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Everything you Need to Know About Driving in South Africa

What is driving in South Africa like?

This post will answer your questions such as:

  • Is South Africa travel safe?
  • What is it like as a tourist driving in South Africa?
  • Are there special road rules that you need to know?
  • Can you use your foreign driver’s licence?

These were some of the many questions we had about driving in South Africa when planning our open-ended Africa road trip.

For whatever time period you will be in South Africa, and whether you are on a road trip or self-drive safari, this definitive guide will help you navigate the trials and tribulations of driving in South Africa.

4x4 on side of road in South Africa - at Meiringspoort in the mountain gorge

Driving in South Africa – Meiringspoort pass

South Africa Map

Driving in South Africa – Quick Facts:

  • Traffic lights are called ‘robots’ in South Africa
  • The robots are often not working due to power outages – you then treat the junction as a 4-way stop.
  • At the 4-way Stop intersections (all signed with red stop signs), the first vehicle to arrive gets priority
  • Drive on the left-hand side and overtake on the right
  • Seat belts are compulsory
  • Maximum blood alcohol level allowed is 0.05%
  • Do not use a mobile while driving unless using hands-free
  • Give way to the right at roundabouts
  • Watch out for the South Africa minivan taxis – they are notoriously badly driven as drivers are trying to make more money by getting to their destination quicker
  • Speed limits are normally as follows unless otherwise marked:
    • Highways and major routes 110km/hr
    • Secondary and rural roads 100km/hr
    • Built-up areas 60km/hr
    • National Parks 35-40km/hr
  • Traffic signs on South African roads are in English
  • The emergency number from mobiles is 112
Driving in Golden Gate National Park, South Africa

Driving in Golden Gate National Park, South Africa 

Is Driving in South Africa Safe for Tourists?

One of the main concerns of most when arriving in South Africa is personal safety and whether it is safe to drive here. We were offered advice on precautions to take before arriving, which was also echoed and added to by locals when we arrived. We’ve included all of them here.

For clarity, some of these precautions are particularly important to adhere to when driving in the major cities, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

When you are away from the cities, in more rural areas, the risk of crime decreases. You may notice that the local houses are no longer walled with barb wire or surrounded by high-security gates.

However, ask locals who live in the area about the relative safety of the district you are in.

In addition, often the best sign is to trust your gut instinct – if the area feels dodgy – move on.

There are many things that you can do to minimise theft of belongings in your vehicle or damage to your vehicle while driving in South Africa. Some of these pointers may or may not be relevant to you depending on the duration of your trip, the locations in which you will be driving and whether the vehicle belongs to you or is rented.

Use your judgement as to which suggestions to use for your own personal circumstance.

Safety Precautions to take when Driving in South Africa

  1. Do not drive at night
    • If you drive at night there is a higher risk of being attacked and robbed.
    • There are many wild animals that are more active at dawn and dusk so there is an increased likelihood of encountering animals on the road.
  2. Don’t stop at red lights at night
    • If you must drive at night for some reason, don’t stop at red traffic lights (robots). Slow down, remain in first gear, and check for oncoming traffic. Be aware of anyone pulling up beside you, keep enough distance between you and the car in front so that if you needed to escape quickly you could still pull away. Stay on guard and be ready to pull away quickly.
  3. Keep your doors locked and windows up while driving
    • This is especially important if driving through the cities or townships around the major cities.
    • It is safer to leave a small gap at the top of your window. If it is fully closed it is easier for the window to be broken. ( A common way of breaking the window by attackers is to use a spark plug to smash the window – however, with an air gap in the window this helps prevent the window breaking). 
  4. Do not stop if you see an accident
    • Although this seems counter-intuitive to what you would do in your own country, drive on and make a call or stop at the nearest shop/café to report the incident. Hijackers/thieves often stage an accident to get you to stop.
  5. Drive around rocks or an obstacle on the road – do not stop 
    • Again, hijackers/thieves often put obstacles in the road to get you to stop.
  6. Do not pick up hitchhikers 
    • If you are worried about someone’s plight, stop at the next town and report it to someone there.
  7. Do not open your window to speak to anyone who may be at a junction 
    • There may be hawkers, window cleaners etc. that approach your vehicle at junctions. Keep eye contact and give a polite, firm shake of the head. If you don’t keep eye contact, they may scout your car for valuables in the back.
  8. Do not leave expensive items in your vehicle – or at least not in view
    •  Preferably, don’t leave expensive items in your vehicle but in some situations, this is unavoidable. If you do need those items with you (our vehicle is our home – so we always have all our equipment with us), then make sure your valuables are securely locked away or as a minimum, are out of sight.
    • If you are in a camper of any sort, make sure all access points and storage sections are locked. If possible, also attach a padlock on any storage cabinets with exterior access to act as a secondary deterrent.
    • If you have exterior gas bottles, padlock them.
  9. Always check your door handles after locking your vehicle
    • There is an increasing number of cases where vehicles have been stolen or broken into after criminals have used car-lock jamming devices. Therefore, always check your locking remote has worked by testing the door handle or lock your vehicle with the key.
  10. Do not confront aggressive or abusive road users
  11. Ask locals for advice
    • Situations change, so ask locals about any safety concerns you should be aware of and any areas that they recommend you avoid.
The chances of a hijack increase particularly in the provinces of Gauteng and Kwa Zulu Natal. Statistics show that there are more hijacks on a Friday than any other day of the week and the majority occur between 4 pm and 8 pm. For further information read this Hijack Prevention Guide by Arrive Alive South Africa.

In our expereince, the only people that we had spoken to that had experienced car crime were locals living in Johannesburg. None of the travellers we spoke to had experienced anything untoward. If you follow these guidelines and take sensible precautions, you are likely to stay safe.

Health Precautions to take in South Africa

As a tourist in South Africa, you will need to make sure that you have had the relevant and recommended vaccinations before arriving. Leave plenty of time to organise this as some vaccinations require boosters before you have full immunity.

The recommended vaccinations by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC ) are:

  • Cholera
  • Hep A and B
  • Typhoid
  • Measles
  • All routine vaccinations up to date: MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella), Diptheria/Tetanus/Pertussis, Chickenpox, Polio.
  • Yellow Fever Vaccination is required IF  you are, “arriving from countries with risk of yellow fever transmission, from Eritrea, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia, Tanzania, Zambia, and for travellers having transited more than 12 hours through the airport of a country with risk of yellow fever transmission. ” World Health Organisation

Depending on where you will be driving in South Africa, it is also recommended to take Malaria prevention medication. At the time of writing, Malaria was in the areas listed below – check up to date information on this page of the CDC.

Areas with malaria: Present along the border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Specifically in Mopani, Vhembe, and Waterberg district municipalities of Limpopo Province; Ehlanzeni district municipality in Mpumalanga Province; and Umknanyakude in Kwazulu-Natal Province. Present in Kruger National Park.

Driving Documents Required

When you arrive in South Africa you need a valid passport with at least 6 months validity remaining from when you plan to leave that country. Visitors get a 90 day Visitor Visa. As Australians, we didn’t need to get a visa before entering South Africa and received the 90-day visa stamp at border control at the airport. You can check whether you need a visa at the South Africa Immigration website.

Regulations state that a return ticket is necessary but we didn’t have a return ticket and we weren’t asked to show one. We had prepared for that question though and had recent copies of our bank statements to show that we could support ourselves while in South Africa. These statements weren’t required but we’d suggest printing them anyway … just in case.

When driving in South Africa you need to have a valid drivers licence, vehicle registration documents and vehicle insurance documents. These need to be with you in the vehicle at all times. 

If you are hiring a vehicle check with the individual company as to what documentation they require.

Driving in South Africa with a Foreign Licence

Your foreign Driver’s Licence is valid in South Africa if:

  1. Your driver’s license is in English
  2. It has a photo ID attached
  3. It has your signature

 

Otherwise, you need a translation of your licence by an authorised person. Even though we satisfy the criteria with our Australian Driver’s Licences, we also made sure we had our International Driver’s Licences before leaving Australia … just to be on the safe side. We’ll likely need it when travelling in other parts of Africa.

For more information, you can read the South Africa Foreign Driving Licences regulations here.

Road Conditions in South Africa

Most of the roads in South Africa are well maintained. However, in rural areas, you are more likely to experience gravel and dirt roads. If there have been heavy rains, you may come across roads that have been damaged due to landslide or flooding.

The Automobile Association (AA) shows up to date information on roadworks and closed roads. You can also put in your planned route and it will highlight the road conditions for those roads.

Single lane road in South Africa - road surrounded by green mountains

Narrow, but tarred road in the Golden Gate National Park, South Africa

 We’d be lost without our Tracks4Africa products! They have a great range of paper maps, road atlas and other practical items that any overlanding adventurer should be equipped with.

Tracks4Africa Shop

Safety Tips – What to Watch out for on South African Roads

1. Watch Out for Pedestrians 

On South African roads, you will see many pedestrians. You may feel that you are in the middle of nowhere, but you will still find someone walking along the side of the road. For many, it is their only form of transport.

Be particularly aware of school children. There are rarely pavements and the children will be walking on the side of the highway – some as young as five and six years old.  It is sad to note that around 40% of road traffic fatalities in South Africa are pedestrians.

2. Watch Out for Animals 

The other danger that you are likely to come across while driving in South Africa is animals on the road. This likelihood increases if you drive at night and are in rural areas.

Don’t be surprised to find cattle, goats, sheep or antelope wandering along on the roads or to come face to face with a troop of baboons ambling across the road ahead.

On one occasion, we came across a couple of male baboons sunbathing on the road and they weren’t too pleased that we wanted to pass!

Deer on the side of the road while driving in South Africa

Stay alert while driving and keep your eyes out for animals on or near the road.  

3. Overtaking: The Yellow Shoulder

On some roads, there will be a hard shoulder, marked by a yellow line. Vehicles travelling slower will move to the left for you to overtake. You will notice that most drivers are polite and will flash their hazard lights after overtaking as a thank you.

South Africa road with shoulder lane yellow line

The ‘shoulder lane’  is to the left of the yellow line and is used by cars as a courtesy to let those behind overtake 

A solid single, solid double or a solid double with dashes in between indicates no-overtaking/no crossing.

Traffic sign

What to do if you Have a Road Accident in South Africa

As per the Road Traffic Law in South Africa, (see page 16 PDF – Amendment of section 61 of Act 93 of 1996 ), if you are involved in a road accident and someone has been injured and property has been damaged, such as a vehicle or animal, it is law in South Africa to:  

  1. Stop your vehicle
  2. Help anyone who is hurt (If safe to do so)
  3. Find out what the extent of the damage is
  4. Get all relevant information relating to the crash – if possible take photos
  5. Report the road crash to the police – The police will need an AR (Accident Report Form) filled out – See a sample copy here 
  6. Do not interfere with the evidence on the scene
  7. Do not leave the scene if any injuries or fatalities are observed

If you are driving a rental car make sure you keep all paperwork handy and have any relevant numbers that you need to call in case of an accident.

Road Blocks

During your travels in South Africa, you are likely to come across a roadblock. This is where the South African police pull cars over to inspect your vehicle documents. You will need to show your driver’s licence, vehicle ownership or rental papers  and any other relevant documents that you have. They are also likely to ask to look inside your vehicle and if you have a camper, like us, they may ask for you to open the back so that they can inspect inside.

Sometimes this can take a while but remain patient. Luckily we have not had any problems when stopped. Occasionally we’ve been asked to show both our driver’s licence and passport, but often our driver’s licence is enough.

Road Tolls

Some of the main highways have a toll but you’ll find that they are marked clearly well before you reach the toll. This gives you an opportunity to divert to a non-toll road.  Most tolls take credit cards but due to load shedding (power cuts), it’s best to have cash available too.

If you are in a rented vehicle you may have an electronic e-Toll tag which will record your fees. You will  then pay them on return of the vehicle.

We prefer to drive away from the main roads and avoid toll roads and this is easy to do.

For more information on Toll Roads and prices, you can check out this Automobile site.

Road Signs

There are plenty of direction signs in South Africa and most are similar to those found around the world. To familiarise yourself with the traffic signs go to: https://www.arrivealive.mobi/traffic-signs-of-south-africa

A few that we came across that we weren’t familiar with were;

Motorised Gate signpost

Motorised Gate on road

No entry to unauthorised vehicles sign

No entry to unauthorised vehicles

gravel road ends signpost

Gravel road ending

And it’s kind of cool to see these on the road – most likely to occur if you are in a National Park.

wild animals signpost on the road - elephant, warthog and hippo

Parking

It is probably safer to park in a shopping centre car park. Some will be barrier-entry with a pay-by-ticket system, and others will have security staff on duty in the car parks. Also, in some cases, there will be guys with a fluoro vest in the car park that will offer to watch your car. These aren’t official parking attendants but they do give some peace of mind. It is the practice to give them between 2 and 5 Rand on your return as a thank you. 

Note: When driving in South Africa, it’s illegal to park facing in the wrong direction, therefore if you see a bay on the right-hand side of the road, you can’t cross over and park facing the traffic.

 Gas/Petrol Stations

All service stations are manned by pump attendants. You just tell them how much petrol/gas/diesel that you want and they fill your vehicle up for you. Sometimes they have a card machine on them and other times you go in and pay at the counter.

The attendants may also clean your windows and it’s usual to give them a 2 to 5 Rand.

In South Africa, there are plenty of service stations – but we would advise using the main gas stations only – Engen, Shell, BP, Sasol, Total and Caltex because the smaller stations can have bad fuel which may harm your engine. We had a problem with this and it was a costly exercise emptying the tanks and fixing the fuel pump. 

If you travel into neighbouring countries be aware that there may be long distances between available petrol stations and not all pumps may be full.

Driving in South Africa’s National Parks, Game Parks and Nature Reserves

For many, travelling to South Africa means being able to enjoy all of its magnificent wildlife so a trip to at least one Nature Reserve is probably on the cards.

When driving in these wilderness areas it is important to follow the following protocols:

  • You must remain in your vehicle at all times unless at a designated safe area
  • Observe the speed limit of the park that you are in – this is usually a maximum of 50km/hr but 30/40km on some roads.
  • Remain on the park’s roads and do not go off-road – the ecosystems are fragile
  • Make sure you are aware of the park’s gate times and are out of the park by the required times
  • Do not feed the animals – it can be a serious offence and is detrimental to the animals’ health. Additionally, if they get used to humans feeding them they are more likely to approach others and may get aggressive.
  • When you are at a sighting or near animals – turn off your engine as the noise can scare and disturb the animals
  • Remain still and quiet in your vehicle
Two elephants on the gravel road in South Africa Nature Reserve

You never know what you might be driving behind in South Africa

Driving in South Africa: Choosing your Vehicle

The type of vehicle that you choose to drive for your South Africa travels depends to a certain degree on your itinerary, your budget and the level of comfort that you’d like.

For us, we knew we wanted to explore as much as possible while in Africa on our open-ended road trip, so choosing a 4×4 was a top priority. We also have a limited budget, so although a 4×4 motorhome or a 4×4 car with a 4×4 caravan would have been wonderful, the budget just wouldn’t stretch that far. Additionally, as our trip may cover a couple of years, it was a no brainer for us to buy rather than rent.

We also needed to limit accommodation costs – hence we have bought the Hilux 4×4 camper with a pop-up tent on top.

Depending on your own travel plans, these are your basic options and we have included suggested links to help you research costs and options available to you.

Vehicle Options

  1. Hire/buy a standard 2×2 car: Find a deal at Rentalcars. com
  2. Hire/buy a Bush Camper much like ours: Contact Bushlore, South Africa, for a quote
  3. Hire/buy a motorhome/campervan: Find the best deal at Motorhome Republic (They deal with many different South African Fleets to find the best price and option for you).

(Note – we are affiliated with the Motorhome Republic and Rental Cars because we have used them and the service has always been great – if you do book through them – we get a small percentage of your booking but the cost to you is the same as if you went to them direct and costs you no more). 

 

Camper on rock road in South Africa

Driving the Sani Pass in South Africa

4×4 Driving in South Africa

Although you can use a 2-wheel drive car while driving in South Africa, having a 4×4 enables you to take roads that give you an enhanced experience of South Africa’s nature and scenery.

If you are planning on driving into neighbouring countries, such as Namibia and Botswana, then a 4×4 is highly recommended as the roads are less well maintained than those in South Africa.

You can read all about how we bought our Hilux camper in South Africa, for our Africa Road Trip in our post: 4×4 South Africa: Top Consideration when Renting or Buying. It goes into detail about how we bought the camper while we were still in Australia, includes a video walkthrough of the vehicle and how it all functions – for example, how easy it is to put the tent up, and gives details of the modifications that we completed to ensure our 4×4 was tip top for our trip.

Hiring/Buying a 4-Wheel Drive in South Africa

If you are taking a road trip or planning a safari in South Africa, it is likely that you will be hiring or buying a 4×4 vehicle in South Africa.

We bought our Hilux Bush Camper through a company called ‘Bushlore’. They rent out vehicles, offer a buy-back scheme, and sell their ex-rental 4×4 vehicles. Their 4-wheel drives are mainly converted Toyota Hilux and Toyota Land Cruisers, which are perfect for driving in South Africa and beyond.

Bushlore is situated about a half-hour drive from Johannesburg’s Main airport, OR Tambo, so is particularly well located. We were extremely impressed with their service as we were doing all of our research and buying of the vehicle from overseas. On arrival, everything was just as expected. In addition, their aftercare service was superb. We had a one-month warranty with our Hilux Camper and they fixed, or paid for us to have fixed, all the teething problems we had.

Bush camper we use for driving in South Africa

Our Bush Camper – ‘Bucky’

Things to Consider When Hiring/Buying a Vehicle and Arriving from Overseas

  • Take jag lag into consideration.

If you are arriving from overseas and likely to have jet lag (we arrived from Australia and felt jet-lagged for about 3 days), then book into a nearby hotel for a few days to recover and get your bearings. You do not want to be driving in South Africa tired and jet-lagged.

[ We stayed at the The Gallagher Hotel which is right beside Bushlore.]

  • Get a thorough rundown of how your vehicle works and all of its accessories.
  • If you are hiring a camper make sure you know:
    • How to erect the tent if attached
    • How to operate the fridge
    • How to hook up external power to the camper
    • How to engage the vehicle’s 4-wheel drive
    • Where your towing points are located
    • Where the following emergency equipment is stored:
      • Jumper leads
      • Spare tyre/s
      • Jack
      • Tow rope (snatch straps)
      • Emergency triangle

Top Tip: Take a video of the handover in case you forget something

Swartberg Pass road through Mountains in south Africa

Driving in South Africa – Swartberg Pass

Taking a 4×4 Course Before Driving in South Africa

Once you have your vehicle and all of the necessary equipment that goes with your 4×4, you need to be familiar with how your new vehicle drives in different conditions.

We would recommend taking a course, particularly if you are not used to 4×4 driving. This relatively small outlay will make your driving in South Africa experience all the safer and more enjoyable. You will feel more comfortable making driving decisions as to where you can and can’t drive and minimise potential problems.

Even though we were used to driving a 4×4 in Australia, we found the 4×4 course that we enrolled in South Africa to be invaluable. Knowing the type of conditions we could encounter and the equipment required for each situation was really helpful.

We booked our 4-wheel driving course with Jannie from Protea 4×4. He can also give you lots of useful advice as to the specific areas that you will be driving to in South Africa and advice on the best routes to take.

The amazing bonus of the Protea 4×4 course was that it was inside the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve. Therefore, not only did we get to practice our 4×4 bush driving, but we did it amongst some of the incredible wildlife that Africa is so well known for.

Part of the 4x4 trail we drove on while doing the Protea 4x4 training in preparation for driving in South Africa

Part of the 4×4 trail we drove on while doing the Protea 4×4 training in preparation for driving in South Africa 

Off Road Driving in South Africa

Recommended items to have in your 4×4 while off-road driving in South Africa

  • Bottle jack – with appropriate load rating for the weight of your vehicle
  • Air compressor to pump up tyres
  • Tyre pressure gauge – vehicle tyre pressures will need to be changed and checked depending on the terrain
  • Grass seed net to put over the radiator when driving through tall grass, (If seeds are lodged in the radiator it can cause overheating).
  • A snatch strap and shackles with appropriate load rating for the weight of your vehicle,
  • You should have tow points at the front and rear of your vehicle
  • High Lift Jack for when the Bottle jack is inadequate
  • Recovery tracks/mats for when the vehicle is bogged
  • Jumper leads with an adequate amp rating to start your vehicle
  • Tyre plugs for a temporary fix of a flat tyre
Off road driving in South Africa - car about to cross river and rocks

Crossing part of the Sani Pass in South Africa

Off Road Driving in South Africa Pointers:

  • Know the correct tyre pressure for your vehicle for tar, gravel and sand [For example for our 3 tonne Hilux the tyre pressure should be 2.5 bar for tar, 1.8 bar for gravel and 1.5 bar or less for sand]
  • If you are driving on any gravel road put your main beam lights on.
  • Use your hazard lights to advise other drivers that it is dangerous to overtake you
  • Always make sure you are at a dead stop for 4×4 gear change
  • Use Diff Lock if you are driving on really uneven ground
  • Check the water depth before driving through any waterways
  • Seatbelts must be worn at all times unless you are crossing water then take off for safety precautions and wind down windows
  • If you are ever unsure as to whether it is safe to cross a waterway, wait for another vehicle or find another route
  • Keep 20 litres of drinking water at all times
  • Check your grass net while driving through long grass every 15/20 minutes and remember to clear the grass around the tail shaft

One of the most iconic 4×4 routes in South Africa is the adrenalin-fueled route along the Sani Pass which takes you from South Africa to the highest point in Africa, in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.

Route Planning in South Africa

One of the best South Africa 4×4 maps is produced by Tracks4Africa. You can get a large double-sided map that is made of tear-proof and water-resistant paper, and it includes:

  • Border post locations with their opening and closing times
  • Distance and travel times table
  • Within the map – there are distance and times measurements between certain points which is really handy
  • User friendly scale, 1cm = 10km
  • Lesotho and Swaziland, and some border areas of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique

Another invaluable resource that we use for our South Africa route planning and navigation is the Tracks4Africa ‘Southern Africa Travellers Atlas’.

What is particularly helpful on these maps is the off-road tracks and the verified distances and times that have been gathered by the 4×4 Tracks4Africa community.

Tracks4Africa also has a Travel Guide app which can be downloaded and used offline

(Note: Tracks4Africa sponsored us and provided us with these maps – which have been invaluable in our Africa Road Trip planning).

Driving Across Borders from South Africa

There are six countries that have borders with South Africa. These are: Lesotho, Swaziland, BotswanaNamibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. 

You’ve heard of the old saying, ‘Patience is a virtue’, well, be prepared to be patient and polite at the border crossings.  Make sure you have the necessary documents readily available to show the border crossing guards. Occasionally, rules may be lax, but always approach the border expecting strict adherence.

South African Border Gate

Border Crossing Requirements in South Africa

  • You will need a valid passport with at least six months of validity remaining
  • To drive you will need a valid drivers licence and/or an International Drivers Licence
  •  An original or certified copy of the vehicle registration certificate. If the vehicle is financed by a bank, the registration certificate must be accompanied by a letter from the bank giving you the authorization to take the vehicle across the border and must indicate dates. Both the bank letter and license papers should be signed by a Commissioner of Oaths. If you are not the registered owner of the vehicle, you will need an affidavit from the police giving you authorization from the owner to take the vehicle abroad.
  • Border Fees – this is normally a small amount of local currency. Do not succumb to bribery. (Tip – sometimes, having a few cold cans of coke in your fridge/cooler can help calm a situation) 
  • If you’re travelling from South Africa across borders, vehicles should bear a ZA sticker which designates that they are from South Africa
  • If you are travelling in a rented car or 4×4  you need to have a letter from the rental company giving you permission to take the vehicle out of the country 
  • If you are arriving in South Africa from an area infected with yellow fever then you will need to show your Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate 
  • Most countries bordering South Africa require you to have a set of red warning triangles
For more information and for the whole list of 72 land borders within South Africa go to the South African Government immigration services website.

Note that at each border there will be an exit and entry border. It is also worth checking the visa, documentation and vehicle sticker/equipment requirements for each country that you will be entering.

Driving in South Africa – That’s a Wrap

The information in this thorough guide should equip you with all the necessary information you need when driving in South Africa. 

If you have any questions or would like to leave a comment, please do so by filling in the comment section below or drop us an email.

Happy and safe travelling x

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