the occupiers of that land were peasant farmers.

The fate of black peasant farmers was not of particular interest to the overwhelmingly white student body at the university, though in that year there was also a student protest against the Bantu Laws Amendment Bill, which would make life for black people generally much more difficult. A few Christian students were aware of the ethnic cleansing that was taking place in the blackspot removals, and thought that it was a matter of Christian concern, if not of general student concern, and so organised a protest meeting.

Here is an extract from my diary for that day:

I composed a letter to the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development, about the theological objections to apartheid in general and blackspot removals in particular. I took it to Rob Hofmeyr, who agreed with it, and after lunch took it to Fr Sweet, who said it was “sound”.

John Aitchison came to see me, and we both went to see Ken Lemmon-Warde, who said he was not coming to the Ansoc meeting tonight, but was going to Durban to hear the gospel — from an evangelist called Eric Hutchings. The implication was that we didn’t have the gospel. Later he told us, when we had challenged him on that, that we had the bull by the hair on the middle of its belly, and not by its horns — whatever that means. He also said that the devil was climbing into us. John asked him if, as a Christian, he thought it was a good thing — blackspot removals, that is, and pointed out some of the advantages Ken said they had — like typhoid. Ken said it might be a good thing if they all died of typhoid, since they were all heathen anyway. We pointed out that the majority were probably Christian, and that even among the heathen, and those who did not believe in him, our Lord healed sickness.

In the evening we had the meeting — about 50 people came. Not many Christians — it probably wasn’t “spiritual” enough for them. Peta Conradie, Bridget Bailey, John Aitchison and Richard Thatcher were there from Ansoc. Mike and Wally sent their apologies. Ken Lemmon-Warde had gone to hear “the gospel” — according to St Eric. Peter Brown gave the facts about blackspot removals — a rough estimate of the number of people who would be affected, cases in which compensation was inadequate. In some cases owners had probably been paid less than half the value of their property. In Kumalosville land was expropriated and compensation was offered at R42.00 an acre. In exchange they were offered a free half-acre at Hobsland, with the option of buying another half acre for R110.00.

“The leaders of Judah have become like common land-thieves. I will vent my wrath on them like a flood. Ephraim is in agony and crushed in judgment, because his mind was bent on following false gods. That is why I am the moth which rots the fabric of Ephraim, I am the dry rot which ruins the house of Judah.”

Calvin Cook, the minister from the Presbyterian Church, spoke, giving theological reasons why we should oppose the removals. Then we voted on a resolution to be sent to the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development. About 45 were in favour of it and four were against, one of whom, Pat Erwin, stayed to argue afterwards.

The objections raised by some Christians to the holding of such a meeting, namely that it was secular and political rather than “spiritual” or “evangelical” was typical of the response of some white Christians to apartheid — that we should not be concerned about it, but rather be concerned with “the gospel”, which they defined rather narrowly.

The objection that those being removed were all heathen was typical of white ignorance at the time (I won’t say anything more about the callousness of the remark that it would be a good thing if they all died of typhoid).

John Lambert and other historians have since made a study of the black peasants who were the main victims of ethnic cleansing in Natal in the 1960s and 1970s, and has shown that they were mostly a group they called “the kholwa” (from Zulu amakholwa, “believers”). This group arose because life was uncomfortable for Christian believers under the Zulu monarchs and African chiefs, so they bought land that white colonists in Natal had appropriated, and settled there as peasant farmers and, in the 19th century, as transport riders.

Lambert has shown that they were much more efficient farmers whan most whites, and that much of the fresh produce sold in cities like Durban and Pietermaritzburg, especially milk and vegetables, was produced by the kholwa. Immigrant white farmers could not compete in efficiency, and so in the late colonial period in Natal tried to induce the colonial government to introduce laws that would favour them and discriminate against black farmers. This process is detailed in Lambert’s thesis (see reference below).

ApartheidPosterIt is estimated that in the apartheid era some 3-4 million people (most of them black) were ethnically cleansed to clean up the apartheid map, and the kholwa of Natal were among the main victims of this process.

This now has repercussions today, in the talk of land restitution.

The National Party government made enormous profits by expropriating land from black people with inadequate compensation and selling it to white people at much higher prices. Now there are moves to restore the land that was taken, but it brings new difficulties with it, because the people from whom the land was taken are long dead, and so the compensation will be given to their descendants. But just because your grandfather was a good and efficient farmer does not mean that you will be, and in many cases where the land has been returned, the descendants of the dispossessed owners resort to “people farming” becoming absentee landlords letting the land to landless people who work in the cities, and the land is not farmed.

I do not know what the solution to this problem is, but this is just one of the ways in which apartheid, though it officially died 20 years ago, still exercises a malign influence in the present as its chickens come home to roost.

This post is one of a series of Tales from Dystopia, describing what life was like in the apartheid era in South Africa.

Notes and References

Etherington, N.A. 1971. The rise of the kholwa in Southeast Africa. Yale University: Ph.D. thesis.

Hayes, Stephen. Was material self-interest more important than religious conviction to the Kholwa. Available online here.

Lambert, John. Africans in Natal, 1880-1899 : continuity, change and crisis in a rural society. (1986, Unpublished PhD thesis).


Centenary of St Alphege’s Church, Pietermaritzburg

19 April 2014

Today is the centenary of St Alphege’s Anglican Church in Scottsville, Pietermaritzburg. On 19 April, 1914, a little wood and iron church was dedicated to St Alphege, a former Archbishop of Canterbury.

I wasn’t around 100 years ago, but I was at St Alphege’s 50 years ago, when the parish was celebrating its 50th anniversary. I was a student at what was then the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, UKZN) and the university campus was in the parish, so St Alphege’s was the church attended by most Anglican students.

Revd Mervyn Sweet, Vicar of St Alphege's in 1964.

Revd Mervyn Sweet, Vicar of St Alphege’s in 1964.

When I went to the university in 1963 the vicar was the Revd Mervyn Sweet, and there were two assistant priests, Graham Povall and Richard Kraft (who later became Bishop of Pretoria). St Alphege’s was a very lively and active parish in those days. At a parish mission held in 1963 John Davies, the Anglican chaplain at Wits University, taught about the ideas of the oparish meeting and house churches, which were adopted by the parish, helped to build the sense of community in the parish.

At the end of 1963 Richard Kraft left to go to St Chad’s in the Ladysmith distict.

The old wood-and-iron church was still used as a hall, and the new brick church had been completed 9 years previously in 1955, but the parish was growing rapidly, and more housing was being built in the area, so there was much discussion about finding a new piece of land and building a new church. The parish councilo produced a map showing where parishioners lived, and they were negotiating to buy a more central site. The main one of interest is now occupied by the Ridge School (one parish councillor declared a conflict of interest — he worked for the education department and said they also had an eye on the site). In the end nothing came of the plans, and eventually a new church was built on the old site.

In 1964 the main Sunday Eucharist was at 7:00 am, and was Sung. There was another one at 8:30, said, though with hymns, attended by people who liked to sleep late. There was Evensong in Zulu at 3:00 pm, and in English at 7:00 pm

There was some dissatisfaction in the parish when the 1964 diocesan synod of the Anglican Diocese of Natal decided to change the title of the incumbents of parishes from “vicar” to “rector”, and at the same time decided to hive off the Zulu-speaking members and make them an “outstation” of St Mark’s Church in downtown Pietermaritzburg. This, in the view of St Alphege’s parish council, was creating an ecclesiastical Bantustan.

St Alphege's Church, Scottsville, Pietermaritzburtg, 1964. The original wood-and-iron church, then used as a hall, can be seen on the left.

St Alphege’s Church, Scottsville, Pietermaritzburtg, 1964. The original wood-and-iron church, then used as a hall, can be seen on the left.

One of the things that St Alphege’s was known for in 1964 was its parish policy on baptism. There were no private baptisms arranged secretly with the priest. Most baptisms took place at the Sunday Eucharist, where everyone could see who was being received into the church and welcome them.

St Alphege's Church, October 1964 (the jacarandas were blooming)

St Alphege’s Church, October 1964 (the jacarandas were blooming)

On this day 50 years ago, I was admitted as a parish councillor — the parish had decided at the annual vestry meeting, that there should be a student representative on tnhey parish  council, and for that year, I was it.

St Alphege's Church, Pietermaritzburg, 1964. The congregation were leaving after a confirmation service, and some of the candidates are in the front row.

St Alphege’s Church, Pietermaritzburg, 1964. The congregation were leaving after a confirmation service, and some of the candidates are in the front row.

Several of the other parish councillors were associated with the university as lecturers, and Roger Raab and Tony Eagle of the Physics Department were particularly active in the parish.

Interior of St Alphege's Church in the 1960s

Interior of St Alphege’s Church in the 1960s

I don’t know if St Alphege’s parish are doing anything to celebrate their centenary this year, but if they are, my greetings to them on St Alphege’s day.

The 1960s were troubled times in South Africa, as apartheid was being applied more rigidly, and civil liberties were in decline.

St Alphege also lived in troubled times. England was being raided by Danish freebooters, and St Alphege was captured by them, and mocked, and eventually beaten to death with the bones of the cattle stolen from his flock.  Some martyrs were stoned to death, St Alphege was boned to death.

I have seen his tomb in Canterbury cathedral in Enbland, and it has the inscription, “He who dies for truth and justice dies for Christ.” I good nthing to remember in South Africa of the 1960s.

Kitchen Boy: authentic book, phony funeral

8 April 2014

Kitchen BoyKitchen Boy by Jenny Hobbs

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

J.J. Kitching (known as “Kitchen Boy”) is a war hero, and a famous Springbok rugby player, so when he dies at the age of 81, his funeral is a significant occasion. The action of the story takes place in the lead-up to his death and the funeral itself, and the memories of him that are prompted in the minds of his family, friends, and others who knew him.

In his final illness he shares some of his war-time memories with his grandson, Sam. Different people come to his funeral, and even his close family are sometimes surprised at the range of his contacts and acquaintances, from the homeless philosopher who lived in a culvert, to the teetotaller manager of a hotel chain who was a customer of the brewery where he worked until he retired.

I’d read a couple of other books by Jenny Hobbs before, and bought this one becazuse I was impressed by them, and their authenticity to place and time. Thoughts in a makeshift mortuary had in some ways a similar theme to this one, the parents of a freedom-fighter who has been killed by the police, as they keep vigil over the body of a child they hardly knew, thoughts prompted by death.

When I began reading this one, I was very impressed at the apparent authenticity. Most of the novels we read in South Africa are published overseas, and are set in far-away places, so one often doesn’t know whether the descriotions are authentic or not.

But this one is set in Durban and Zululand, places where I have lived. The description of World War II soldiers and returning POWs wandering round Durban on arriving home sets the scene amazingly well. The description of Twiggie’s Pie Cart in Market Square in Pietermaritzburg revived memories of 50 years ago.

I recalled my uncle returning from the War. I was four years old and we stood on Salisbury Island and watched the flying boat come in dropping over the harbour entrance, landing on the bay. Many of my friends had fathers who had fought in the war. And we also had several uncles who had fought in the war. It was part of growing up. So the memories of J.J. Kitching, and his friends’ memories of him, were part of my growing up, and also part of the family history we have explored more recently.

My wife Val’s father would never spoeak about his wartime experiences, until one day we pleaded with him to tell us the story of “Shit in Italy”. He was captured at Tobruk and kept in a prison camp in Italy, from which he escaped. I wish we had had a tape recorder to record it, because we have now forgotten many of the details, but like the grandson Sam in the book, we were fascinated by the story.

Most of the memories are stirred and described during the funeral service, but that is where the story falls apart. The rugby players, young and old, are authentic. The ex-servicement, the MOTHs (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) are authentic. The homeless philososopher in the culvert may be stretching things a bit, but is plausible. But then the author has to go and spoil it all by introducing an altogether phony caricature of an Anglican bishop. The bishop is not an incidental character, because the funeral service is the setting for much of the book.

The funeral takes place in our time, no more than five years ago, but just about every detail rings false. I’m not familiar with the current Anglican funeral service, and haven’t been able to find out much since I started reading the book, but if I were writing a book that revolved around a funeral service, I’d do a lot more research than Jenny Hobbs appears to have done. The words of the service swing from Elizabethan to modern English. I once knew an Anglican bishop of Natal who might have entertained ambitious thoughts like the fictional bishop in the book, but he retired forty (40) years ago, and what we are presented with is a caricature from the 1950s, or even the 1920s, in a story set in about 2010. It’s OK to have a fictitious cathedral in a real city for the sake of the story. But it’s a pity that when there seems to have been so much research into some of the historical details (like the diets of prisoners in German POW camps), there has been so little into the hub that the story revolves around. Anglican bishops in South Africa are never referred to as “His Grace”, for one thing, and and there are numeous other bogus details.

Forty years ago I was present at quite a number of Anglican funerals in Durban, and even back then they were none of them like this. Sometimes they were pathetic — five MOTHs bidding farewell to a dead comrade, asking to play the Last Post, and one of them pulling out a tinny little portable tape recorder to play it. But nothing as phony as the one in this book. More recently, in about the same time frame as that of the book, I attended the civic funeral in Pretoria of Nico Smith, which had all sorts of military and civic dignitaries present and speaking. It wasn’t Anglican, but it gives and idea of how such things are done.

When I began reading the book, I thought I’d give it four or five stars, but the more I read, the more the rating dropped.

View all my reviews

Farewell to Father Pantelejmon

31 March 2014

Yesterday we went to the monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit for a farewell party for Father Pantelejmon (Jovanovic), who was leaving South Africa after serving for 11 years as the Rector of the Church of St Thomas the Apostle in Sunninghill Park in northern Johannesburg.

I first met Fr Pantelejmon when I went to Vespers at St Thomas’s on 15 March 2003, soon after he had arrived in the parish. We occasionally went there for Vespers as it was for a long time the closest parish to where we live that has Saturday-evening Vespers, but it was usually poorly attended, often only by the priest and his wife. This time there were 10 people present, and Fr Pantelejmon, a young priest, was encouraging the people to sing.

Fr Elias, Fr Pantelejmon & Deacon Stephen at the farewell party for Father Pantelejmon at the Descent of the Holy Spirit monastery in Gerardville

Fr Elias, Fr Pantelejmon & Deacon Stephen at the farewell party for Father Pantelejmon at the Descent of the Holy Spirit monastery in Gerardville

About 10 days later I visited the church again. I was taking an overseas visitor to the bishop’s office in Johannesburg, and took him past some of the other churches to show him the variety of parishes in our diocese — the Greek parish of the Annunciation in Pretoria, the Russian parish of St Sergius in Midrand, and the Serbian parish of St Thomas in Sunninghill. We arrived at St Thomas’s as they were about to start a Requiem Service for those who had been killed in the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia four years previously, and Fr Pantelejmon invited us to stay for it. There were only three other people there, all members of an immigrant family recently arrived from Serbia, who told us afterwards that Fr Pantelejmon had been in a monastery since he was 22, close to God, and was having a rather difficult time with the very secularised Serbian community in Johannesburg. Fr Pantelejmon asked me to write some articles on mission for his parish magazine, which I later did.

Father Pantelejmon produced the best parish magazine in the diocese, in Serbian and English, lavishly illustrated, with news of the church, and teaching, and it was in itself an instrument of mission and evangelism. Through this and other means he built up a core of spiritual people in the parish, who took their Christian faith seriousdly. He encouraged them to take an interest in mission too. Unlike some clergy, who simply stick to their parishes, he always tried to attend diocesan clergy meetings, and tried to visit other parishes.

Fr Pantelejmon with members of the parish of St Thomas's in Sunninghill who came to say goodbye to him at the monastery at Gerardville

Fr Pantelejmon with members of the parish of St Thomas’s in Sunninghill who came to say goodbye to him at the monastery at Gerardville

When, in 2004, as a result of the funeral of Fr Simon Thamaga, a group of people in Tembisa expressed an interest in Orthodoxy, and with the blessing of the then Archbishop Seraphim we began holding services there and in nearby Klipfontein View, Fr Pantelejmon, as the priest of the nearest parish church to Tembisa, was very supportive, and the first group of people from there were baptised at St Thomas’s, with parishioners of St Thomas’s as their godparents.

Sometimes Fr Pantelejmon was joined by other monks from Serbia, which almost turned St Thomas’s Rectory into a skete, and when there were two priests it was easier for one of them to become involved in mission outreach, and so they helped, especially in Tembisa and Mamelodi.

Fr Pantelejmon and Fr Spiridon spoke at a gathering on youth day in 2006, telling the young people how they had had a monastic vocation after growing up in an atheistic communist society. And in December 2006 Fr Naum, another monk, spoke at a diocesan youth conference, with Fr Pantelejmon translating. I rather hoped that this might encourage some of the young people to consider monastic vocations themselves, but that hasn’t happened yet. There have been several attempts to start monasteries in South Africa, but as soon as one monk comes, and is joined by another, the first one leaves, or dies, or is ordained and sent to be a parish priest somewhere, and the whole thing fizzles out.

Over the years we got to know Fr Pantelejmon quite well, and St Thomas’s became a kind of second home for us. Because it was between Johannesburg and Pretoria, it was a good central meeting place to plan activities such as the youth conference, or mission out reach in various places.

Exery year in October, at their patronal festival, a visting bishop came from Serbia, and all clergy and parishes in the diocese were invited to join in. The local Archbishop was usually present, and there was often some special teaching from the visiting bishop.

Our family had adopted the Serbian custom of Slava, which we thought especially suitable for Africa, and Fr Pantelejmon sometimes came to our Slava, and helped us to make sure we did it the right way. One especially memorable one was in 2009, when it fell at a weekend, and we had it at St Nicholas Church, Brixton, after Vespers. You can read about it (and see pictures) here: Vespers and Slava.

Ather Pantelejmon also arranged for a mission society in Serbia to undertake the printing of Reader’s Service books in Zulu and English, an enormously useful resource for our mission congregations.

Now Father Pantelejmon has been recalled by the Patriarch of Serbia, and yesterday quite a large crowd from his old parish of St Thomas’sm turned out for a farewell party for him after the Divine Liturgy at the Monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Gerardville, west of Pretoria. It was quite impressive, because these are some of the people whose lives he has touched in his 11 years in South Africa, and who have become more spiritual as a result, so his 11 years have certainly not been wasted.

Farewell party for Father Pantelejmon

He does not know what will happen to him next, and will have to wait till he hears from the Patriarch of Belgrade about that. Perhaps he will return to his home monastery at Black River and spend some time there, and perhaps that is good for a monk who has spent a long time as a parish priest. But I have a niggling hope that he will get a blessing to return to South Africa, not as a parish priest, but as a monk, and that he will get a blessing from our bishop to bring four or five other monks with him, in the hope that they can reach critical mass, and that Orthodox monasticism will take off and grow in Southern Africa. In 11 years Father Pantelejmon has learnt quite a bit about South African life and culture, and that could make it easier for other monks from elsewhere to settle in.



Good Story, Bad Story

21 March 2014

The ANC have kicked off their election campaign by saying that they have a good story to tell. And in many ways they do. When I compare South Africa today with South Africa 30 years ago, I would far rather live in the South Africa of today than be back under the rule of P.W. Botha’s securocrats. That is a good story, and it is a story worth telling.

But when we come to voting for the people who will represent us in parliament and provincial councils, we are not thinking about what happened 30 years ago, but rather what will be happening in the next five years.

Sharpeville 1960

Sharpeville 1960

Yes, much that was broken has been fixed, but there is also much that was broken that is still broken, and on this Human Rights Day, when we recall the Sharpeville Massacre, and recall the Marikana Massacre of a couple of years ago, we can see that there is also a bad story, a story of broken promises, of failures in transformation.

There are things that still nneed to be fixed, as this article makes clear: Fish rot from the head | openDemocracy:

Torture is routine practice in South Africa’s police stations and prisons. A lineage of impunity, traced from apartheid, has meant de facto immunity for perpetrators. With South Africa celebrating its ‘Human Rights Day’ this weekend, the shocking reality behind its prison walls must be a central focus.

Much the “good story” took place in the first few years after the advent of our democracy in 1994, but there hasn’t been much since 2004. Most of the people who made the good story happen are retired or dead.

Marikana 2012

Marikana 2012

Twenty-five years ago I was working at the University of South Africa (Unisa), and the university was a microcosm of South Africa. The things that were most wrong with the country were also the things that were most wrong with the university. The three departments in the country that were worst were policing, health and education. And the worst courses in the university were Police Science, Nursing Science and those produced by the Education Faculty. But even after 1994, there was little effort to transform them.

At that point what was needed was a massive effort to train new teachers in new ways, and to retrain old ones. New policemen needed to be trained with different models of policing, to fit the vision of a new South Africa. But this did not happen. The old culture was perpetuated, with the results that we see today.

The trustworthiness of the news media

13 March 2014

Is it just that I’m getting more cynical in my old age, or are the news media really a lot worse than they used to be?

There has recently been a lot of unrest in Ukraine, but trying to understand what has been happening there from media reports has been very difficult, because of the flagrant bias in reporting. I’ve been mainly relying on Al Jazeera for news from there, on the basis that since they don’t appear to have a dog in that fight, their reporting is likely to be less biased and more objective. The Russian and Ukrainian news media are full of mutual recriminations on this score. The Western media seem to give most prominence to the pronouncements of Western politicians on what is happening in Ukraine, and most of what they are saying is uttering threats against Russia. The Russian media speak rather simplistically of a putch by ultra-nationalist groups in Kiev.

You want to know what is happening in Ukraine, and all you see on the Western TV news is John Kerry or William Hague uttering threats against Russia. You watch Russian TV, and they are saying that what is happening in Ukraine is a fascist putsch, which is simplistic, but at least they are talking about Ukraine.

In addition, Al Jazeera has reported on similar protests in Thailand and Venezuela, which the Western media have largely ignored.

In most of the media there seem to be more factoids than facts. I found a link to this article

The Russian media tend to take the line that protests in Kiev were orchestrated by ultra-nationalists and fascists. The Western media contrive to give the impression that protests in eastern Ukrainian cities and Crimea are orchestrated by Stalinist revanchists.

If one believes the Western media, the principle that demonstrators in the streets of one city decide the government of a country seems to be established as “democracy”, but why, then, are demonstrators in the streets of another city who dissent from that decision descibed as “separatists”? Ukraine1

All this seems to demonstrate yet again that Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis is right.

According to the “clash of civilizations” thesis, the fuure of Ukraine will be decided in Washington, Brussels or Moscow.The demonstrators on the streets of Kiev are puppets whose strings are puklled in Washington. The demonstrators on the streets of Sevastopol are puppets whose strings are pulled in Moscow, and much of the media reporting I have seen seems to bear this out.

Back home in South Africa we have the media circus surrounding the trial of Oscar Pistorius. Many have pointed out the similarities with the O.J. Simpson trial in the USA a few years ago, involving a prominent sporting personality. It is the first South African trial to be televised. But then one has to ask why? Why did this trial, more than any others, have to be seen live on television? And the only answer seems to be the the media-created celebrity of killer and victim.

There are good arguments for televising court cases: it is important that justice not only be done, but that it be seen to be done. But choosing this case, rather, than say, the Marikana miners, as the pioneer example, seems to send a different message — that justice will only be seen to be done for the rich and famous, and not for the poor.

And, as in Ukraine, so in the Pistorius case, the media are seen to be not just reporting the news, but making and shaping the news.

On whether Crimea remains part of Ukraine, or joins Russia, or becomes independent, I have no strong opinions. But when the media tell me (as the Western media have) that the break-up of Yugoslavia was good, but the break-up of Ukraine is bad, because politicians on an entirely different continent have decreed it, then I think I’m being lied to.

And when the media demand that the Oscar Pistorius trial be televised, but show no such interest in the Marikana Inquiry, then I think we are being lied to even more.



I was in the middle of writing this post on 4 March when my phone line died, and much of what I was going to write then has been overtaken by events. I’ve posted a somewhat truncated version, because I still suspect that the lies we are being told by the media are getting worse, and journalistic standards are dropping.


Under the weather

13 March 2014

Under the weather

Posting on this blog has been a bit erratic of late, because we are a bit under the weather.


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