John Kani on Kindness, Tolerance, Sensitivity and Respect

January 13, 2024
25 mins read

Tuesday, May 29, 2007.
By Dr John Kani
A couple of years ago, Johann told me what ISPA was about. We were at the Brooklyn Academy at that stage doing a play I had been doing for thirty years for which I won the Tony Award for and I remember the Tony Award because it got me big trouble.
After winning the Tony Award I did a couple of interviews and I got home and I was arrested and I was detained for three and a half weeks. I was only released through massive demonstrations in New York, LA, London, Sydney, Paris and all over the world, and I was released and I thank that time when I detained because it provided me with some kind of measure of immunity because my friends abroad would want to know why am I detained.
And that also gave me the latitude to say what I like knowing that I’m detained there’s nothing they will do but release me soon. One wonderful lady in Parliament, Helen Susman, complained to the Minister of Police why am I detained, and the Minister of Police said in Parliament: “no, John is not detained he’s just kept overnight. If he wants detention he knows what he’s talking about!”
I was very happy when Johann asked me to come and speak and I said to myself: “how do we explain UBUNTU?” Because you have to be able to speak the language to understand UBUNTU. It does not translate into English. The closest is “Menswaardigheid” which is Afrikaans. It is the value of the human being, it is humaneness, it is kindness, UBUNTU is tolerance, sensitivity, is respect.
You put that together you find UBUNTU as the lifeblood that pumps through your veins and informs the brain to think correctly, to think emotionally correct. When I was born about sixty-two years ago the first image I have was this woman who was five foot six inches with a double D cup 52 breast. She suckled me and I knew I was safe – I was in the hands of comfort.
When I noticed on the other side there was this tall gentleman who was six feet eight inches tall, two meters wide – and that was my father. And I knew that I am protected. Nothing can hurt me. What I suckled from my mother’s breast was UBUNTU – that was kindness.
When I grew up as a little boy I never could eat the whole apple or even a whole slice of bread. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood of New Brighton, Mr. Saki Macozoma (a delegate) knows – he’s my comrade in the same neighborhood. As soon as you step outside there would be sixteen other hungry mouths who are your friends and you have to divide this apple into equal pieces for everybody.
My mother would say to me: “eat it here inside,” because she knows that I’m gonna get a small piece or it if I go outside. And somewhere in me I said it doesn’t taste nice if I have the whole apple, it tastes beautiful if I just have a taste of it and we all munch it and had fun. I grew up and at the age of seven I realized that the world was different.
The world wasn’t the safe place of my mother’s two-room house in New Brighton. We used to go to town on Saturday, and on Friday my mother would say: “everybody go and wee-wee and don’t drink again because we’re going to town Saturday morning” – there were no toilet facilities for black people in white Port Elizabeth – called the “Friendly City.” Subsequently called the “Windy City” – nothing to do with Chicago.
We would go to town and as a boy of course we would look around, my father would walk holding us with his hands, which were about two meters long, each one of them! We’re going to the store at Oak and Main Street, and all the white children will be playing with the toys and we would marvle in window-shopping the toys inside the store. We were not allowed to touch the toys. I kept looking at my skin, and scratching it, and I said: “but it doesn’t come off, how would I spoil the toys?” And I began to ask questions why, and my mother would say: “don’t worry, don’t worry thing will be okay one day.”
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I went to a school, which was for blacks only. My education was how to speak English – nothing technical – I couldn’t make a box of matches. But I went to school, graduated and then I wanted to work. I looked for work and then after three months, six months my father said: “if you look at these old buildings where the firms are – the ones with the chimneys that are smoking – go get a job. Stop looking for the ones you want, just get a job – you’re black!” And coming from my father I was a bit surprised, he knows I’m black because he’s black so why is he reminding me?
It was exactly at that time that my politicization began. The comrades and the commissars moved into New Brighton as young people teaching the history of the African. Even telling me that I’m a descendant of royalty, and that I was a descendant of a great kingdom! I believed that and suddenly I developed an incredible superiority complex.
I pitied white people. I pitied them so much that the only remedy was to kill them and watch them die. I was politicized. Everything for me was done by the political commissar and the surprising thing it was Sis Pretty who was my political commissar, a woman. We used to go to school and then come back to the outside school where we would talk about the ANC about the struggle – about the operation.
And one day when I finished my high school, ready to go to university we were being organized to be taken out to Tanzania, Zambia for military training. Now there’s one thing we are as young children: we’re very bad actors, we can’t keep a secret – not to our parents. My parents could see my ears moving like this and knew something’s gonna go on with this one.
So my father lived in a three-room house where there’s only one door and on the windows there is burglar-proofing so you can’t get out of the windows. My father loved his rum and he could drink a bottle and still make sense when we talked. So my father sat sixty-two inches wide with his back against the door which meant if I wanted to escape I had to lift him and if I lift him he’s gonna ask me where are you going.
For three days he did that and on the fourth day he forgot. I got up at 2:00AM and the transport had left without me. My brothers had gone out of the country for military training; I was devastated because I wanted to go. I had a friend then who asked if I knew the white Mr. Athol Fugard, and he used to ask me: “if you go for military training and then come back, will you kill me?” I said well I’ll make it so quickly and painless so that my friends don’t have to torture you. That was my revolution. And then I decided that since I was left behind, I would stay.
My interest in the Arts began. Storytelling. My grandfather had three wives and he could not spell polygamy – he just had three wives. He was a very proud native. He hated school because it took the children away from working on the fields to a place called school where they come back and do homework and are never available for work.
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He hated school because children sat on a desk and when they came home they never gave the elderly people the chairs because they’re used to sitting down on a desk. He hated the church most, because they challenged his authority. Because he was head of his family and there was no other head other than he.
When I bought my first Mercedes, Saki, and I showed it to my father, my father looked at me and said: “my father had a 1929 Ford” and before you could ask what’s the whole thing about this, my father would say “…in 1929!” Back then I found that storytelling was dealing with the inner feeling that I wanted to express to my people. I wasn’t interested in CINDERELLA or NO, NO NANETTE or all the Tennessee Williams plays. I wanted to be involved in plays that spoke to my people. I wanted to be involved in work that moved my people.
There’s a tendency in this country to confuse apartheid with civil rights. Civil rights is another movement; apartheid begins in the definition of the human being in the Afrikaans dictionary defined as a “swart ding:” a black thing. The Afrikaners of South Africa truly believed that I was sub-human so I had no business to want equality or political rights in the country run by the chosen people, and those Afrikaners were chosen by God.
Whatever they did in South Africa was the will of God and all the people that were busy working and trying to change the situation all of them were in prison, in exile, dead or disappeared. That was the difficult part – we grew up without peace, we grew up without knowing who we emulate, who we wanted to be. There was one thing that kept us together as young people, the African National Congress, which had a mind and a body that we aspired to. Whose leaders Oliver Tambo and the others were abroad, and there’s another one called Nelson Mandela whom we’ve never seen – we only heard about him.
I remember some time ago when I was about sixteen we were the lookout boys and these were in the 60’s we were told there was going to be a big speech by a very important person but we had to stand about a mile away from the meeting area.
And I realized later – thirty, forty years later – that it was the SCARLET PIMPERNEL coming down to address the ANC group underground in South Africa and that was Nelson Mandela! So we never met. We met, of course, later, when he came out of prison. People then understand that when the system of apartheid was brutal, unholy, declared by the United States as a heresy, declared by the World Council of Churches as an ungodly thing, suffered by the black people of South Africa to an extent that it also dehumanized us. The most reverent thing in our lives was the value of life. The form of justice was that which was tempered with mercy, understanding and UBUNTU.
My father once told me a story about a man whose cow was stolen and he went to the white man’s court. The white man’s court found the man who had the stolen the old man’s cow. After deliberation the man was found guilty, and sentenced to 1,000 Rand and six months in jail. So the old man (the former owner of the cow that was stolen) so he’s standing there asking who’s going to get the 1,000 Rand. The 1,000 Rand went to the court and the justice system. He walked out with nothing, but if the same case had been handled by the elders and the chief presiding in his village, the man would still be found guilty but he would have been asked to pay back to the former owner of the cow a cow and a calf as a pay back. If he doesn’t have this from his herd, he would go to his relatives, if they don’t have it he would go work in the mines and come back and pay the equivalent.
That’s reparation, that’s justice, that’s addressing it. So coming from that background of hatred for the system, a system we saw killing our brothers and sisters.
In 1985, I buried my younger brother. While reciting a poem in the funeral of a nine-year-old little girl – hit by a tear gas canister. In 1986, I survived two assassination attempts, ordered by the CCB, the secret police. I stand here with eleven stab wounds – left for dead. I heard them say: “Hy’s dood (he’s dead), ons kan gaan (we can go).” My wife was in the car. She wasn’t touched. I even had dry cleaning in my car – nothing was touched I was left there.
A night watchman from an adjoining area where they were still building parts of Doranginza found me there and called the ambulance. When we arrived in the hospital a black doctor said, no a white doctor said “Who is this guy?” and someone said: “This is John Kani. What happened? He was attacked.” It is this white young doctor who hid me in the isolation ward for infectious diseases because if security found out that you’re still alive they would come to the hospital and finish the job.
I heard while I was hidden by this white young doctor that they were looking for me at the casualty to complete the job. And that’s why some friend of mine said: “Every time I get to the point of really hating the white man, and wanting to really kill them, some stupid white man comes and does something good to me, and it messes up my revolution!” I have never forgotten the face of that young man who hid me.
It is true: the work, and the passion of humanity for mankind – the definition of a being – that when the truth and reconciliation was introduced by this new government of South Africa, we opted and we asked for a referendum that the people be asked if they wanted this truth and reconciliation, or did the people really want some form of tribunal to charge the white people of South Africa of crimes against humanity.
We wanted perhaps some kind of jungle court that would actually make us do something about it. You remember Rubin Marx, and Niewoudt: they were the ones who kept worrying me about coming to pick me up at home, and I prayed to God that these two white security police – they were old – that God keeps them alive. Even if they’re kept in an intensive care unit, because I want to deal with them when we are free.
1994 I really wanted to see Mr. Rubin Marx, because I thought I would wallop his face. And I met Rubin Marx in Main Street and he says to me: “Hi John!” And I looked at him, and I felt so good and I said, “Mr. Marx, I was right.” He said: “What?” I said: “I was right … you were wrong! I tell my children the struggle for liberation was a noble one, and it was for all the people of South Africa. What do you tell your children? Do you say you lied? That the blacks will never run this country successfully?” But I no longer wanted to do anything to him because in his face I saw a human being for the first time.
And I remembered what my mother said when the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) came to my small town of Port Elizabeth. I went down to ask my mother “Are we going to find out who shot my brother? I also want to find out who were the men – wearing balaclavas – who attacked me near the Dora Linda Hospital. I want to know who they were and who sent them and why.” My mother said “and then what?” I said “No I just want to know, don’t you?” And she said: “I know my son was killed by the police. I know my son died for us all. I don’t need the picture of that man in my mind. It’s good that everything is fine.”
Now my mother was a matriarch: what she said went! No nonsense! So I never went to the TRC, but I struggled in my heart with forgiveness. I supported the Cabinet’s initiative for truth and reconciliation I believed it was the only route for us all in South Africa. I knew the only way we can to move our country forward to focus on rebuilding that country to focus on economic empowerment and improvement, investment so that the ANC our government can deliver all the promises that were denied to the people.
But still I could not forgive. I even had difficulty with the Lord’s Prayer. It’s very easy to go “Our Father Who Art in Heaven,” (we used to sing it at school) “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name…” But I stopped when it comes to the line: “forgive us our trespasses,”…and then the difficult one: “…as we forgive them that trespass against us.” I knew I was lying. I knew I was lying!
From the body of work as a writer and a co-writer that Athol Fugard has written – from the early 60’s and the 70’s works which include SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD, THE ISLAND, works like WOZA ALBERT by Mbongeni Ngema, SURVIVAL and SARAFINA, and all the greats that came from that protest era. That work, although it accused the South African government and system of inhumanity, we knew the answer was not the opposite. We knew that which was wrong can not be replaced by us being wrong.
We knew that if we come with the right thing for South Africa it would be the right thing for all of us, and all South Africans and that gave me a sense of pride and incredible feeling that to all the white South Africans, I’m the one that’s right and I knew I was right. And I knew that our struggle was honest, our struggle was great and supported. As Bishop Tutu said: “If God is not in this struggle you will lose your humanity.”
Of course, we were faced by a massive state machinery of underground people who created the black-on-black violence with the international community, who said “look at them Africans killing each other!” We knew that was the major problem resulting, of course, in the death of Chris Hani, which led to the announcement of the 27th of April, 1994 which was the first elections in South Africa.
I took my whole family. We stood on the queue for four and a half hours.
Many of the media and the people taking pictures were asking me “Come, come Dr. Kani, you can go right in front. We want to take a picture of you putting your ballot paper there.” I said: “I will stand here. Wait for me to get to the front.” My wife thought the kids were hungry, so she took the car and went home and came with sandwiches.
And there were us, white and black and colored families around us, and while my wife had gone, this white woman with two children began to give my children part of the sandwiches and part of the little cartons of juice, you know, and they were sharing! And I thought, my Lord, what’s going on here? My wife arrived and she too did the same to everybody on the line. That for me was the miracle!
I went into the voting room, got my name and they put ink on my finger, I was fifty-one-years-old and it was the best time ever I voted in my life. I went to the queue, my ID was checked with the number, I went to the ballot little thing, you know, where you go and close the curtain and there was a piece of paper there. Just with names of the political parties, and all I needed to do was to make an X against the face of the old man that I like.
And I put it in there and stood, and felt there’s got to be something more … it’s not … it can’t be this easy. It can’t be just a matter of an X and then South Africa is free, it’s impossible! For over fifty years we’ve suffered the apartheid regime – how can it be this easy? How the hell didn’t we do it before?
We were ready in 1912, when the ANC was formed. Why it took so long for us to do such a simple thing? But as I stepped outside the voting little hall I felt the weight of responsibility of that democracy and what it means and must mean to our people. We immediately as artists gone and started working educating our people about democracy.
I used to tease a friend of mine, Helen Suzman, who’s one of the white militants in South Africa. I used to say to her: “Helen, while we are voting I’m house shopping because when we are free I’m taking over your house because it belongs to me it’s our country!” And we used to laugh at that and then we found out that freedom meant responsibility, that democracy meant equality, kindness and understanding.
And while we were angry – that’s when the political leadership began to talk about UBUNTU, and I remember … I remember my mother once saying in the Bible it said: “God created us in his own image.” And if God created me in his own image and created you in his own image then both of us are children of God. And that if I do anything to you that I don’t want you to do to me, then I’m against the principle of UBUNTU. It is then that I embraced this concept of UBUNTU, it is then that I had to deal with my anger.
Today I forgive the men who attacked me. Today I forgive the men who killed my brother. And all other brothers I know, because I know they know not what they were doing. UBUNTU is that human feeling. That’s why I was thinking when Johann asked me I was saying now to my friend, Saki, how do you explain a feeling – that which you are born with? How do you explain to an international audience that the reason white South Africans are still alive and we didn’t kill them all. We had the right to do so! It is because of UBUNTU.
How do you explain that mothers during the Truth and Reconciliation at the end when the perpetrators of extreme violence and murder asked for forgiveness, and Mrs. Godolozi comes to hug Dirk Coetzee (of Death Squad fame)? My mind keeps jerking – how does that happen? Some people think it’s a magic wand waived by Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, and to have the ANC decide we are gonna go for reconciliation. No, it is all the people of South Africa.
They were touched in the heart – in the center of their souls. It was invoking UBUNTU. That feeling that sees another human being; that feeling that sees through the pupils and sees through and be able to understand that we are all God’s children. That feeling that knows that violence begets violence, we need to weave a new tapestry of peace and reconciliation. That we don’t need revenge: we need working together.
And the needs of a new emerging South African society were stuck in our mind. There were nearly five to six million white people (the “Haves”), with a couple a few of them that “Have Not,” which I sometimes call failures, because the government had provided them with everything to have. The fact that they don’t have it must be that they are failing! And there’s about nearly 38 million black people who wanted to find democracy as a change in the status of their lives. How do you do that? How do you keep them waiting?
When the ANC built the first house people said “It’s coming!” When the international community began to invest in South Africa and productivity rose, and more projects were in demand, and the first job was advertised, people said “It’s beginning, it’s beginning!” When our brothers were now in Parliament they became members of the ruling party. We felt that we were also members of the ruling class. Things began to change. We began to feel: “Yes, now we are on the right track of building a new South Africa!”
Bishop Tutu speaks of the “rainbow nation.” Fantastic! But do not forget: the rainbow is made of seven distinct colors – they are not mish-mash. Each one of them stands in its own right with its own value. It is in the combination of all these colors that form the rainbow – that makes the rainbow beautiful. Understanding that I am black by no mistake nor biological error.
Understanding that you are white and by no problem of gratitude or superiority gift by God. That’s what makes us in South Africa a better nation. I just found out that about forty to sixty kilometers outside Johannesburg, Johann, in a place called Sterkfontein, in the caves there that Tobias has found out, Professor Tobias, that the first form of a human being in our form was actually in South Africa!
Which means all the various peoples of the world as various strains emanating from one being, and she was African! Which means we are all African! I like that. We are all Africans! You can go to your book – you can phone your professor, and you’ll find they will tell you we are all African. Some of us are a little darker than me with much broader lips and bluish eyes and a little bit of a posterior behind, but we’re African.
Some of us are thin, pug nose with thin lips and hair that can hold a pencil, but we are African. Some of us speak different from me but we are all Africans. And being African, is possessing the gift of UBUNTU. And if you are also all Africans, then you have it!
Bishop Tutu says: “There is kindness in all of us, the struggle for life is to hold on to that kindness while we do the daily business of our lives.” Politicians in conflict resolution have to understand that the subject matter on the table is not power, remaining in power, or perpetuating a dictatorship. It is the lives of the people that we’re dealing with.
And if they can touch their humanity – UBUNTU – they’ll be able to understand what is good for the people is also good for them. What is good for them is also good for the people. In business while the prerogatives and the demands are productivity, profitability, dividends, property and transparency. These are very big words! All they mean is: exploit the workers and make more money at the demand of dividends by shareholders.
Rouel Coza says: if we can emotionally – with UBUNTU – be able to manage those businesses, we will know that the workers are part of the bigger family that is part of this company or industry that will make it work.
Before we talk about overheads (and overheads these days is just the number of people you have to fire – that’s overheads) drop the overhead: it means how many people you are going to fire. In the theatre (I like this one) in the theatre on the art administration and the art industry, there’s a new phenomenon now.
It’s called CEO and CFO. The artistic director used to be the most senior person of the theatre. It is his vision or her vision together with the writers, directors and a small staff like you have in the office Johann, a small effective staff that made it possible for the curtain to go up at eight so that the writers, the directors and the actors can continue the message of goodness – of UBUNTU – through their work so that they can improve the morals and the understanding of UBUNTU within our community.
Today we have an accountant. We ask for funding. The government gave us funding, and we were very grateful, but the government also retains the right to appoint the Board! We said “Hold it!” They said “Because we’re giving you money, we’ve got to be accountable to Parliament, so we need to know what you’ve done with the money!” And I was the managing director/artistic director of the Market Theatre for eighteen years. And it was fantastic, because I sat at breakfast this morning and I was overhearing at the next table a lady was talking about researching artistic director sort of processes within the Arts.
And I was laughing because for eighteen years I had the problem of balancing the needs of the accountant, and the CEO, and the needs of Art. Art that addresses itself to our people; that improves the quality of our lives; that gives us a heritage we so deeply need of who we are, where we come from; that we are Africans, so that when we stand up in the international world in what’s called the global community, we are as proud as the Americans, the Chinese, the Russians, the French or any English you want.
It is exactly today that we find that the accountant and the CEO say to us: “Well, the problem with this you’re not going to break even.” I say “But this is a very important play, it’s an incredible story!” They said “We can go to the Board, but you’re not going to put on this play, because we’re not going to break even. There is no chance – show me how you’re going to break even!” I keep saying to them there’s a movie done by Tom Cruise with Nicole Kidman and everybody: it bombed!
So how the hell can I in the small little town of Johannesburg know that if I have top actors that it is going to make money. I can’t know that, so I need this leap of faith with the management of theatres and art institutions to understand that the important thing is the work – not the break even. We want government to know that we’re providing a service. We’re not in the business, but within the business of the Arts.
So our struggle now has become convincing accountants, CEO’s that the work is important. We have to return to the old days when the artistic director was the captain of the ship. We can only do that without making the CEO’s and the CFO’s lose their faith and their respectability, by doing of our work and explaining what UBUNTU means to them. To manage your institutions with sensitivity to the people that expect you to lead them. To be a leader that is actually a server leader.
I spoke to Nelson Mandela and I asked him “Why didn’t you do the second five years?” He said, “You know John, I love my people so much. I spent twenty-seven years with a dream of what kind of democracy or government I would like to put on. After five years, I have a feeling I’m going to believe myself, and continue believing myself to the extent that the people may depend on me to continue to drive this vision. And after twenty years like our neighbors not very far from South Africa, I will realize I can’t get out of this without losing everything, and that’s what results in dictatorship.”
At the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki for which I was program director, Nelson stood up and said to the heads of state – about forty to eighty of them sitting there – with all the heads of governments of this continent and overseas, even the late Arafat was there with Bill Clinton. Mandela says “I have one regret in my five years as the President: I did not ask the Parliament to appoint me life president!” Only the sixteenth row began to laugh, because in the first ten rows were all the heads of states who were presidents for life. All they did was to pretend they were laughing – to shake their shoulders like this, and they all felt it, and we were laughing.
That is why when I talk to this international community, I say in whatever we do in our daily lives, in our family we must always remember we’re dealing with human beings. They are in the image of God. They are in your own image. That which is good for you must also be good for them. Productivity yes. Profitability yes. But social responsibility has to be in the center nerve of the work we do.
In the Arts we must remember, as Peter Brooks says: “What has the size of the venue got to do with the quality of the work?” We did SIZWE BANZI in England in an eighty people seater and it was successful for twelve weeks, we went to West End and all over, and a greedy Broadway producer, a greedy Broadway producer, saw with a passion this great work and put us at the Edison Theatre that seats 1,800 people. A play that was designed for intimacy – but thank God it worked!
But if it had not worked, then the play would have been flawed as far as the big agents and producers. We have to think more about the impact of our work in our own society. We live in a fast changing world. People talk about global village. My focus at the moment is to get the village in New Brighton to work; is to make the people of my village believe in the goodness of our hearts as their leaders.
Believe in our commitment in making their lives better for the future. Before we can take that, and compare it in the global platforms. That is UBUNTU. That gift that is within us. That yin yang, but the yang with the yin side more. That when a child is born, that child is good – but the environment changes that child.
I used to drive in town and little kids this high would look at me and said: “Papa, kyk daai Kaffer!” (Daddy, look at that nigger!), and I used to think: “How did she get there? How!? How did she get there? Where were the parents to see this thing being dehumanized and destroyed?”
We’ve become beautiful and powerful leaders in our industry and our workplace but when we go home we become the worst teachers to our own family. South Africa today is faced with the pandemic of AIDS. Everybody says our president is stubborn. He doesn’t want to agree that HIV causes AIDS. Who cares?
The people need the medicine the people need the drugs today. If it is the politics and the intellectual jargon which I call diarrhea in verbosity; the issue is the people! The issue is the people the issue is not what you believe in leadership or not; that we have to attack AIDS because South Africa is out of time.
When the first cases of AIDS were heard in 1980’s, South African white government did not believe that it had anything to do with them. So the real campaign against AIDS started in 1994! So you can see how out of time we are and our government is doing the best it can today to challenge and meet that deficit – but the deficit is in human lives.
So when we talk about the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the WTO and our leaders in Africa talk about the African debt, we’re not talking about any commercial or business deal. We are asking you to help us save a nation that is dying. Fighting a biological war against themselves. We are appealing perhaps to you that you do also have UBUNTU: humaneness, kindness, sensitivity. That you understand that you have a responsibility to your fellow human beings.
That responsibility begins within your own tiny little mom, dad and two kids; it goes to the street; it goes to the community; it goes to the nation, and then global. If you forget that, you need to get back to basics. You need to ask yourselves: “Why am I here? Why am I alive? Why am I the CEO of ISPA? Why am I on the board of ISPA? Why am I doing this thing? I’m not doing it because I love having this conference: I’m doing it because I

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