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Do 400,000 whites live in squatter camps in South Africa? No

Comments 17

Do 400,000 whites live in squatter camps in South Africa, as claimed in a recent BBC report. Are there really 80 “white squatter camps” dotted around Pretoria? The answer to both is no.

Researched by Julian Rademeyer

Are there really 400,000 “poor whites” living in abject poverty in squatter camps across South Africa?  Are there 80 white squatter camps in the Pretoria area alone?

These are the figures cited in a recent article by the BBC’s World Affairs editor, John Simpson, which questioned “whether white people genuinely have a future” in South Africa.

Published on Sunday, it elicited a furious response from both the African National Congress and the opposition Democratic Alliance who said it distorted the truth. One analyst described it as and exercise in “selective reporting”.

Do white people have a future in South Africa? John Simpson's controversial BBC report.

Visit to a “white squatter camp”

For the BBC report, Simpson travelled to Sonskyn Hoekie (Sunshine Corner), a “white squatter camp” on the outskirts of Pretoria,

“There are broken-down cars and bits of discarded furniture everywhere,” Simpson wrote in the article posted on the BBC website.

“Beyond the wooden shacks lie ditches and pools of dirty, stagnant water where mosquitoes breed. Two basic toilets serve the whole camp.”

Then he paraphrased comments made to him by his guide, Ernst Roets, the deputy chief executive of the Afrikaans civil society organisation, AfriForum.

“According to Roets there are 80 white squatter camps – many of them bigger than this – in the Pretoria area alone. Across South Africa as a whole he believes there could be as many as 400,000 poor whites in conditions like these.”

In the television report on the story, which was aired  on the BBC current affairs programme, The Editors, Simpson spoke of 200,000 whites. “One ugly secret in the new South Africa is white poverty,” he said in a voiceover as a camera followed him picking his way through the shacks.  ”At least 200,000 whites live in squatter camps like this today.”

The 400,000 figure a “civil society estimate”

Africa Check reader Fiona Snyckers got in touch on Twitter and asked us to investigate. We first spoke to Roets who told us the BBC team had pressured him for a figure on the number of whites in squatter camps in South Africa.

“The problem is that there are no reliable figures at this stage about white poverty,” he said. So Roets said he called Solidariteit Helpende Hand (Solidarity Helping Hand), a charity organisation working with the poor in the Afrikaner community, to find out if they had any reliable figures the BBC could use.

“They also told me it was very difficult to give a number at this stage…but the BBC guys were fairly serious about a number so the person I had called said, if they want a number then tell them it is this one. So my exact words to [the BBC] were that ‘civil society estimates about 400,000.’”

The figure of 80 “squatter camps” had also come from Helpende Hand, Roets told Africa Check. “That is also an estimate but it is a relatively reliable figure because Helpende Hand does have a list of addresses and so on.”

Helpende Hand admits lack of statistics

The person Roets had spoken to at Helpende Hand was Mariana Kriel, a regional organiser. She told Africa Check the organisation had no reliable statistics for the numbers of whites living in informal settlements and said the last available figures, which apparently put the figure at 600,000, were “many years old”.

“We don’t give out statistics because there aren’t any,” she added.

On the number of “squatter camps” around Pretoria, she said the description itself was problematic. “We don’t really have white squatter camps. We have homeless shelters. Squatter camps are places where people squat illegally on state-owned land. These people are staying with permission on private land,” she said.

Many “camps” are just a Wendy House in a yard

Also, many of the 80 “camps” weren’t really camps at all but places where a few people are living in an informal structure, Kriel told Africa Check.

“I believe there are more than 70 places, as long as you take into account that many of them involve small places where a few people are living in an informal structure or a Wendy House in a yard,” she said. “In some places there are ten people living in informal housing behind a house. In others as many as 300.”

Statistics South Africa’s 2011 General Household Survey found that about 1.1-million South African households of all races lived in informal settlements or what were described as “shacks not in a backyard”. A further 672,000 lived in shacks in the backyards of existing houses.

Just over 1.6-million households living in these “informal dwellings” were defined as “black African”. According to the survey, only about 98,000 Asian, coloured and white households lived in “informal dwellings” of any kind.

One report shows continued white prosperity

Coincidentally, Simpson’s report and the accompanying article were aired and published the same day as South Africa’s City Press newspaper published a lengthy article by Frans Cronje, deputy chief executive of the SA Institute of Race Relations, in which he argued that the white population had shown continued economic prosperity since South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994.

Census figures suggest 8 000 white households live in shacks

Raw data compiled for the 2011 Census backs up the picture painted by the General Household Survey. Using StatsSA’s online tools it is possible to isolate specific population groups within the datasets and the results are revealing.

According to those figures 1,868,325 “black African” households lived in shacks, informal settlements, caravans or tents at the time of the census.

Just 7,754 white households lived in informal settlements. If each household consisted of four people, which is slightly higher than the national average of 3.6 used in the 2011 Census, it would mean that there were around 31,000 whites living in informal dwellings. A fraction of the number suggested by Helpende Hand.

Conclusion – The report grossly exaggerates the problem of white poverty

The claim that 400,000 whites are living in squatter camps is grossly inaccurate. If that were the case, it would mean that roughly ten percent of South Africa’s 4.59-million whites were living in abject poverty.

Census figures suggest that only a tiny fraction of the white population – as little as 7,754 households – are affected.

The claim that there are 80 or more “white squatter camps” in the Pretoria area would also appear to be grossly overstated. Many of the places referred to are not camps at all.

AfriForum’s Roets gave the BBC inaccurate figures and the BBC took them without apparently checking, producing a skewed piece of journalism that failed to accurately reflect reality.

Edited by Peter Cunliffe-Jones

Ten days after the BBC first broadcast his film questioning whether whites have a future in South Africa, the corporation’s World Affairs editor, John Simpson, has written an article defending his reporting.

He has also attempted to explain away his unquestioning use of the estimate, given to him by AfriForum and Solidariteit Helpende Hand, of the number of whites supposedly living in "squatter camps" in South Africa.

According to Simpson: "The civil society organisation AfriForum consulted a charity which works with poor Afrikaners, Solidariteit Helpende Hand, and estimated a figure of up to 400,000 white people living in poverty. My article made clear the source of the estimate and they stand by their figures. Other estimates vary widely and any figure is inevitably only an estimate."

While an online article written by Simpson did make clear the source of the estimate, his television report did not.   "At least 200,000 whites live in squatter camps like this today," he stated as fact in the accompanying voiceover.

His defence of the story, also does not explain explain why the figure used in the film, which was broadcast by BBC News: The Editors, differed so markedly from the figure cited in his online article. Nor does he explain why the BBC apparently made no attempt to check the “estimate”.

In his response Simpson claims that AfriForum and Helpende Hand "stand by their figures". They do not.

As we reported, Simpson's guide through the Sonskynhoekie "squatter camp", AfriForum’s Ernst Roets, told us "there are no reliable figures at this stage about white poverty" and indicated that he had been pressured by the BBC team for a figure.

Mariana Kriel, the Helpende Hand regional organiser that Roets consulted in a bid to give the BBC a number of poor whites living in "squatter camps" told us her organisation normally did not give out such figures because there "aren't any".  She also called into question the use of the term “squatter camps”. “We don’t really have white squatter camps,” she told Africa Check. “We have homeless shelters. Squatter camps are places where people squat illegally on state-owned land. These people are staying with permission on private land.”

Simpson also now claims the figure of 400,000 refers to "white people living in poverty", yet in both his television story and the online report, the numbers were used to refer to "squatter camps".

South Africa's 2011 census figures suggest that 7754 white households live in informal settlements. Assuming that an average household consists of four people, which is slightly higher than the national average of 3.6 used in the 2011 Census, it would mean that there were around 31,000 whites living in informal settlements.

Simpson argues that census returns are “famously unreliable in assessing the numbers of people who live on the fringes of society” and while there is some truth to this, there is no evidence – and it would seem highly unlikely – that census takers would have underestimated the numbers by nearly 370,000 people or, in the case of the television report, by 170,000.

As many have rightly said, of course, the issue of the poverty identified by Simpson in his report is important, whoever it affects, black or white. But no problem will be properly tackled if it not properly understood.

© Copyright Africa Check 2013. You may reproduce this report or content from it for the purpose of reporting and/or discussing news and current events, subject to providing a credit to "Africa Check a non-partisan organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and the media. Twitter @AfricaCheck and www.africacheck.org".

Comment on this report

Comments 17
  1. By Amy

    People need to bear the following in mind when considering the BBC report:

    1. The journalist concerned largely uses Afriforum as a factual reference point. This organisation is one that represents the interests of white, Afrikaans South Africans, and any information that they release is likely to be very biased and racially motivated.

    2. The respective journalist is married to a white Afrikaans-speaking South African. (Need I say more!)

    3. He fails to take note of the extreme violence that farmers have inflicted (and continue to inflict) upon their black farm workers. We do not know if the farm killings are a backlash from disgruntled victims of farm abuse, or a general sign of the violent crimes that affect South Africans as a whole.

    4. Why is it okay for people of color to be poor, but a massive outcry if a white person meets with the same misfortune?

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  2. By Africa Check

    Good point TB. We have amended the subheading accordingly.

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  3. By TB

    Your subheading that “Census figures suggest 7 000 white households live in shacks” itself lacks fact-checking. Rounding the exact figure of 7,754 in fact yields 8,000 households. Otherwise, a great piece.

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  4. By Roy

    The initial figures for the homeless whites, were based on the number of government employees who lost their jobs – taking into consideration the quantity who would not have been able to emigrate due to lack of education.

    Estimates must be abolished, and the real facts obtained – should a project like this ever be started in all seriousness – I tried in 2010, only to find zero funding for this.

    Complete towns are missing…. so as to the final number…. I would gander a good 25% unemployed (like myself) at this moment.

    So when do we start counting???

    I personally am not interested in counting all squatters, as a majority of them are only interested in living in a free zone, as they earn and export the funds to other countries, and as such are not willing to boost this economy by buying land or housing.

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  5. By Dikgati

    Poverty in South Africa has always been a problem and a large number of people affected are blacks. Black are the majority and whites minority in South Africa .In 1994 they attained democracy and the ANC become the ruling party since 1994 to date. They got their political freedom of which everybody was happy about but they where denied with economic freedom. The white have the economy in their hands, they own the means of production, and they still own the land and financial sectors such as JSE (Johannesburg Stock Exchange). Poverty is influenced by many factors; South Africa’s main challenges are unemployment and illiteracy. In Country that Capitalism is the way of life the unskilled and uneducated will suffer, and the white monopoly capital can not afford to use such people. The ANC has been fighting poverty by making sure that they equip the youth with education, primary and secondary education in South Africa is for free in public schools and all students who are accepted in Universities but do not have financial muscles are assisted by the government. Millions of black South Africans are living in squatter camps and the ANC is building RDP houses (Low cost houses) for them, food parcels are given to the poor on monthly bases collected at the local municipal offices.
    The opposition party known as DA (Democratic Alliance) is in charge of the capital city Cape Town, the DA consists mostly of whites and a few blacks. The DA only provides serves to whites owned suburbs, squatter camps in the Cape own such as Langa, Cape Flats and khayelitsha are not Servest. Majority if not all of the white people in squatter camps do not have any formal education and cant even speak English, actually before the democracy a white person did not require education to get a job, many till today occupy managerial position without formal education. Now that the tables have turned around the white monopoly capital does not want them because they do not have skills. The Youth wing of the ANC has called on for the Nationalization of mines and land reposition (without compensation) and redistribution equally to all those who live on it, this action is seen as the only solution to poverty in the Country basically they are advocating for Socialism,but the white monopoly capital is fighting against it. They want the transfer of power from the minority to the majority.

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  6. By tyke

    one wonders what purpose your article has but haggling over the definition of what a squatter camp is. So you’ve established that they do not live in a squatter camp. They still live in abject poverty. Just like many people in wolmer, claremont, booysens, danville etc. Who although they live in houses are very poor. And don’t have food to eat most nights of the week. The question you should rather ask yourself is what have you done to help these people, or any other people living in squatter camps or poverty. The answer is probably nothing. So that to me means you should rather keep your opinion to yourself.

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  7. By Corrie van Rooyen

    The statistical estimates are probably exaggerated – the existance and effects are NOT.

    Of course, those falling outside the realm of poverty, politicians, directors, deputy directors and the like, will essentially (to them) lean towards proving the inaccuracy of statistics rather than to DO something POSITIVE to eliminate the problem.

    I find these collections and analyses of statistics a rather disturbing trend. And that goes across all racial lines by the way – what is the collection of statisticians, politicians and journalists attempting to achieve? More balanced poverty? Better geared streams of growing hate? Better control over human lives? Better fame for their own marvelous abilities?

    Time to lay statistics aside and aim for improvement rather than expansion of sadness. Cleverness will help nobody anywhere – action and honesty combines with simplicity might.

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  8. By ivan

    The Problem isn’t how many “whites or blacks” live in settlements…. Even 19 years after the anc took over the “under privileged” do not take advantage of the what the “new” government has to offer them with all the BEE and whatever free housing and free studies they can get… As for the “privileged Whites” they look after each other as the government does not most of them get “sacked” and replaced with a BEE candidate that has less to no knowledge of the job at hand no matter what the job may be. This is the reason for a lot of these “white under privileged” peoples .The “privileged” still holds all the knowledge as they see the power in knowledge…. the “under privileged” are more into striking for what they think should be free and in most cases cause millions in damages!!To top it of their elected government drives around in million rand cars and fly in 600million rand jets….. To be fair why do people even vote for them?

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  9. By Leonie Joubert

    Regarding the BBC’s recent ‘exposé’ of white poverty in South Africa, which briefly refers to a community north of Wonderboom, outside Pretoria, called Sonskynhoekie (‘Sunshine Corner’).

    I visited this very community for a chapter in my latest book The Hungry Season (which looks broadly at urban food security issues) to understand how poor communities use social networks when they don’t have money to buy food.

    I can assure you that the reasons for how this community came to be are highly contextual and specific to that part of the world. Hardly representative of an emerging trend of white poverty, as the BBC story suggests.

    The issue isn’t so much about whether or not this community can be defined as living in a squatter camp (actually it’s more of a care centre for people who have come on hard times, more of a charity). The bigger issue is how the people came to live here, and how their community reflects an enclave and protectionist mentality that is still largely race-based.

    People here pay R400 a month to the land owner (a scrap metal dealer) who, in return, provides a small Wendy house, and two meals a day. Strict rules apply (Saturday night is the only night you’re allowed to drink; church on Sundays; line up for meals; if you can’t pay for your digs, you work it off).

    These are not people born into poverty, the way many other slum dwellers in SA are. They mostly come from backgrounds where they had jobs, houses, families. They either lost their job (lot of sheltered employment for blue collar white workers by formerly state-run industries); or had a run in with alcohol or some other substance; or a marriage fell apart; or they are mental health patients who were discharged from nearby Weskoppies and, without family to look after them, survive on a state pension and chronic meds.

    It is a fascinating community to visit, because it’s an interesting part of the broader post-’94 SA story. But it is far, far from representative of the rest of the country.

    Leonie Joubert
    Author
    The Hungry Season: Feeding Southern Africa’s Cities

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  10. By Africa Check

    With regard to the various criticisms leveled in the comment by Ernst Roets, Africa Check would like to point out the following:
     
    The statement by the late Prof. Lawrence Schlemmer that 430,000 whites had become too poor to live in “traditionally white areas” originated in a Mail & Guardian article published in July 2004. The relevant paragraph reads: “Today 430 000 whites, of a total white population of 4,5-million, are ‘too poor to live in traditional white areas’  and 90 000 ‘are in a survival struggle’, says Lawrence Schlemmer, director of the Helen Suzman Foundation.”
     
    Schlemmer’s comments to the newspaper,  which have consistently been used over the past nine years for propaganda purposes by both white right-wing groups and Afrikaner civil society organisations, do not appear to be supported by any published research or surveys conducted by him or by the Helen Suzman Foundation. Nor do they appear to be supported by any subsequent studies or surveys. Schlemmer, it should also be noted, made no reference to “squatter camps” in his comments to the Mail & Guardian.
     
    In his interview with Africa Check, Roets quite clearly stated “there are no reliable figures at this stage about white poverty”. This was also echoed by Mariana Kriel, the Solidarity Helpende Hand regional organiser that Roets turned to for information on the numbers of poor whites living in squatter camps.
     
    Kriel told Africa Check that Helpende Hand had no reliable statistics for the numbers of whites living in informal settlements and said the last available figures, which apparently put the figure at 600,000, were “many years old”. “We don’t give out statistics because there aren’t any,” she added.

    Roets’ suggestion that Africa Check left out Schlemmer’s comments to “discredit AfriForum” is incorrect and dishonest.  If Roets had felt so strongly that Schlemmer’s comments to the Mail & Guardian in 2004 were still relevant, he should perhaps have mentioned them in his interview with Africa Check. If he felt they were important and reliable, why did he tell Africa Check, during the interview, that “there are no reliable figures at this stage about white poverty”? 
     
    Africa Check’s report did not criticise AfriForum’s view that white poverty is a matter that requires attention. Poverty in all its forms requires attention. Race is irrelevant. The focus of our report was on the claim that 400,000 (or, in the case of the BBC’s televised report, 200,000) poor whites live in squatter camps. The Census figures do account for informal dwellings in squatter settlements and backyards. 
     
    Both the Census figures and the  2011 General Household Survey would appear to provide the most accurate and current data on the status of whites living in “squatter camps”.
     
    There was no “wilful misrepresentation” to give the impression that Mr Roets was not proficient in English. In writing the report and translating Roets’ comments, the researcher incorrectly used the word “was” instead of “were”. The person who sub-edited the article was unaware that the interview had been conducted in Afrikaans. The error was corrected shortly after publication a week ago when it was spotted by the researcher.

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  11. By Ozone Blue

    Is it just my imagination or has the Ernst Roets (Afriforum) comment been removed?

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  12. By Ernst Roets

    Criticism on AfriForum’s view on “white poverty” is founded on ill will.

    Die criticism on AfriForum’s view that “white poverty” is a problem that should also be attended to, is a wilful misrepresentation of AfriForum’s attitude towards the issue. Africa Check uses the following methods to falsely discredit the organisation:

    • Falsely attributes language errors to AfriForum: In the original article, Ernst Roets is quoted as follows: “So my exact words to [the BBC] was [sic] that…” In this case a concord error was attributed to Ernst Roets, while the original interview had been conducted in Afrikaans. It is therefore entirely false to indicate such an error. The wilful misrepresentation of someone as not proficient in English purposefully raises questions about someone’s intelligence and makes it easier to question facts presented. After AfriForum had indicated this wilful misrepresentation as an indicator of the website’s integrity, Africa Check removed this remark quietly without admitting its own error.

    • The late Prof. Lawrence Schlemmer’s estimate ignored: The late Prof. Lawrence Schlemmer, respected researcher, estimated that approximately 430 000 whites had become too poor to live in “traditionally white areas”. If Africa Check had referred to this figure, as indicated by Schlemmer, it would have brought balance to the article. Prof. Schlemmer’s integrity is above reproach and Africa Check must have known that any reference to Schlemmer would have made it difficult to discredit AfriForum.

    • Apples are not compared with apples: In the article by Africa Check the BBC journalist is quoted as saying: “At least 200 000 whites live in squatter camps LIKE THIS today” (emphasis by AfriForum). That means that the various kinds of informal settlements referred to are similar to the housing in Sonskyn Hoekie (the settlement visited by the BBC). Here people live in wooden wendy houses, back rooms, derelict brick buildings and other kinds of housing not used by Africa Check in the statistics presented in their article. Apples are not compared with apples. AfriForum never proposed that “whites” living in informal housing live in structures similar to the zinc structures prevalent in traditional squatter camps next to highways. To the contrary, AfriForum’s view has always been that the manifestation of white informal housing is different, i.e. that wendy houses in backyards, back rooms, garages and derelict buildings are used for housing.

    A few critics of AfriForum also try to pretend that AfriForum’s reference to the problem of so-called “white poverty” denies wealth amongst whites and the huge problem of “black poverty”. This is not the case at all, and the BBC programme referred to white wealth specifically, with the qualification that this is not the true and complete picture. AfriForum’s motive is to ensure that black and white poverty should be attended to because it does exist. We invite those who deny “white poverty” to visit informal housing where “white poor” reside.

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  13. By Sad

    How sad is it that someone would go through all this trouble just to make sure that number of poor white people gets changed? How wrong is it that all this energy did not go into helping one of these people?

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  14. By Ozone Blue

    @mike

    One would have to ask “Africa Check” then what happens to working/middle class whites who cannot find a job because of AA. We know from the latest EE report that for these categories “transformation” has all but been achieved. We see more and more whites begging at traffic lights every day, we have evidence from Pretoria, to Krugersdorp, Christiana, to Durban to Triomf. How can there only be 7754 households. Please, do not insult our intelligence. What are you afraid of, why lie about this? Is Thami Mazwai also “distorting the truth”:

    “The drive through Christiana revealed shocking examples of white poverty. The suburb we drove through was originally meant for the white working class in the heyday of apartheid. It has now decayed. The houses are dull and drab and there are no longer well-kept and manicured streets and lawns. Dirty curtains hang limply from windows. The residents have that mournful but hopeful look that only the destitute have. The children could be in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. If whites suffer such poverty in this town, what is the situation for blacks? Unemployment hovers around the 70% mark for blacks and 40% for whites. Middle-management salaries are a princely R7000-R12000 a month but most people still get weekly wages – R500-R700 a week is the norm. We really cannot tolerate poverty, whether it affects blacks or whites – it has no place in wealthy South Africa. Yet, in the midst of such poverty, our municipalities send money back to the Treasury because they cannot spend it.”

    http://www.bdlive.co.za/articles/2012/07/25/thami-mazwai-why-do-we-still-thumb-our-noses-at-poverty

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  15. By Mike

    Poverty such as this cannot be down played either. Irrespective of colour/race, the poverty levels in South Africa appear to be of no concern to the ruling ANC-see the various cases of corruption and lavish luxury expenditure perpetrated blatantly by the ruling political elite.
    What makes white poverty worse is the fact that legislation such as BEE for example, institutionalises racial discrimination against white South African citizens and makes the white South African poor particularly vulnerable.
    Shame on the ANC and all of it’s supporters that continually promulgate racially disciminatory legislation and sentiment. Your day will come at the voting stations….There are many more South Africans of all races that are fed up with your brand of thuggery.

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  16. By Ozone Blue

    Anybody that is willing to believe there are only 1.6 mil households living in “informal dwellings” in South Africa will also believe there are only 7000 whites living in “informal dwellings”. I would much sooner believe the projections of Solidarity who works with poor whites on a daily basis than the discredited and politically sanitised garbage cooked up by SA Stats.

    The Census: Some more questions

    http://www.politicsweb.co.za/politicsweb/view/politicsweb/en/page71619?oid=341918&sn=Detail&pid=71616

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  17. By adee

    This does not surprise me the BBC is dancing to the tune of the uk’s right wing at the moment and they don’t like foreigner. Zuma should be paying more attention to uk politic as what happens in the uk will affect ripple out and affect South Africa.

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