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The President’s Vegetable Garden

There are very few countries, I think, where a satirical news site is frequently mistaken for being entirely serious. Hayibo – the South African equivalent of the Daily Mash or the Onion – must, occasionally, point out to its readers that its stories are made up, rather than real.

Readers can be forgiven for wondering if a report about striking Marikana mineworkers being charged for the Helderberg plane crash is true, when the ANC announces an official policy on the serving of cake at party celebrations. Or if Cosatu officials really did believe they could move into Cape Town stadium, after the ANC Women’s League decided to march against a rude painting of Jacob Zuma, rather than protest the circumstances which allowed for the serial abuse and gang rape of a seventeen year-old mentally incapacitated girl.

A Hayibo post from this week suggests that the ANC’s national conference to be held in December in Manguang, will be replaced by an episode of Come Dine with Me. Instead of conference delegates voting to choose the new leader of the party – and, thus, by default, the next president of South Africa – four contestants will compete in a series of dinner parties:

The cookery show…will feature President Jacob Zuma take on rival Kgalema Motlanthe, former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and Proteas batsman Hashim Amla.

When asked why Amla, a cricketer, was suddenly a contender for the top leadership position in the ANC, BBC producer Cokey McLush shrugged and said ‘Everyone loves that geezer, yeah?’

The four will each host a dinner party on successive nights, and after each dinner will rate the host on his evening. ‘The winner walks away with Pick ‘n Pay vouchers worth R5000, as well as obviously the complete control of South Africa’s political space, so there’s a lot to play for,’ explained McLush.

It would all be much more amusing were it not so very, very serious. I was thinking about food and South African politics this week, after the Mail and Guardian produced a handy interactive guide to the development of Nkandla, the village in which Zuma’s private residence is based.

The Nkandla scandal has rocked South African politics and civil society over the past few weeks, as the City Press revealed that the Department of Public Works has committed to spending R203 million – about US$23 million or £14 million – of public money, not only in developing this village in rural KwaZulu-Natal, but in building Zuma’s increasingly elaborate home.

South African Wonder Woman-incarnate Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector, has announced an investigation into the development. Despite her interest and increasing public outrage, the government remains unrepentant: it has declared Nklandla a ‘national key point’, meaning that it comes under security legislation and can’t be reported on; the Minister for Public Works, Thulas Nxesi, declared at a press conference that ‘questioning the need for spending hundreds of millions of rands in Nkandla showed insensitivity to the cultural diversity of South Africa’; and the state has launched an investigation into how the City Press got hold of the documents which revealed the scale of the spending at Nklandla.

Not for nothing has Nkandla been nicknamed ‘Zumaville’. The M&G’s guide reveals how the village will be transformed with new roads, housing, and a shopping centre. Zuma’s own residence will have two helicopter landing pads, a football pitch, tennis court, and underground bunkers. (Remembering, of course, that he has two official houses, one in Pretoria and the other in Cape Town.) I was intrigued by the fact that a vegetable garden has also been included in the development.

The M&G explains:

The vegetable garden is outside the main security zone, but still inside the outer fence, making it accessible for the people who tend it without a need for them to use the front entrance of the compound. The public works department says food security was identified as a potential security threat for President Jacob Zuma and visiting dignitaries, which means the establishment of the garden may have been state-funded.

I am all for heads of state planting vegetable gardens: I think it’s an excellent idea, particularly as a means of encouraging people to grow their own food. I wish more presidents and prime ministers would plant vegetables to show their commitment to feeding their families healthily and relatively cheaply. But I have a couple of reservations about this garden.

Firstly, the Department of Public Works justifies funding the garden on the grounds that food insecurity could pose a threat to Zuma and his guests. What do we mean by ‘food security’? As a paper published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, and cited by the M&G, explains:

Food security as an umbrella term includes: (i) the availability of food that is nutritious and safe; (ii) an assured ability to procure and acquire food of good quality in a socially acceptable way (e.g. without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or similar coping strategies). In contrast, food insecurity exists when food is not easily accessible and households have difficulty securing adequate food.

The authors of the paper argue that although food insecurity declined in South Africa between 1995 and 2008 – due partly to the social grants system and the work of the National School Nutrition Programme – one third of South African children do not eat an adequately varied diet, and 18% of them are malnourished:

Our findings show that the nutrient density of the diet consumed by South African children is insufficient to meet their nutrient requirements. Similarly, they have shown alarmingly low food variety and household dietary diversity scores, both of which have been positively related to children’s nutritional status. … Hence, stunting still affects a large proportion of children.

One of the main reasons for food insecurity in South Africa is poverty and, partly as a result of this, the country’s population is at risk of becoming even more insecure. A 2009 report on food security published by the Human Sciences Research Council notes:

Rising food prices, particularly of maize and wheat which are the staple diet of the poor in South Africa, pose serious problems for the urban and rural poor as most are net buyers of food. Recent information from the Food and Agriculture Organisation…suggest that food prices will increase steadily over the next decade even if there are some fluctuations and the occasional drop in prices. Given increasingly strong linkages between the local level and national and international commodity chains and economic networks, even remote rural households in South Africa are affected by changes in these networks. Unless there are new policy directions, poor households will increasingly be forced to allocate a greater proportion of their expenditure to food, with the result that diets will become less diverse, lower in quality, and energy intake (calories consumed) will drop as people try to cope with the situation. Most severely affected will be the chronically urban and rural poor, the landless and female headed households.

Although the government deserves praise for reducing levels of hunger in South Africa, far too many people, particularly children, don’t have adequate access to food. Indeed, it would appear that with rising food prices internationally, there is a risk that the country may become more food insecure.

To justify the public funding of a vegetable garden for the president’s private residence on the grounds of ‘food security’ is deeply offensive to the numbers of South Africans who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families properly. If the president and the Department of Public Works were genuinely interested in reducing food insecurity in the region, it would make far better sense for them to plant a larger, communal garden for all of Nkandla’s residents.

My second problem with Zuma’s vegetable garden is the very dubious way in which it’s been funded. There is a link between poor governance and food insecurity. One of the best recent examples of how corruption impedes food distribution occurred in Uttar Pradesh. Throughout India, only 41 per cent of the food intended for the very poor by the Food Corporation of India – the government agency established in 1965 to ensure India’s food supply – reaches households. This is due partly to wastage, but also to corruption.

In Uttar Pradesh, though, nearly all food aid was stolen by corrupt officials over the course of three years, as Bloomberg reports:

The scam itself was simple. So much so, that by 2007 corrupt politicians and officials in at least 30 of Uttar Pradesh’s 71 districts had learned to copy it…. All they had to do was pay the government the subsidized rates for the food. Then instead of selling it on to villagers at the lower prices, they sold to traders at market rates.

The irony is that India’s food reserves are full – and there’s more than enough food to go around:

While the Food Corporation of India is required to keep about 32 million metric tons of rice and wheat, bumper harvests have left the country with a stockpile of more than 80 million tonnes, according to the corporation. Stacked in 50-kilogram sacks, the food would reach from Sitapur to the moon, with at least 270,000 bags to spare.

To stop food rotting, the central government lifted a four- year ban on exports of wheat last year. In June, India donated 250,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan.

But with corrupt officials, there’s no way of guaranteeing that this food will reach the poor. When distribution systems fail, people go hungry – and more than half of India’s children, and 21 per cent of adults, suffer from malnutrition.

This is, admittedly, an extreme example of the implications of corruption for food security, but it demonstrates particularly well how poor governance can impact the lives of the very poor. Given the rising levels of corruption in South Africa, it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that the government’s good work on reducing hunger has the potential to be reversed if systems are corrupted through bribery, theft, and mismanagement.

It’s an obvious point, but the R203 million set aside for Zumaville could have been used to build roads, railways, food silos, and other infrastructure to improve the distribution of food to rural areas.

Six years ago, Lonmin commissioned a report into the health of the communities in seven villages – including Marikana – around its platinum mines. One of the main findings was that malnutrition was a major problem, and that children had been discovered suffering from kwashiorkor:

an easily prevented condition that occurs when there is insufficient protein in the diet. Kwashiorkor is more common in countries in a state of political unrest, or where there has been a drought or natural disaster.

Why the president feels that he and his guests deserve a state-funded vegetable garden when South African children are suffering from a condition associated with failed states, is utterly beyond me.

Further Reading

Miriam Altman, Tim Hart, and Peter Jacobs, Food Security in South Africa (Human Sciences Research Council, 2009).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Not in my trolley

This has not been a particularly edifying week for white South Africans. After an angry blog post about Woolworths’s hiring policies went viral, a surprisingly large group of white people have threatened to boycott the supermarket. Woolies – an upmarket food-and-clothing store similar to Marks and Spencer in the UK – notes in some of its job advertisements that certain positions are available only to black candidates.

Pierre de Vos, Professor of constitutional law, points out that this is ‘neither illegal nor unconstitutional.’ The purpose of the measure is to address the absence of black South Africans in particular categories of jobs. The company has not introduced a moratorium on hiring whites, and whites may still apply for jobs advertised as being aimed specifically at black candidates.

In a magnificent riposte to the white loons threatening never to shop again at Woolworths – in the strange belief that other supermarkets don’t have similar hiring policies (they do) – Ferial Haffajee, editor of the City Press, explained:

Without affirmative action, I would likely be a retrenched clothing factory worker or a low-level banking clerk. That was the expected, the planned outcome for people like me. The system was called apartheid. We needed help to escape our destiny and millions of South Africans still need that help.

It is not reverse racism, but a Constitutional imperative to fix our society. …those of you who spammed the Woolies CEO for applying the law are wrong. You discount, completely, the role of inter-generational privilege in your life.

To make a good future society demands we have make-right policies for the old one. It doesn’t fix itself.

I doubt that the boycott will have any effect on Woolies’ sales this year. The satirical site Hayibo summed up middle-class South Africans’ relationship with the store particularly well:

‘I will never shop at Woolies again, until later this afternoon when I will go and get salmon and malva pudding,’ said one irate shopper.

Indeed.

As this was a lost opportunity to have a constructive discussion about affirmative action and economic empowerment in post-apartheid South Africa – two issues always worth thinking about – this also represents a moment to think about the nature and effects of consumer boycotts.

I was particularly amused by this threatened whites-only boycott because of the impact that international boycotts had on apartheid South Africa. The country’s economy was brought to its knees after the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act became law in the US, preventing American businesses and banks from exporting and importing some commodities to and from South Africa, and investing in, and extending loans to, the country. Sport and cultural boycotts accompanied these sanctions.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain originated as a boycott campaign against South African produce in 1959. It organised boycotts of Cape Fruit, Outspan oranges, and a range of other products, as well as of businesses like Barclays and Total which operated in South Africa. Even if this campaign – and others around the world – didn’t pose as much as a threat to the apartheid state as the sanctions of the 1980s, what they achieved was to make ordinary people aware of apartheid by appealing to them not to support the South African economy.

There seems to have been an increase in this kind of political consumer boycott since the 1980s, and probably as a result of a heightened awareness of the connection between the exercise of political power and the emergence of global corporations. One of the best – and most successful – examples of these was the Nestle Boycott organised by War on Want and other groups in 1977, to draw attention to the link between the marketing of infant formula and high rates of child mortality in the developing world.

But political consumerism and consumer boycotts have existed long before then. In fact, the abolitionist movement has been described as one of the first examples of concerted consumer activism in support of a political cause. Not only could early opponents to slavery buy abolitionist-themed crockery from Wedgwood, but, particularly during the nineteenth century, abolitionists all over the world refused to buy American sugar or cotton.

Lawrence B. Glickman writes:

consumer activism – the attempt to mobilise consumers for political purposes – has been important to American political culture at least since the Boston Tea Party. Indeed…American national identity was forged in no small part through collective acts of consumption. Central to African American claims for political and economic inclusion have been demands for…‘consumer entitlement,’ ranging from boycotting Jim Crow street cars to taking advantage of the ‘autonomy and anonymity’ of catalogue shopping as a way of avoiding mistreatment by merchants, to boycotting tourism in South Carolina as a way of protesting the Confederate flag that until recently flew over the state house. Similarly…among many women in the Progressive Era ‘consumer consciousness built political consciousness’ as they boycotted unsafe and costly food and campaigned for minimum wages and decent labour standards for those who produced what they bought.

It’s striking how frequently consumer boycotts have been used by those who are politically and socially marginalised, to demand equal treatment and an end to discrimination. They were a key strategy in the American Civil Rights movement, and featured to some extent in the Defiance Campaign against apartheid legislation in the early 1950s, and, later, during the township rebellion in the 1980s.

Some of the earliest consumer boycotts in the United States and Britain were organised by women, and usually in response to sudden increases in the price of staple foods. For instance, in 1902, immigrant Jewish women in New York organised a boycott after the price of Kosher beef increased by half. By withdrawing their support from local butchers – and, admittedly, rioting in lower Manhattan – they managed to reduce prices.

In 1924 and 1933, Jewish women in Toronto – many of them members of communist groups – also organised boycotts of Kosher butchers to protest rising prices of meat. On both occasions, significant numbers of women were mobilised not only to stop shopping for meat, but to picket butchers.

Indeed, there were widespread boycotts organised by women during the Great Depression. These ‘housewives’ protests’ were part of a broader movement in which women sought to mitigate the effects of the Depression by lobbying government, planting community gardens, establishing bartering systems for food and other goods, and even engaging in acts of civil disobedience. In Cleveland, for instance, black mothers protested a power company’s decision to switch off electricity as a result of non-payment of bills, by hanging wet washing over the power lines. The electricity was switched on the next day.

In 1946, the Washington Committee for Consumer Protection was formed by a group of women – including some who had been active in union politics during the 1930s – to organise boycotts of red meat and other products to protest the increase in food prices at the end of the Second World War. (The American government had kept them artificially low during the conflict.) Other committees organised boycotts of milk and dairy products for similar reasons.

Boycotts demonstrate particularly well that buying power – and the exercise or withholding of this power – seems to function as a replacement of real access to political power for those who are socially marginalised.

I don’t want to suggest for a moment that there’s an equivalence between the heroic housewives of 1930s America and the white nitwits who are trying – and probably failing – to organise a boycott of Woolworths. But I do think that the rage which has propelled this boycott suggests that there is a section of South Africa’s white population which feels – with some justification – that its interests are not being represented by mainstream political parties. And this is worth taking seriously.

Further Reading

Monroe Friedman, ‘American Consumer Boycotts in Response to Rising Food Prices: Housewives’ Protests at the Grassroots Level,’ Journal of Consumer Policy, vol. 18 (1995), pp. 55-72.

Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘“Buy for the Sake of the Slave”: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism,’ American Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 889-912.

Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘The Strike in the Temple of Consumption: Consumer Activism and Twentieth-Century American Political Culture,’ The Journal of American History, vol. 88, no. 1 (Jun., 2001), pp. 99-128.

Matthew Hilton, ‘The Female Consumer and the Politics of Consumption in Twentieth-Century Britain,’ The Historical Journal, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 103-128.

Stacy Kinlock Sewell, ‘The “Not-Buying Power” of the Black Community: Urban Boycotts and Equal Employment Opportunity, 1960-1964,’ The Journal of African American History, vol. 89, no. 2, African Americans and the Urban Landscape (Spring, 2004), pp. 135-151.

Annelise Orleck, ‘“We Are That Mythical Thing Called the Public”: Militant Housewives during the Great Depression,’ Feminist Studies, vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 147-172.

Kathleen C. Schwartzman, ‘Can International Boycotts Transform Political Systems? The Cases of Cuba and South Africa,’ Latin American Politics and Society, vol. 43, no. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 115-146.

Andor Skotnes, ‘“Buy Where You Can Work”: Boycotting for Jobs in African-American Baltimore, 1933-1934,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 27, no. 4 (Summer, 1994), pp. 735-761.

Dietlind Stolle, Marc Hooghe, and Michele Micheletti, ‘Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a Form of Political Participation,’ International Political Science Review, vol. 26, no. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 245-269.

Lynne Taylor, ‘Food Riots Revisited,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 30, no. 2 (Winter, 1996), pp. 483-496.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Eat the Rich

Today’s City Press includes a fantastically interesting article about the increased incidence of obesity in post-1994 South Africa. The piece explores the links between the country’s transition to democracy and the fact that 61% of all South Africans – 70% of women over the age of 35, 55% of white men 15 years and older, and a quarter of all teenagers – are obese or overweight.

The reasons for these incredibly high levels of obesity are, as the article acknowledges, complex. In many ways, South Africa conforms to a pattern emerging throughout the developing world. In a report published a few months ago, the World Health Organisation noted that lifestyle-related diseases – like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity – are now among the main causes of death and disease in developing nations. These diseases of affluence are no longer limited to the West.

For the new South African middle classes, fast food and branded processed products, like Coke, are markers of sophistication: of having ‘made it’ in this increasingly prosperous society. But, as in the rest of the world, those at the top of the social scale tend not to be overweight:

contrary to popular myth, obesity is not a ‘rich man’s disease’.

Indeed, the most affluent urbanites can get into their SUVs and drive to gym or to Woolies food hall where, for a price, they can load up their trolleys with fresh, top-quality groceries – from free-range chickens to organic lemons.

This means, says [Prof Salome] Kruger, that ‘the highest income earners are thinner’.

For urban dwellers who earn less, fresh food is usually more difficult, and expensive, to buy than processed non-food:

But for your average city dweller – earning money, but not necessarily enough to own a car to get them out to the major supermarket malls – food is where you find it.

Typically, this is in small corner shops selling a limited, and often more expensive, range of fresh foods. Fruit and veg can be hard to find among the toothpaste and toilet paper spaza staples.

‘R15!’ It’s taxi fare from Orlando to the Pick n Pay in Soweto’s Maponya Mall – and it was 25-year-old road worker Lindiwe Xorine’s reply when City Press asked her how far it was to the nearest supermarket.

We call these areas where access to fresh food is limited, ‘food deserts’. It’s entirely possible to buy fruit, vegetables, and free-range meat in South African cities, but high prices and bad transport infrastructure limit people’s ability to purchase these products.

We’re dealing, effectively, with the effects of mass urbanisation since the ending of influx control in the mid-1980s and the 1994 elections.

The migration of South Africans from rural to urban areas has been a key factor in the nation’s radical change of lifestyle habits.

Twenty years ago, restricted by apartheid laws, just 10% of black South Africans lived in urban areas. Today, more than 56% do.

Alison Feeley, a scientist at the Medical Research Council, says this massive shift to a fast-paced urban life has resulted in dietary patterns shifting just as dramatically from ‘traditional foods to fast foods’.

But this isn’t the first time that South Africa, or indeed other countries, has had to cope with the impact of urbanisation on people’s diets. During the nineteenth century, industrialisation caused agricultural workers to abandon farming in their droves, and to move to cities in search of employment, either in factories or in associated industries. In Britain, this caused a drop in the quality of urban diets. Food supplies to cities were inadequate, and the little food that the new proletariat could afford was monotonous, meagre, and lacking in protein and fresh fruit and vegetables.

One of the effects of this inadequate diet was a decrease in average height – one of the best indicators of childhood health and nutrition – among the urban poor in Victorian cities. In fact, British officers fighting the South African War (1899-1902) had to contend with soldiers who were physically incapable of fighting the generally fitter, stronger, and healthier Boer forces, most of whom had been raised on diets rich in animal protein.

This link between industrialisation, urbanisation, and a decline in the quality of city dwellers’ diets is not inevitable. For middle-class Europeans in cities like London, Paris, and Berlin, industrialised transport and food production actually increased the variety of food they could afford. In the United States, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, a burgeoning food industry benefitted poorer urbanites as well. Processed food was cheap and readily available. Impoverished (and hungry) immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Italy were astonished by the variety and quantity of food they could buy in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.

It’s difficult to identify similar patterns in South Africa. We know that the sudden growth of Kimberley and Johannesburg after the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1882) stimulated agriculture in Griqualand West and the South African Republic. Farmers in these regions now supplied southern Africa’s fastest growing cities with food. The expansion of Kimberley and Johannesburg as a result of the mineral revolution was different from that of London or New York because their new populations were overwhelmingly male – on the Witwatersrand, there were roughly ninety men for every woman – and highly mobile. These immigrants from the rest of Africa, Europe, Australia, and the United States had little intention of settling in South Africa. As a result of this, it’s likely that these urban dwellers weren’t as badly effected by poor diets as their compatriots in the industrialised cities of the north Atlantic.

Cape Town’s slums and squatter settlements were, though, populated by a new urban poor who migrated with their families to the city during the final three decades of the nineteenth century. Most factory workers were paid barely enough to cover their rent. Mr W. Dieterle, manager of J.H. Sturk & Co., a manufacturer of snuff and cigars, said of the young women he employed:

It would seem incredible how cheaply and sparsely they live. In the mornings they have a piece of bread with coffee, before work. We have no stop for breakfast, but I allow them to stand up when they wish to eat. Very few avail themselves of this privilege. They stay until one o’clock without anything, and then they have a piece of bread spread with lard, and perhaps with the addition of a piece of fish.

This diet – heavy on carbohydrates and cheap stimulants (like coffee), and relatively poor in protein and fresh produce – was typical of the city’s poor. It wasn’t the case that food was unavailable: it was just that urban workers couldn’t afford it.

In fact, visitors to the Cape during this period commented frequently on the abundance and variety of fruit, vegetables, and meat on the tables of the middle classes. White, middle-class girls at the elite Huguenot Seminary in Wellington – a town about 70km from Cape Town – drank tea and coffee, ate fruit, and smeared sheep fat and moskonfyt (syrupy grape jam) on their bread for breakfast and supper. A typical lunch consisted of soup, roasted, stewed, curried, or fried meat (usually mutton), three or four vegetables, rice, and pudding.

It’s also worth noting that the Seminary served its meals during the morning, the middle of the day, and in the evening – something which was relatively new. Industrialisation caused urban workers’ mealtimes to change. Breakfast moved earlier in the day – from the middle of the morning to seven or eight o’clock – lunch (or dinner) shifted to midday from the mid-afternoon, and dinner (or tea) emerged as a substantial meal at the end of the day.

Factory workers in Cape Town ate according to this new pattern as well. The difference was the quality of their diet. A fifteen year-old white, middle-class girl in leafy Claremont who had eaten an ample, varied diet since early childhood was taller and heavier than her black contemporaries in Sturk’s cigar factory. In all likelihood, she would have begun menstruating earlier, and would have recovered from illness and, later, childbirth far more quickly than poorer young women of the same age. She would have lived for longer too.

Urbanisation changes the ways in which we eat: we eat at different times and, crucially, we eat new and different things. By looking at a range of examples from the nineteenth century, we can see that this change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The industrial revolution contributed to the more varied and cheaper diets of the middle classes. Industrialised food production and transport caused the urban poor in the United States to eat better than many of those left behind in rural areas, for example. But it’s also clear that it exacerbates social inequality. In the 1800s, the poor had too little to eat and that which they did have was not particularly nutritious. Children raised on these diets were shorter and more prone to illness than those who ate more varied, plentiful, and protein-rich food. Now, the diets available to the poor in urbanising societies are as bad, even if the diseases they contribute to are caused by eating too much rather than too little.

Most importantly, we have an abundance of food in our growing cities. Just about everyone can afford to eat. The point is that only a minority can afford good, fresh food, and have the time, knowledge, and equipment to prepare it. Food mass produced in factories helped Europe and North America’s cities to feed their urban poor a hundred years ago. I’m not sure if that’s the best solution for the twenty-first century.

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