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Thoughts About Our Times in South Africa

14 July 2021 - groundWork has always been in solidarity with people at the frontline and fencelines of struggles against environmental injustice and corporate power.  Environmental injustice has been brought about by the power of capital – together with the political elite – seeking to force and use labour and nature to turn a profit.  They have done this by excluding people from democratic decision making, externalising the costs of their pollution onto people and our environments and taken control of public goods and enclosed these. They have done this for profit while also preventing those excluded from this profit seeking system to escape the clutches of capital.  This cannot be denied.

Evidence abounds: from the Guptas, Karpowership and the mines not wanted by community people yet forced upon them, to Sasol given leeway to pollute and harm people’s health because they need profit, and government forcing people to pay for basic services and water, knowing that they do not have the money to pay for it, while spending billions to finance business rescue bailouts for entities looted by them, their comrades, and cronies.

So given this context, how does environmental justice feature in the mayhem and looting in our country? Many commentators have spoken about why we are in this mess. From Abahlali baseMjodolo, South Africa’s leading social movement for people living in shacks, to ex-head of Stats SA, Mr Pali Leholhla on The Watchdog.  They are clear that over the last 27 years, government has ignored the people and the stats highlighting the challenges of the poor and the youth.  Our leaders have failed to deliver. According to New Frame, a not-for-profit, social justice media publication based in Johannesburg, government and the elite also ignored the reality of the growing numbers of unemployed and hungry people. The Zuma incident was therefore the ‘spark to the tinder’, they argue.  But it is important to recognise that ‘the ANC failed to sort out its politics when the Zuma matter was for its members only to resolve,’ as Cyril Madlala reflects upon in The Daily Maverick, and the current crisis is therefore broader than Zuma and has been a long time in the coming.  

groundWork condemns violence in all its forms.  Today we see the destruction of property as well as violence in the form of vigilantism that makes us despair. We believe that the government has failed in its duty to respond to the very many warning signals, as they have sought to instead fight for ‘the prize’ of control within the ANC.  As Marikana was preceded by years of infighting of the unions – who were more worried about ANC politics, as the then general secretary of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi, put it prior to Marikana, the July ’21 events are preceded by a government that cannot govern for they are squabbling over the spoils.

It must also be noted that the mass looting and destruction is not something new; we have witnessed it at all levels of governance: locally, regionally and nationally. And this time it spilled over to another level of society: into the comfort of middle class suburbia.

So how do we respond?  

In groundWork’s 2005 publication ‘Whose Energy Future’,  we state ‘that elite power to determine is neither stable nor inevitable and that it is always and everywhere contested and renegotiated’. The events of the last few days could mark a new beginning – albeit it so brutal – if we choose to together build a new tomorrow through dialogue across the nation as Abahlali baseMjondolo has called for.  We went on to say that the only way to ensure that renewable energy does become a meaningful response to the crisis, is by ensuring that it ‘taken up by the masses of the poor in a project that they define and drive’ and ensuring it connects ‘with movements struggling for deep transformation of the way the world works.’ So I slipped renewable energy into this debate and you wonder why.  Well, because the failure of our energy system, and the abuse of it for elite profit, is at the core of our problem in the context of environmental justice. Ironically, when the Makro premises in Springfield were looted, so too were the many solar panels that they installed in their parking lots.

Over the years we have been in ongoing dialogue with communities living next to the polluting petro-chemical industries in south Durban and the Vaal, people living adjacent to abandoned burning mines on the Highveld; waste pickers working on waste dumps and in the streets; residents forced to live with toxic waste being dumped in their neighbourhoods; and people organising and building a new tomorrow so that they are recognised.  People are planting their own food, connecting and producing their own electricity, reconnecting to the grid when they are cut off because they cannot afford to pay, and connecting into water systems where government has failed to deliver.  People are taking action and building systems that they can rely on.

As a result of these dialogues we have sharpened our thinking over the years. Together with community formations, we have developed some starting points for a community-driven open agenda for a just transition that can hold and nurture a response to the events of the past few days, to the 27 years of a failing democracy, and to the 342 years of colonialism, starting with the landing of the Dutch East India Company who set up shop as the first corporate in this part of the world.  This dialogue is found in various groundWork reports, the one most pertinent to this debate being Down to Zero: The politics of just transition.  Here we detail 12 departure points for the just transition which are:

  1. Building a new energy system;
  2. Rehabilitate mines and the mining regions;
  3. Make people’s food gardens central to a healthy food system;
  4. Call for and challenge for food sovereignty, i.e. break the back of corporate control of food;
  5. Reconstruct and build settlements that can respond to climate change – floods and heat waves;
  6. Plan so that work and amenities are in people’s reach so that walking and cycling is possible, and develop safe reliable transport for long distance;
  7. Create a zero waste economy, stop the throwing away culture and develop high levels of recycling and composting of waste and respect and recognition of waste pickers;
  8. Create a common, caring and effective health care system for all with professionals who are vocal against polluting practices and policies that harm people’s health;
  9. Protect the income of retrenched workers;
  10. Introduce a Basic Income Grant;
  11. Think about the economy in a new way that does not fixate itself on growth but rather is centred on the well-being of people; and,
  12. Demand an open democracy that allows for meaningful engagement and dialogue with local government who will bear the brunt of developing a climate change response and, as one witnesses now in the aftermath of the recent violence, the anger of people.

Underpinning these are our principles and values that call for a future in which we seek to dismantle patriarchy and build gender justice, and where the youth, with their vibrancy and energy, are given more of a leadership role in defining our future.

This is an open agenda, not a groundWork agenda.  Our NGO partners, namely the Centre for Environmental Rights and Earthlife Africa, are discussing this with us and the people we collectively work with on the ground and in the spaces of struggle.  This open agenda is something that one can see in the response by Abahlali baseMjondolo and groundWork endorses their call for a need for dialogues throughout the country to build peace and justice.  A dialogue is needed amongst all South Africans in all forms that allow for the building of a new and vibrant democracy.

We hope we learn from this pain to build a future of peace and solidarity amongst all in South Africa.


This opinion piece is issued by groundWork.

'Deadly air' case truly a matter of life or death

13 May 2021 – In early 2003, landmark litigation was brought by the Treatment Action Campaign against the government. The TAC confronted the government for not providing proven and cost effective medicines for prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV to pregnant mothers.

It won the court case on the basis of the constitutional guarantee of the right to health care, and the government was ordered to start programmes for prevention of mother-to-child-transmission of HIV in public health facilities.

As the wheels of justice turned, it became clear that the struggle for ordinary people against HIV would never be the same again and that people could live healthy lives with the virus. The "Deadly Air" case, which will be heard in the Pretoria High Court from May 17 to the 19, is similar to this. The landmark litigation was filed in June 2019 by groundWork and VEM Vukani Environmental Movement with the support of the Centre for Environmental Rights.

The case was filed against the government, and named as respondents are President Cyril Ramaphosa; Minister of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy; national air quality officer Thuli Khumalo; and the MECs for agriculture and rural development in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. At the core of the matter are the high levels of air pollution on the Mpumalanga Highveld.

The two environmental groups want the court to declare that toxic air on the Mpumalanga Highveld is a violation of Section 24 of the Constitution which clearly states that everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing. It has been 14 years since the government itself declared the levels of air pollution on the Mpumalanga Highveld to be highly toxic and lethal to health. But limited action has been taken to address this and affected communities continue to carry the health burden as more lives are lost due to the high levels of air pollution.

In South Africa, the estimated health costs from coal power generation alone in 2018 range from R11 billion lower estimate up to R3Obn upper estimate and is projected to peak next year, at up to R45bn. As many as 2 080 premature deaths annually can be attributed to air pollution from power plants in South Africa.

The country's high penchant for coal in its power generation industry has environmental, health and climate consequences. At least 86% of energy produced comes from coal. A fossil fuel that is harmful to the environment and even more harmful to people's health and wellbeing. This makes South Africa the most coal dependent country in the G20. The government has a moral and constitutional obligation to safeguard public health. It has failed in its duty to make sure that those responsible for emitting deadly pollutants into the air that people breathe are held accountable and that the necessary steps are taken to reduce air pollution from these industries.

The burning of fossil fuels, like coal, results in air pollutants such as soot, fine dust and smog that are released into the atmosphere, the impact of which is known to be detrimental to people's health and increases the risk of death from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory illness among those exposed. Also, coal is a fossil fuel and the burning of it contributes significantly in CO2 which is known to drive global climate change.

Furthermore, air pollution from burning coal mainly affects the poor and this further perpetuates environmental injustices. Most of the communities do not have the resources to defend themselves against government or corporate abuse. More often than not, their voices are suppressed or ignored and the interest of industries reigns supreme while the government fails to hold them accountable. This case could arguably become the apex in the environmental justice struggle in the push for much needed societal change, for the benefit of all in our country. Alongside a transition to cleaner forms of generating energy, with associated health benefits we need a just transition that considers all our needs, and this case speaks to this.

The "Deadly Air" case is an important step in South Africa's history that can directly save thousands of lives by cleaning up the air on the Highveld, so that people can breathe air that does not kill them or make them ill but, more importantly, it might also forever change the way people's rights are realised and address the power relations between ordinary people, corporate industries and the government.

Tsepang Molefe is groundWork's Media, Information, and Publications Campaign Managager.

This opinion piece appeared in the Cape Times, the Mercury, and the Pretoria News, and is also available as a stand-alone item here.

International Waste Pickers Day: A struggle for recognition, dignity, and a better waste life-cycle.

By: Simon Mbata

02 March 2021 - Waste Pickers existed before industrialisation, when bones were recovered. The development within industrialisation produced many products and most of them ended up as waste. For many years Waste Pickers found themselves picking up these discarded products for the purpose of re-use, repair and recycling to earn a living.

As a member of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, the South African Waste Pickers Association recognises and celebrates International Waste Pickers Day in remembrance of the struggles waste Pickers around the world face every day at places of work. On 1st of March 1992, 11 waste pickers were brutally killed in Columbia. The incident in Colombia ignited the spark of resistance for waste Pickers around the world, and also the need to organise, fight for recognition and respect of waste Pickers

The South African Waste Pickers Association is one of the formations formed to promote, protect and defend the rights of Waste Pickers. When groundWork set its sights on waste and the management of landfills in South Africa, they found a number of people working on landfills picking recyclable materials, selling them and earning an honest living. In all landfills waste pickers were not allowed to be there, but took the risk anyway to support themselves and their families, and in the process contributing positively towards effective waste management in municipalities around the country. In a number of informal engagements within waste pickers working in landfills, streets, and dump sites, waste pickers were looking for a voice that will represent them, their interests and well-being. It's through groundWork's effective implementation of their waste campaign programs that paved the way for waste pickers to organize in South Africa.

It was only in 2009 after workshops and provincial conferences that SAWPA was formed. From its birth SAWPA worked on building alliances with other organizations nationally and international. groundWork, Friends of the Earth, WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalising and Organising), and GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) became main partners in building and raising funds for SAWPA. Since SAWPA was formed, it has managed to engage the local and national government for recognition of waste pickers as role players and stakeholders in waste management in South Africa. The engagement with government resulted in the draft of the guidelines to integrate waste pickers into waste management system for all municipalities in the country. Industries are also required to consult and engage with waste pickers when drafting the industry waste management plans to be approved by government.

Over the past 12 years since its formation, SAWPA has managed to stop two waste to energy projects proposals in South Africa. Through its ongoing organising program SAWPA managed to assist many waste pickers to organize into local and regional structures. Structures like ROMS in Pretoria, ARO in Johannesburg, and Metsimaholo Recycling Forum in Sasolburg were established, supported and funded.

Research has shown that waste pickers play an important role in waste management, in the recycling economy, alleviating poverty and mitigating emissions. We are yet to see meaningful support towards waste pickers by both government and the private sector. Policies at local level are not favourable to waste pickers and their work. Private sector support is always misdirected to focus and invest funds in business models that are for profit making. Waste Pickers and other environmentalists have been calling for a new approach in waste management and a system that doesn't see waste at all. A revolution between human and waste – zero waste. The Zero Waste system has shown to be the only approach that values the environment, the people who handle waste and communities that dispose waste. The CORONA virus has shown the world that we need to change how we manage, handle and dispose waste.

As waste pickers, we are calling for zero waste programs to be implemented in all municipalities and separation of waste into organic and inorganic to be mandatory. We calling for waste pickers to be compensated by municipalities for the service that they provide, calling for manufacturers and producers to compensate waste pickers for recovery and recycling of their products. A LUTA CONTINUA!


Simon Mbata is the national coordinator of SAWPA (South African Waste Pickers Association)

This opinion piece appeared in the Cape Times, Mercury, and Pretoria News. A stand-alone version of the opinion piece is available here.

Pietermaritzburg landfill crisis now a matter before the High Court

By Musa Chamane

15 Feruary 2021 - The case against uMsunduzi municipality on the management of the New England Landfill in Pietermaritzburg has finally reached the high court, thanks to the South African Human Rights Commissions (SAHRC) formal investigation into human rights and dignity impacts because of the dump. This matter is set down in the Pietermaritzburg high court for hearing today, 15 February 2021.

This comes as a result of the complaints leveled by city residents due to fires that have been occurring regularly at the landfill because of poor site management. In April last year the whole of Pietermaritzburg city was engulfed in smoke from the landfill fires which lasted for more than three days. As a result, schools temporarily shut down for days, and residents became sick from the toxic smoke from the landfill fires. The SAHRC subsequently received a number of complaints from Pietermaritzburg residents, and a protest was held near the site with a petition against the dump which was also handed over to the commission. The SAHRC then consulted the stakeholders who made complaints and acted on what had been reported in the media.

On the 15th September 2020 groundWork, the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA), Shepstone and Wylie, and some of the affected residents met with the South African Human Rights Commission to provide more information and insight on the issue. The commission also gathered grievances from Sobantu Hayfields, Mkondeni, Scottsville residents, the Save PMB organisation, various Ratepayers Associations, and also from civil society organizations.

To say the SAHRC was not impressed with the municipality's lack of urgency on this issue is putting it lightly. The commission was very concerned that official compliance directives that were issued by the Provincial Department of Environmental Affairs were ignored in their efforts to intervene and make sure that the landfill problems got resolved.

The case is of huge importance to South Africans because it could set a precedence for so many of the poorly managed landfill sites that exist in our country. There are more than 1 000 licensed waste disposal sites across South Africa, the majority of which are poorly managed.

We are also pleased that the municipality is planning to acquire a new site and close the current one. However, we hope that the new site will include a materials recovery facility (MRF). Waste pickers who drive recycling and materials recovery in South Africa have previously protested demanding the construction of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) which was intended to be funded by Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) in 2014.

Despite this funding being made available the uMsunduzi municipality refused to build it as a result incompetence and corruption, sadly the money went back to COGTA. MRFs are very effective approaches to waste management and can go a long way in assisting the municipality in what has become a permanent waste management crisis in Pietermaritzburg.

The MRF was meant to create an enabling and safe environment for waste pickers, and also create an effective recycling system for the city, but that was all denied by uMsunduzi Local Municipality without any sound reason.  Ideally even the current site needs to be converted to a waste transfer station receiving only recyclable waste materials, enabling an aggressive recycling and separation at source of waste system from residents and business that will ultimately lead to zero waste going to landfill. This is a progressive modern way of dealing with waste.

Nationally, more than 90 000 waste pickers derive their daily livelihoods from waste. The installation of MRFs can facilitate the integration of informal waste pickers into the municipal waste management system. Waste pickers should not be displaced but an enabling environment should be created for them to operate so that an economy based on waste emerges.

It is unacceptable in this day and age that vast tracts of land are used for archaic methods for waste burial without coming up with viable alternatives to manage waste. Zero waste is the only solution!


Musa Chamane is a Waste Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA

This opinion piece appeared in the Cape Times, Mercury, and Pretoria News.

A standalone version of the opinion piece is available here.

Still No COVID-19 Relief for Waste Pickers

By Musa Chamane

Musa Chamane

01 February 2021 - The interventions introduced by government to deal with income loses brought about by the national lockdowns were mainly intended to address the challenges faced by the formal sector. Informal work and businesses that are classified as belonging to the informal sector were largely left to find their own way and solutions around this. This has meant the loss of livelihoods for most people who depend on informal work and businesses to support themselves and their families.

The Minister in the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, made a promise to waste pickers that they would receive a R1000 once off relief payout before Christmas if they met the required criteria. The relief funding is intended as compensation for loss of income incurred during level 5 lockdown in South Africa back in April 2020. Waste pickers through organisations such as SAWPA (South African Waste Pickers Association) made the effort to support this process and more than 10 000 forms were filled and submitted. However, this has resulted in massive payment delays, mainly attributed to the Department’s online system that is used when applying for the relief. With all good intentions, this has resulted in livelihood insecurity, frustration, exclusion and even xenophobia.

A major contributing factor was that the application process required all the applicants to have bank accounts which the majority did not have. The process also required a letter from the municipality for each applicant confirming that the person is indeed a waste picker. There were also issues with the majority of non-South African waste pickers who couldn’t get letters from home affairs confirming their residence in the South Africa. Our state systems are insensitive to the informal sector considering these stringent requirements that are needed by the application process for the most vulnerable workers in our society. Others have even given up hope in applying for the relief. Another issue for those that receive other grants, is whether they will qualify as this was not made clear by the Social Development Department.

Trying to explain this to waste pickers has become very difficult for me, and I am crossing my fingers that come the time when the information is being fed into the system that all will go smooth and applications will not be rejected.

Intergovernmental relations still leaves much to be desired in South Africa. While the national government had all the good intentions of providing relief to informal waste, the local municipalities have effectively failed to support these people on the ground. The irony of this is that waste pickers benefit municipalities the most as they are the only reason that recycling happens at the municipal level. The CSIR found that the informal sector is active in recovering valuable post-consumer recyclables from South Africa’s service-chain, having saved the country as much as R750 million in landfill airspace in 2014. “This saving was at little to no cost to municipalities.

However, if one goes to a municipality trying to find out about the process of application, you will find that officials are often clueless about the relief, and even if they are aware most do not even bother to reach out to waste pickers. This failure between the two spheres of government potentially collapses all intervention efforts and the poor suffer the most.

Compounding these administrative problems are the corrupt criminal elements in this process, in some instances family member who are not waste pickers are included on the relief lists, and in many cases, they are related to the responsible government officials - the system further disadvantages the poor.
This is a bad habit we have in this country, stealing from the poor. I have shared my experiences with some municipal officials that they will be evaluated once irregularities are exposed and the responsible people will face the music, hopefully this will be enough to discourage some of this criminal behavior.

After all is said and done our government’s actions and intentions to support the poor and most vulnerable among us during the COVID-19 pandemic speak louder than words. Since this relief fund was established not even one waste picker has received this grant!

Musa Chamane is a Waste Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of Earth South Africa

This opinion piece appeared in the Cape Times, and the Mercury.

A standalone version of the opinion piece is available here.

Air Pollution Weakens Covid-19 Resistance

Rico EuripidouBy Rico Euripidou - 14 January 2021

As we surpass 35 000 COVID-19 deaths amid a terrifying second wave of the pandemic we need to begin an honest discussion to define and reflect on the bigger picture that puts our societies health at risk. This includes environmental health factors that are fundamental to a healthy community environment.

Poor air quality from industrial pollution makes us more vulnerable to a variety of health problems including pandemics such as COVID-19. Air pollution in our industrial economy drives climate change. Climate change and pandemics interact to worsen the impact of each, and climate change is both a huge threat and opportunity to strengthen environmental and public health. That is why improving air pollution must be central to a post-corona just transition!

The satellite imagery showing massive declines in air pollution across Europe, China and the Highveld in South Africa during our national lockdowns was a testament to just how unsustainable to health our “normal economies” really are. Similarly, they also demonstrated to us how quickly it is possible to achieve massive global reductions in air pollution (and by association climate change gases) if there is a political will to do so. Sadly, more recent satellite imagery shows us how quickly we can bounce back to a dirty reality if air pollution emissions are not meaningfully addressed.

As more research investigating the link between air pollution and the spread of Covid-19 becomes available there appears to be growing evidence that people living in polluted cities are more at risk from the coronavirus. There are good reasons to suspect that air pollution worsens covid-19. Many health studies investigating the impacts of air pollution on health conclusively find that air pollution is known to cause and exacerbate a variety of long term health conditions affecting the respiratory system (the lungs) - impairing our capacity to fight off lung infections, the cardiovascular systems (the heart and blood systems) and also many other cancer health outcomes.

A recent study hot off the press published in the health science journal Cardiovascular Research takes a step further and estimates the proportion of COVID-19 deaths due to air pollution. The authors estimate that long-term exposure to air pollution generated by human activity is linked to about 27 per cent of COVID-19-related deaths in East Asia and 15 per cent mortality worldwide. They state that these deaths could largely have been prevented if better air quality regulations were in place.

One of the study co-authors, Prof. Münzel from Johannes Gutenberg University and the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research, was quoted as saying: “When people inhale polluted air, the very small polluting particles, the PM2.5, migrate from the lungs to the blood and blood vessels, causing inflammation and severe oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between free radicals and oxidants in the body that normally repair damage to cells. This causes damage to the inner lining of arteries, the endothelium, and leads to the narrowing and stiffening of the arteries. The COVID-19 virus also enters the body via the lungs, causing similar damage to blood vessels, and it is now considered to be an endothelial disease”.

He goes on to say that “If both long-term exposure to air pollution and infection with the COVID-19 virus come together then we have an additive adverse effect on health, particularly with respect to the heart and blood vessels, which leads to greater vulnerability and less resilience to COVID-19. If you already have heart disease, then air pollution and coronavirus infection will cause trouble that can lead to heart attacks, heart failure and stroke.”

The results suggest the potential for substantial benefits from reducing air pollution exposure, even at relatively low levels concluding that… “a lesson from our environmental perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the quest for effective policies to reduce anthropogenic emissions, which cause both air pollution and climate change, needs to be accelerated. The pandemic ends with the vaccination of the population or with herd immunity through extensive infection of the population. However, there are no vaccines against poor air quality and climate change. The remedy is to mitigate emissions. The transition to a green economy with clean, renewable energy sources will further both environmental and public health locally through improved air quality and globally by limiting climate change.”

What is the relevance for us here in South Africa? Eskom our biggest industrial polluter has just submitted another round of applications to the National Air Quality Officer (NAQO), to either further delay compliance with the air quality laws that govern their emissions, the Minimum Emission Standards (MES), and in some cases avoid compliance altogether, for 14 of their 15 coal-fired power stations. groundWork warned the environment ministry (the DEFF) this would happen over 10 years ago!

Worryingly this erosion of our weak regulatory governance is not happening in isolation. Other mega polluting industries such as SASOL, the oil refineries (ENGEN, SAPREF, NATREF, and CALEX) have submitted similar applications to be exempt of these air quality laws as have other large industries such as cement plants and pulp and paper mills.

Although we may not feel empowered to do so we do effectively have a choice to make as we formulate our national response to the Covid-19 pandemic along with the intertwined social, political and economic crisis it has spawned. We can choose the path we have already come on and prop up the old structures and systems that have caused the crisis in the first place and have led us to massive inequality in our health systems as well as systemic unemployment and labour exploitation in our country, or we can decide to choose a different path. The different path we choose can lead to an unprecedented set of opportunities to forge a just transition to equitable, resilient societies that provide decent work for all, universal health care, and contribute to a sustainable and clean energy system and a ultimately a healthy climate.

For our civilization to survive and thrive, we must choose this second path and change systems that place profit over ecological sustainability, health, and wellbeing. We must build structures that benefit all people, especially the vulnerable and the poor. As part of this effort, we must recognize and address the political, social, and economic factors that govern how health or illnesses move through our communities. As many around the world rise up against systemic racism and discrimination, we must also forge a broad, interconnected agenda for change that fosters health equity, ecological sustainability, and social justice.

Rico Euripidou is an environmental and public health specialist at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA

This opinion piece was published in the Cape Times, Mercury and Pretoria News. A stand-alone version of the opinion piece is available here.

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