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The Pain Of The Business Of Death

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A hearse arrives at 6AM on a chilly Wednesday morning in Paulshof, a suburb in the north of Johannesburg; relatives weep as the coffin is carried into the house. At the gate is a red carpet and cars galore. This is no ordinary funeral. It’s the burial of Peter Zulu, the man famous for his son, Gugu Zulu, a racecar driver who died while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

There are hundreds here and they have come to mourn at vast expense.

This is one of nearly half a million funerals that happen every year in South Africa alone. The business of death is worth an estimated R9 billion ($700 million).

It is thriving but plagued by the lack of regulation and crookery.

“There’s a lot of fraud that’s going on within the funeral industry. People are registered dead but they are not certified dead,” says Johan Rousseau, Executive Chairman of the Funeral Industry Reformed Association.

There is no standard pricing.

“The industry value hasn’t been even determined by Statistics SA because they only look at a small percentage of funerals and their contribution to the GDP but how can they do that when they don’t have the database,” says Rousseau.

“Why do you have to pay R1,500 for a grave site in East London, in the Eastern Cape and pay R400 in Gauteng? It doesn’t make sense to me. The insurance industry is using that unregulated market to sell their products and services, because they don’t have interest rates, by employing a funeral parlour as an agent to do all the work for them. The insurance industry doesn’t invest back into the funeral parlours at all.”

Assisted Dying: Mercy Or Monster?

Rousseau says they want to create regulations that would set a standard and bring in investments to grow the economy, create jobs and assist emerging parlours.

“There are 25,000 parlours in the country, now we have to think how we advance them. We have to look at the laws because it excludes some of these guys from entering the market because they are renting facilities,” he says.

Stockvels are also not regulated.

The Tears And Fears Of Staging Funerals

Morongwa Broodie (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

Morongwa Broodie is one of thousands of entrepreneurs across Africa making a living from people dying. Dealing with dead bodies and grieving families isn’t everybody’s idea of making money – it’s her daily bread.

It’s a two-hour drive to the Broodie Funeral Parlour in Soshanguve, a small township north of Pretoria. Outside is a fleet of cars, down the road: a salon; a repair shop; a school and hundreds roaming about not knowing that the people who will carry them to their final resting place are just around the corner.

For a woman who deals with mourners everyday Broodie appears wearing a charming smile as she welcomes us to her office, where, on the wall is a CCTV monitor watching all the rooms.

She talks with her hands; she leans into the table to make a point. Broodie appears professional, clinical and tough – probably what this business needs. This is the queen of the business of death on her throne.

Little in her fiefdom fazes her.

“You want to start with the interview or should we go see the bodies first?” she says pointing at the CCTV showing a worker busy with a body.

Every morning, at 8AM, it is Broodie’s job to check the bodies and her premises.

“We have a meeting where we discuss previous funerals and how we can improve the business. Then I come to my office, I read my book, I Declare by Joel Osteen, it’s got 31 promises, this book keeps me motivated and it’s very relevant to every situation of the day. I then check my emails and do whatever needs to be done before closing at 4:30PM,” says Broodie.

Broodie bought the business in 2013, after quitting her job as a teacher her husband told her about the parlour and persuaded her to buy.

“I never imagined myself working in a mortuary, but when I saw the business, I realized I could do it. I worked with the previous owner for three months before I took over completely.”

Broodie describes the first time she saw a dead body as scary.

“The first time I saw a corpse it was an old man who was in a casket ready to go home. He was just sleeping peacefully. I touched him, he was cold. I tried to wake him up but he was still; that’s when I realized that he was dead. On that night I had a nightmare like there was a big casket next to my bed. I screamed,” she says.

“After taking over the business, the first person I saw was from a government mortuary, it was a gentleman. When they opened his body bag, his legs were literally on his chest, and the guy who was preparing the body just took the legs and was like here are the legs. I was so frightened,” says Broodie.

It didn’t take long to adapt.

“I went to the fridge every day; sometimes I’d go in the morning to see what they are doing when they pick up a body from home or at hospital so that I can have an understanding of everything. We are lucky that we see these people dead but what about doctors who do surgical operations, sometimes patients come with intestines out. With us it’s different, everything is just still. Then you understand that there’s no more pain here,” she says.

For Broodie it’s the death of children that upsets her.

“I become affected the most when it’s children, because seeing a small body lying there vulnerable is devastating. With older people we kind of already know they cannot live long,” she says.

Through all the stress the business is booming. Last year, they made over R7 million ($540,000) and employ more than 30 people.

“The way people are dying these days, there’s no week that goes without burials. Just in Soshanguve we have more than 40 funeral parlours and every week we meet at the gravesite burying people,” says Broodie.

Prophets Of Profit

Broodie Funeral Parlour buries five to eight people a day. Their caskets cost up to R580,000 ($45,000).

“We have five-star packages; we do elite funerals and have a number of burials we do per day. If there are more funerals, we move them over to the next day.”

“Death is more expensive than living. Let me tell you that we can run a funeral of R110,000 in a four-roomed-house. The way people plan for death is so amazing; they even take policies, excluding the groceries and the catering. We also did cremation with an expensive casket of R90, 000 ($7,000).”

The job isn’t easy.

“Sometimes we’re delayed because families don’t pay on time. We organize funerals within four days; we must get the programs, clothes, etc. On the day of the funeral they tell us that they don’t have money or policies, only to find that they’ve bought new clothes and catering is there, but when it comes to paying us they come up with excuses. We don’t do a funeral if clients haven’t paid for services in full,” says Broodie.

“When families enter the gate, and pass my office, I’d see them crying, sometimes they come in groups hurt and confused, I also become so emotional. This is a business that needs emotions and we have to be with the families until the end and give them comfort.”

Broodie feels safer with dead bodies than people.

“I usually say to my employees that the people at the back are kings and queens, in this business we need to treat them well. Those who give us problems are human beings who can ruin everything,” she says.

“I do routine check-ups; the people working at the back can put a lot of bodies in the fridge that aren’t even my clients. They can give other funeral parlours space and I wouldn’t know it,” she says.

Broodie has survived the tears and fears of the hard-headed business of death; she is capitalizing and plans to turn her business into a franchise.

‘I Couldn’t Even Look At The Face, I Was Too Scared’

Charles Khomo (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

At the Broodie mortuary, we are welcomed by a man in a white coat who looks like a professor. His name is Charles Khomo and his game is death.

Khomo, a morgue officer, has been in the business of death for three years. Every day he collects bodies at crime scenes, hospitals and homes.

“When I get here, I have to wash it and put it in a fridge,” says Khomo.

“Every morning I have to check on the bodies and whether the temperature is still on 0 degrees, not 10 or 20. It has to be cold all the time so that bodies don’t rot and smell. If the body smells, I have to take it out, wash it with chemicals so that it can kill the smell and put it back in the fridge,” says Khomo.

“Sometimes bodies come in a bag and full of blood, I have to clean and rinse it before putting it in the fridge.”

On this day, inside the mortuary, it is cold and quiet except for the hum of a ceiling fan. I get this strange fear and so does the photographer. We prefer the land of the living.

Khomo is busy with a body that’s going to be buried the next day. “You want to see, come and see,” he says.

A man is lying in a casket as though he’s sleeping peacefully. It is a surprise how comfortable Khomo is, considering he spends his day with dead bodies.

“When I first started working here I was scared. I remember they wanted finger prints of the dead for a death certificate. I was given a stamp and I couldn’t even look at the face because I was too scared. There was a time when a body came in a bag and the person was in pieces, he was run over by a train. I had to open the body bag; I couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman. I had to do it because this is what puts food on my table.”

Psychologists counsel the more than 30 staff who work here. The most important thing here is cleanliness – they have to wear gloves, overalls, big white boots and a mask. The fan has to be on at all times.

“My biggest challenge is picking up an overweight person from a four-roomed house alone,” he says.

Pain often comes with the job.

“Last year, it was tough when I lost my mother in September to diabetes, my niece died while giving birth, my uncle and cousin died from illness in December. All four of my family members were lying in that fridge, at the same time. I hated this place but then I asked myself, if I can’t do this job who’s going to do it?” he says, shaking his head.

Khomo opens the massive fridge with three bodies, neatly tucked in cream body bags, each with a tag on the left foot.

“The toe tags are very important to avoid confusion and mixing up the bodies. On these tags we write the name of the deceased, who picked them up, where we picked them up and contact numbers,” says Khomo.

Just another day in the morgue.

A Funeral App? From Coffin To Amen In 30 Minutes

Lebohang Khitsane (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

There is an app for everything these days. Now there is an app for funerals that takes you 30 minutes to arrange a burial.

This is the work of South African entrepreneur Lebohang Khitsane, CEO and founder of Bataung Memorials. The app was launched at the end of July. He named it The Jacob’s Bridge after his late father.

“It’s a portal where people can google funerals and coffins. It will lead them to our page which has a display of coffins and tombstones. We are also in partnership with different undertakers and we connect them with people depending on their preferences. We also connect people with clothing designers and psychologists,” says Khitsane.

“It is very convenient, they don’t have to go to mortuaries, we connect them with caterers, tents, decors, tombstones everything that has to do with a funeral. We want to save them time; people should spend more time mourning than running around searching for suppliers.”

It took Khitsane two years to build the app.

“A friend asked me to connect him with an undertaker that I know, I did. We did a checklist and managed to organize everything within 30 minutes, including tents, caterers, coffin. I said to myself this could be a lucrative business,” says Khitsane.

Entrepreneurship was always in Khitsane’s blood; his first business was a printing company, then he imported clothes from Germany. Khitsane was born and raised in Katlehong, a township east of Johannesburg; his father was a welder.

“I never thought I’d be in the business of death industry. My mother died when I was six and I hated going to the graveyard. But now I go there literally every day,” says Khitsane.

In 2004, Khitsane overcame his fear to found Bataung Memorials.

“The tombstones are characterized according to the personality of the deceased. If you are a musician your tombstone will have a stage and a microphone. A soccer player will have a pitch and a ball. Each and every stone has a story behind it.”

Khitsane’s work goes beyond the ordinary. He created a statue for former South African President Thabo Mbeki and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 2013, he created a braille tombstone for blind people and a barcode epitaph.

“People wanted long messages written on a stone and it wasn’t always possible, so we created a QR code that can be placed on the tombstone. When you scan it with your tablet or phone it immediately takes you to the photos, history and videos of the deceased. You can also leave a message of condolence for the family,” says Khitsane.

At a time when many businesses are struggling, the business of death is flourishing. Bataung Memorial’s annual turnover is $3 million. Their tombstones can cost up to R1 million ($77,500). Clearly death is as expensive as living.

“At the moment we are working on a tombstone that cost R2.6 million ($200,000). It’s huge, four meters high; it’s sitting on a 16-square-meter space of the grave. Its weight can be 34 tons. The foundations and concrete work is over R400,000 ($31,000) because we need to put proper foundations, beams and steel.”

Bataung Memorial has made 15,000 tombstones for African families living as far as Australia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland and Malawi.

His design of late South African actor Joe Mafela’s tombstone (a giant stone which is a portrayal of a lounge, with a TV and couch/sitting bench) was trending on social media, with many arguing over it.

As long as the deceased’s family is at peace, Khitsane is content. “It is a very sensitive business because we deal with emotional people and sometimes people tend to be unreasonable, but we have to redo the design until they are happy.”

(Photos by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

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Current Affairs

The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation

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Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.


As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.    

The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).

The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.

The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.

To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.

Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.

Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.

“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.

But South African businesses were affected too.

Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.

Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.

“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.

 Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected. 

Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.

“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.

Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).

Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.

Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.

The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.

Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.” 

Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.

There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.

There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.

A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.   

Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”

“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.

She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.

Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.

“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.

She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.

“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).

“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.

Women stop traffic while they hold up placards stating their grievences against GBV. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.

The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.

Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?

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How LinkedIn Is Looking To Help Close The Ever-Growing Skills Gap

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As the job market has evolved, so too have the skills required of seekers. But when 75% of human resources professionals say a skills shortage has made recruiting particularly challenging in recent months, it would appear as though the workforce hasn’t quite kept pace. Now LinkedIn is stepping in to help close the gap.

On Tuesday, the professional social network announced the launch of a “Skills Assessments” tool, through which users can put their knowledge to the test. Those who pass are given the opportunity to display a badge that reads “passed” next to the skill on their profile pages, a validation of sorts that LinkedIn hopes will encourage skills development among its users and help better match potential employees with the right employers.  

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“We see an evolving labor market and much more sophistication in how recruiters and hiring managers look for skills. … We also see a changing learning market,” says Hari Srinivasan, senior director of product management at LinkedIn Learning. “The combination of those two made us excited about changing our opportunity marketplace to make the hiring side and the learning side work better together.”

So how exactly does it work? Let’s say a user wants to showcase her proficiency in Microsoft Excel. Rather than simply listing “Excel” in the skills section of her profile, she can take a multiple-choice test to demonstrate the extent to which she is an expert.

If she aces the test, not only will a badge verifying her aptitude will appear on her profile, but she will be more likely to surface in searches by recruiters, who can search for candidates by skill in the same way they might do so by college or employer. If she fails, she can take the test again, but she’ll have to wait a few months—plenty of time to develop her skillset.   

The tool has been in beta mode since March, and while just 2 million people have used it—a mere fraction of LinkedIn’s 630 million members—early results seem promising. According to LinkedIn, members who’ve completed skills assessments have been nearly 30% more likely to land jobs than their counterparts who did not take the tests.

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“This has been a really good way for members to represent what they know, what they are good at,” says Emrecan Dogan, LinkedIn group product manager.

While new to LinkedIn, the practice of assessing candidates’ skills has been a standard among hiring managers for decades. But when research commissioned by LinkedIn revealed that 69% of employees feel that skills have become more important to recruiters than education, LinkedIn felt as though this was the time to give job seekers the opportunity to prove themselves from the get-go.

As important as the hard skills that members can put to the test through LinkedIn’s new tool may be, Dawn Fay, senior district president at recruiting firm Robert Half, encourages those on both side of the job search not to forget the importance of soft skills. “You wouldn’t want to rule somebody in or out just based on how they did on one particular skill assessment,” she says.

“Have another data point that you can use, question people about how they did on something and see if it’s something that can feed into the puzzle to find out if somebody is going to be a good fit.”

-Samantha Todd; Forbes

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Why The High Number Of Employees Quitting Reveals A Strong Job Market

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While recession fears may be looming in the minds of some, new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the economy and job market may actually be strengthening.

The quits rate—or the percentage of all employees who quit during a given month—rose to 2.4% in July, according to the BLS’s Jobs Openings and Labor Turnover report, released Tuesday. That translates to 3.6 million people who voluntarily left their jobs in July.

This is the highest the quits rate has been since April 2001, just five months after the Labor Department began tracking it. According to Nick Bunker, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, the quits rate tends to be a reflection of the state of the economy.

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“The level of the quits rate really is a sign of how strong the labor market is,” he says. “If you look at the quits rate over time, it really drops quite a bit when the labor market gets weak. During the recession it was quite low, and now it’s picked up.”

The monthly jobs report, released last week, revealed that the economy gained 130,000 jobs in August, which is 20,000 less than expected, and just a few weeks earlier, the BLS issued a correction stating that it had overestimated by 501,000 how many jobs had been added to the market in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019. Yet despite all that, employees still seem to have confidence in the job market.Today In: Leadership

The quits level, according to the BLS, increased in the private sector by 127,000 for July but was little changed in government. Healthcare and social assistance saw an uptick in departures to the tune of 54,000 workers, while the federal government saw a rise of 3,000.

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The July quits rate in construction was 2.4%, while the number in trade, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality were 2.6%, 3.1% and 4.8%, respectively. Bunker of Indeed says that the industries that tend to see the highest rate of departuresare those where pay is relatively low, such as leisure and hospitality. An unknown is whether employees are quitting these jobs to go to a new industry or whether they’re leaving for another job in the same industry. Either could be the case, says Bunker.

In a recently published article on the industries seeing the most worker departures, Bunker attributes the uptick to two factors—the strong labor market and faster wage growth in the industries concerned: “A stronger labor market means employers must fill more openings from the ranks of the already employed, who have to quit their jobs, instead of hiring jobless workers. Similarly, faster wage growth in an industry signals workers that opportunities abound and they might get higher pay by taking a new job.”

Even so, recession fears still dominate headlines. According to Bunker, the data shows that when a recession hits, employers pull back on hiring and workers don’t have the opportunity to find new jobs. Thus, workers feel less confident and are less likely to quit.

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“As the labor market gets stronger, there’s more opportunities for workers who already have jobs. So they quit to go to new jobs or they quit in the hopes of getting new jobs again,” Bunker says. He also notes that recession fears may have little to do with the job market, instead stemming from what is happening in the financial markets, international relations or Washington, D.C.

So what does the BLS report say about the job market? “Taking this report as a whole, it’s indicating that the labor market is still quite strong, but then we lost momentum,” Bunker says. While workers are quitting their jobs, he says that employers are pulling back on the pace at which they’re adding jobs. “While things are quite good right now and workers are taking advantage of that,” he notes, “those opportunities moving forward might be fewer and fewer if the trend keeps up.”

-Samantha Todd; Forbes

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