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May 8, 2009 | 01:58 GMT

26 mins read

The Geopolitics of South Africa: Securing Labor, Ports and Mineral Wealth

Miners gather for a rally on the anniversary of an incident in which 34 miners were killed by police during a strike
(MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Editor's Note

This is the seventh in a series of Stratfor monographs on the geopolitics of countries influential in world affairs.

South Africa, located at the southern tip of the African continent, is a country of significant wealth, from arable land to minerals to human capital. Its history is one of competition between and cohabitation of foreign and domestic interests seeking to control that wealth. Its imperatives are to maintain a free flow of capital and labor within the country and in the southern African region in order to exploit the region's vast mineral riches and to be able to project a security capability in southern Africa in order to prevent the emergence of a rival power.

Geography

South Africa has been the dominant power in the southern half of Africa for more than a century. During the colonial era, British authorities established control over the territory's primary ports at Cape Town and Durban and secondary ports at Port Elizabeth and East London in order to protect the sea-lanes rounding the Cape of Good Hope and to control access to the interior of southern Africa. Ports located north in German or Portuguese territories (such as Walvis Bay in South West Africa/Namibia, Luanda in Angola or Delagoa Bay in Mozambique) were either too dangerous for regular shipping or had environments too malaria-ridden to support a settler population. Without habitable conditions in the region, rival European powers could not easily assemble sufficient numbers of soldiers and settlers to invade and occupy the interior of southern Africa.

Much of South Africa's territory is a hot and semi-arid savannah. A chain of low mountains just inland (peaking at 11,424 feet in the Drakensberg range bordering Lesotho) stretches almost uninterrupted from the country's southwestern corner at Cape Town to the country's northeastern border with Mozambique and Zimbabwe (these mountains continue farther, essentially an extension of the Great Rift Valley's eastern edge). A narrow band of fertile land, ranging from 50 to 100 miles in width, lies between the mountain chain and the Indian Ocean, supporting significant population centers such as Cape Town and Durban. This band also supports much of South Africa's fruit and sugarcane farming and some grain cultivation.

On the interior side of the mountain range is a region consisting of two broad ecological zones, dividing the area into western and eastern halves. The land area is a basin that slopes downward from east to west, bounded on the south and east by mountains, the northwest by the Kalahari Desert and the west by the Atlantic Ocean. The hot and arid western half gives way in the north to the Kalahari, which extends into neighboring Botswana, and reaches west to the Atlantic Ocean. There is relatively little human population found in much of the western zone and little economic activity apart from some grazing, farming and mining, including diamond mining along the Atlantic coast.

The eastern half is the economic heart of South Africa. It includes a higher elevated savannah that is hot and semi-arid and home to much of the country's grain belt, thanks to two river systems, the Vaal and the Orange, which are controlled for irrigation and power purposes. At the western fringe of the eastern half are South Africa's rich diamond veins, centered around the city of Kimberley. To the east is South Africa's gold mining area, with Johannesburg at its heart. A wealth of other minerals, from chromium to copper to platinum to coal, is also found in this area, which is known as the "Highveld."

The narrow band of fertile land along South Africa's southern and eastern coastal region — from Cape Town through its northern border with Mozambique — was the natural place to support sizeable populations. Abundant water and fertile soil attracted various populations, which inevitably led to competition over a relatively scarce amount of supportable land.

South Africa is the only country in Africa in which there is, for the most part, no risk of malaria. This is because the country is far enough south and high enough in elevation that its subtropical and Mediterranean climate cannot support mosquitoes. The lack of malaria enabled South Africa to support a European-settler population, which in turn enabled the development of industrial-level economic activity. Long-term investments in the country could be made, knowing that its population would not die out in the short term. Neighboring coastal countries such as Mozambique and the northern part of Angola largely consist of lowland tropical marshes that prevent large-scale settler populations from being established. Although Namibia to the northwest also has a low risk of malaria, the country is essentially a desert (interspersed with mountains). That, coupled with a dangerous coastline called the "Skeleton Coast" because of the many shipwrecks that have occurred there, made Namibia profoundly unattractive to colonial Europeans who relied on shipping for communication and commerce.

South Africa's geography is much more useful economically than that of any other country on the continent, and it is also more defensible. The country's disease-free and arable highlands have supported stable population growth and the development of mineral wealth in the interior. Although now led by a democratically elected government, South Africa must maintain a liberal economic regime that permits the free flow of labor and capital to and from a dozen other countries in southern Africa, a region that extends north to the equator, as well as maintain a superior security capability that can be projected in the region.

Early Colonial History

The creation of what would become the Republic of South Africa began with the founding of Cape Town as a resupply station by the Dutch East India Company (VOC, in Dutch) in 1652. Ships traveling between Europe and the Far East all travelled around the Cape of Good Hope, which was about halfway between the riches of the Orient and markets in Europe and therefore of strategic value to maritime trade.

The Dutch were not interested in territorial conquest in the interior of southern Africa. They simply needed land to grow food and ports to service their ships. However, VOC personnel and resources in the immediate vicinity of Cape Town were insufficient to meet the company's needs. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the VOC was driven to expand its territorial control to greater swaths of agricultural areas, establishing the towns of Stellenbosch (about 30 miles east from Cape Town), Swellendam (about 125 miles east) and Graaff-Reinet (about 500 miles east-northeast of Cape Town).

Acquiring greater agricultural-producing lands required the VOC to recruit a greater supply of labor. These two factors — needing more land and more labor — put the VOC on a collision course with the indigenous Khoisan population, which inhabited the Cape area. Competition over grazing land, made scarce by the area's limited rainfall, led to clashes between Cape settlers and the Khoisan beginning in 1659 and ultimately to the defeat and subjugation of the Khoisan by 1713.

The VOC administered the Cape Colony essentially without foreign opposition until the end of the 1700s, when Napoleonic wars in Europe forced Britain to capture control of the Cape Town outpost. Strategically located at the confluence of two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, Cape Town put whoever controlled it in position to protect or interdict maritime commerce rounding Africa (this was before the creation of the Suez Canal, which established a maritime link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean in 1869). Britain calculated that if France were able to gain control over the Cape, then British interests in India would be threatened by the French, whose island possessions in the Indian Ocean could interdict British traffic once it had rounded the southern tip of Africa. The British wrested tenuous control of Cape Town from the Dutch in 1795 and gained full control of it in 1806 (though peace negotiations that included sovereign title were not concluded until 1814).

After gaining control of the Cape, the British set about expanding their control, recruiting some 4,000 British farmers as well as Dutch inhabitants of the Cape Town area to settle the eastern frontier of the colony's territory, demarcated by the Great Fish River in the area now known as Eastern Cape province. The settlers were sent into the area as a frontline trip-wire against Xhosa tribal movements. Control over Eastern Cape also afforded the British control over alternative harbors that could provide secure access into the interior.

Around the same time settlers laid claim to the Eastern Cape frontier, compromising Xhosa tribal homelands, another significant tribe in southern Africa was threatened by colonial encroachment. The Zulu tribe in southeastern Africa (northeast of Xhosa lands) was being pushed south and west by Portuguese slavers operating out of their port at Delagoa Bay (known today as Maputo, the capital of Mozambique). Pursued by the slavers, the Zulu fought for control of new lands they were being pushed into, incorporating lesser tribes for pure survival purposes. Rallying the Zulu was their leader Shaka, who enforced strict hierarchical authority and a merit-based warrior culture in order to overcome the tribe's inherent weakness of divided clans and autonomous power bases that could be exploited by the Europeans. In the 1820s, Shaka's tactics also resulted in a population dispersal known as the mfecane (the "crushing" of lesser tribes that resisted) and the difaqane (the "scattering" of lesser tribes that fled). As a result of the difaqane, Zulu-related ethnic and linguistic linkages are still found throughout southern Africa and contribute to contemporary patterns of migration that make South Africa a beacon for immigration from throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, Dutch-descended settlers in the Eastern Cape frontier area, known as Boers (the Dutch word for farmer), became increasingly unhappy with British rule, especially restrictions on the use of African labor. In 1836, a group of Boers chose to emigrate rather than comply with British rule and embarked on the "Great Trek" to claim territory in unoccupied lands (at least by Europeans) in other parts of southern Africa. In 1838, they founded the Republic of Natalia, with principal towns of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. An independent-minded settler population controlling a strategic port at Durban was too great a threat to British control in the region, and in 1843, the British annexed the territory and declared it a British colony.

Many of the Boers in Natalia refused to submit and emigrated again, this time toward the interior, where they established two other independent territories: the Orange Free State (comprising present-day east-central South Africa) and the Transvaal (much of what is now northeast South Africa, bordering present-day Zimbabwe and Mozambique). In 1857, feeling there was little to gain by annexing these isolated interior grasslands and preoccupied by coastal concerns, the British granted recognition to both Boer republics.

The British position would change with the discovery of diamonds near Kimberley in 1867, on the border of the Orange Free State. Until then, the interior of southern Africa was attractive to pioneers, missionaries, Boers and indigenous tribes but not to British colonial authorities. The diamond find at Kimberley triggered a great rush that reconfigured contemporary southern Africa and laid the groundwork for South Africa as a nation-state.

Diamonds, Gold and Territorial Consolidation

With the discovery of diamonds on a farm near Kimberley, prospectors poured in to stake their claims and make their fortunes. Thousands of individual claims were made, yet there was no clear ownership of the territory around Kimberley. Cecil Rhodes, then a young British immigrant to the Cape Colony, hoped to make his fortune in the new find. Rhodes began buying up diamond claims, believing the chaos of thousands of diggers and laborers made extracting the diamond wealth unprofitable. Rhodes, together with a few partners, established the De Beers mining company, aiming to establish a monopoly over diamond mining at Kimberley. British capital was secured to finance the takeover of the area's mining operations.

Because of the unclear ownership of the diamond-producing territory as well as competing ownership claims — particularly from the neighboring Boer republics — the area's indigenous Griqua population petitioned the British government for protection, leading to the annexation of the diamond-producing area in 1871. The British named the area Griqualand West.

Despite the Orange Free State's encroachment upon the diamond-producing area and laying claim to Griqualand West, relations between the British in the Cape Colony and the Boers in the Orange Free State remained cordial. Diamond-mining activities became consolidated under Rhodes' management, but while Rhodes was able to quickly establish central control over multiple claims, he had a harder time putting into place a profitable mechanism for extracting the diamonds.

The key to profitable diamond mining was securing an abundant supply of reliable labor. At this point, African labor was deemed unreliable — Africans would travel to Kimberley to work the mines but would return to their homelands for months on end to tend to their cattle and crops. Those who stayed could, and did, command exorbitant prices for their labor. Additionally, migrant labor had to face the considerable inconvenience of traveling through multiple sovereign territories — the Orange Free State, the Transvaal, indigenous tribal homelands — that interrupted a smooth flow of labor for Rhodes through customs procedures, taxation and the raiding and robbing of migrant groups. Essentially, the political geography of the region worked against effective minerals extraction.

"We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies," Rhodes said at the time. "The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories."

Rhodes began to engineer a means of ensuring a stable supply of labor — particularly African labor — by constructing labor camps that provided year-round accommodations for male laborers and by hiring labor agents to travel to neighboring territories to recruit Africans for the diamond mines. Rhodes required greater leverage, however, to overcome the political obstacles presented in the Orange Free State, the Transvaal and the independent African homelands. Rhodes ran for a parliamentary seat and was elected representative in 1880 for Barkly West, essentially a suburb of Kimberley.

With the backing of private British capital and his increasing involvement in British government policy in the Cape Colony (he would go on to become the colony's prime minister in 1890), Rhodes devised a political solution to the impediments blocking mineral development in the interior, using state power to change the political geography. The Transvaal was annexed in 1877, followed by Southern Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana), effectively establishing a single labor pool through relaxed immigration and migration laws across much of southern Africa in order to better tap Kimberley's mineral wealth.

With the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886, leading to another rush of prospectors and mining barons, Rhodes replicated his diamond operations in Kimberley in the Witwatersrand, the name of the gold-producing area. Rhodes sought and gained approval in 1889 for a royal charter establishing the British South Africa Company (BSAC), which was authorized to enter into negotiations for territory and mineral extraction and to raise its own police force. With his charter in hand, Rhodes set out to claim territory further north in the interior, fully intending to link up with the Imperial British East Africa Company, which was seeking to seize and consolidate Kenya, Uganda and the source of the Nile River far to the northeast. The cost of this linkup proved daunting, and Rhodes stayed in southern Africa, establishing a BSAC settlement called Salisbury, in the autonomous tribal territory of Mashonaland. In the mid-1890s, these former tribal lands would be divided into Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia, both BSAC-administered territories. (They would become official British protectorates in the 1920s.)

By the turn of the 20th century, Britain had consolidated its control over what is known today as South Africa, annexing numerous territories, including the Boer republics after defeating them in war (1899-1902) and Zululand after defeating the Zulus in war (1879-1897). In 1910, the Cape Colony, along with the annexed Boer republics and the Natal Colony, became the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion of the British crown. With control over the four primary ports on the southern edge of the African continent — Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban — the union could control access to the continent's southern interior and its mineral wealth.

Since the British conquest of southern Africa and the creation of the Union of South Africa, South African territory has remained constant, as have its mineral interests in the region. The company that Rhodes was instrumental in founding, De Beers, together with a sister company, Anglo American (primarily responsible for gold mining), remains the driving force in southern African economies, with concessions continuing in territories Rhodes sought to control in the 19th century. Those territories, now the independent countries of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia and Botswana, are tightly aligned with South Africa, which is the hub of the region's imports and exports and, most important, the first-choice destination for laborers migrating out of southern African countries.

External Rivals

During the colonial era, the territory that would become South Africa believed itself vulnerable only when neighboring states in southern Africa cooperated with one another or with a foreign power against its interests. At the end of the 19th century, the British colony felt threatened by possible German expansion linking up German colonies in what are now Namibia and Tanzania and by possible Portuguese expansion linking up colonies in present-day Angola and Mozambique. The BSAC drive into central Africa blocked these rival powers from linking up in central Africa and moving southward to mineral-rich and lower-risk malaria areas.

Following the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, Dutch-descended settlers, including the Boer farmers, agitated for a greater stake in the government. Although dispossessed of their independent republics, these settlers never lost their sense of identity as Dutch-Africans. Their distinctly anti-British identity mobilized them as a political force, and in 1914 these so-called Afrikaners formed the National Party to represent their political interests. In 1948, the National Party won national elections and would go on to lead the country's government, uninterrupted, until 1994. (The Afrikaner-led government was instrumental in severing ties to the British Commonwealth and creating the Republic of South Africa in 1961). During its rule, the National Party expanded existing legislation and introduced new laws that took a traditional practice of racial discrimination to a new level, called apartheid (Dutch for "separateness"). The system of apartheid officially segregated the country's white population from its black (as well as Indian and "colored," or racially mixed) population and imposed severe restrictions on the latter.

During the era of apartheid, South Africa felt threatened when it was confronted by a combination of neighboring states, including Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique, that came to be known as the "frontline states." These states were also backed by foreign military assistance, mainly from China, Russia and Cuba. South Africa's qualitative superiority in military capability ultimately met its match on the Angolan battlefield in the late 1970s, but only after 50,000 Cuban troops and many Russian fighters and advisers were deployed in support of African National Congress (ANC) fighters who were using rearguard bases and training camps in Angola to try to overthrow the apartheid regime.

Apartheid South Africa believed itself capable of ensuring national security in South Africa proper, but to do so required a rigid military posture. The country's white population was outnumbered 10 to one by the country's black, Indian and colored population. Like Zulu leader Shaka during the mfecane and difaqane of the 1820s, apartheid South Africa could not tolerate dissent in its ranks or it would not survive raids against its people and its interests. Black and white (as well as Indian and colored) dissenters were scattered into exile, and males from neighboring "tribes" — white Rhodesians and the white population of South West Africa — were conscripted to serve in the South African military (as were many blacks). Significant investment in a domestic military industrial complex supported South Africa's military developments, especially when it faced international sanctions in the 1970s and 1980s.

Apartheid ended in South Africa when a combination of forces that had built up during the 1970s and early 1980s proved insurmountable by the end of the 1980s. International sanctions cut off capital and blocked access to South Africa's trading partners. Internal opposition among white South Africans meant Pretoria could no longer deploy draconian methods or it would risk losing its political base as well as its military conscription base to emigration. Frontline states cooperating with foreign militaries threatened to end South Africa's qualitative military advantages. By 1989, the Afrikaner-led government in Pretoria began negotiating with ANC leaders, ultimately agreeing to hold democratic elections in 1994 knowing that it stood no chance of returning to power after that point in any substantial way. Since leaving power in 1994, a few Afrikaner politicians have pursued a more radical agenda, arguing for an independent white African state or scheming to overthrow the ANC government, but most have either joined the ANC or simply retired to the private sector.

Contemporary South Africa continues to rely on a qualitative advantage to maintain its superior military posture in southern Africa. South Africa does not face any immediate threat against its national security, but this has not prevented the South African state under the ANC from acquiring a high-end defense package that is planned to be online by 2012. This package includes 28 Saab JAS-39 C/D Gripen fighter jets from Sweden, three Type-209 German submarines, four German Valour-class frigates and a number of transport aircraft, attack helicopters and jet trainers that can double as attack aircraft.

The new hardware, combined with a total active South African National Defense Force of approximately 62,000 personnel (including some 37,000 army troops), will maintain the country's regional military superiority for the foreseeable future, ensuring that it can project power up along the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastlines as well as into the interior of southern Africa. Air bases at the northern edge of South Africa (principally at Makhado) put all of Zimbabwe, the southern half of Mozambique (including its ports at Maputo and Beira) and the Zambian capital, Lusaka, within reach of the Gripen, while lily-pad air bases in northern Namibia (at Rundu) and in Zambia (at Mumbwa, Ndola and Mbala) put practically all of South Africa's mineral interests in southern and central Africa within reach.

Geopolitical Imperatives

South Africa's geopolitical imperatives, grounded in a hundred-odd years of expansion and conquest during the 19th century, continue to drive the country's internal behavior and its relations with neighboring and more distant foreign states.

  • Establish control of the highlands, or the eastern half of the country's interior. Effective control also requires holding sufficient portions of the southern and southeastern coasts to ensure access to the port facilities necessary for international trade. While the highlands are not where the modern country of South Africa got its start — which was in Cape Town — they are nevertheless the country's core.
  • Extend the state's reach east, south and west to the sea in order to gain control over the entire tip of the South African peninsula, along with the ports this territory provides. (Historically, "South Africa" achieved this aim before it achieved control over the highlands, but this was during colonial times when an outside power with different interests was using the territory for its own benefit.)
  • Utilize state power to remove political restrictions on using the regional labor pool in order to better tap the Kimberley and Johannesburg region's mineral wealth. This includes such strategies as granting economic incentives, relaxing immigration and migration laws and militarily intimidating neighboring states.
  • Seek out international economic partners both to serve as markets for the country's mineral wealth and as sources of finance.
  • Take advantage of the lack of alternate port facilities and local financing sources throughout southern Africa to extend the labor policy (including the economic incentives and military intimidations that go with it) north. This provides the state with economic opportunities, deep influence with local rivals and a buffer against potential foes farther afield.

Grand Strategy

Following its transition from apartheid to democracy, South Africa has remained the dominant power in the southern half of Africa. It will still flex its muscles when its interests are threatened, but South Africa's behavior is more akin to that during colonialism than during apartheid.

In the short to medium term, South Africa does not in face a threat on its borders. Frontline states such as Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland may fare well or poorly in political and economic spheres, but the point for South Africa is that these states are no longer rearguard areas for revolutionary freedom fighters training and equipping themselves to overthrow the South African government. The ANC is the South African government, not some partially exiled revolutionary movement. And with domestic political opposition in no position to threaten the ANC's hegemony over the black South African voter, it will continue to be the government for the foreseeable future.

Since the ANC came to power, keeping up relations with neighboring states that harbored and armed it during the struggle against apartheid has caused it to rein in some government behavior, such as carrying out destabilizing security operations that would have been instinctive during apartheid. Instead, South Africa has relied on "carrots" (such as trade and customs incentives) and the strength and attraction of its relatively hefty economy to influence neighboring states. This is not to say South Africa lacks or is unwilling to use the "sticks" option (it did so in 1999 when a near-civil war in Lesotho threatened to disrupt critical water and electricity supplies on which South Africa's capital region relies).

During the colonial era, authorities in the Cape Colony sought to expand the colony's control across the entire peninsula. It aimed to gain control over southern African lands, including ports and harbors that could support a European settler population and deny those lands to rival powers. It aimed, successfully, to acquire control over the interior, in order to exploit the region's mineral wealth. It used state power to annex rival territories in order to reduce barriers to labor migration and capital flows, in order to effectively develop the region's mineral wealth. The capacity for the Cape Colony's neighbors to resist during colonialism was relatively long-lasting, and in each case — with the Xhosa, the Zulu and the Boer republics — it took the British decades (in fact, much of the 19th century) to consolidate their control over the entire territory that would become South Africa. Once its control was formally consolidated in 1910, the Union of South Africa relied on tools of economic statecraft to maintain its dominant influence in southern Africa.

South Africa during apartheid sought to maintain the country's superior military and economic posture vis-à-vis its neighbors while it aimed to establish paramount Afrikaner influence over sources of public and private power in the country. Financing the development of Afrikaner-led industry, placing Afrikaners in charge of state and semi-public institutions and promoting legislation in favor of Afrikaners were its tactics. The apartheid regime developed an indigenous military industrial complex and maintained a heightened military posture internally and externally in order to safeguard Afrikaner and South African supremacy when it faced internal and external threats. South Africa's neighbors were sorely tested during apartheid in their capacity to resist, and only when virtually all of southern Africa united against South Africa and when those combined states utilized extensive foreign military assistance did they rival South African power.

Since democratization, South Africa has sought to establish black South African influence over its domestic economy. The ANC was confident that its political control was safely consolidated, as long as democratic voting practices continued. It has implemented labor legislation that favors historically disadvantaged populations (black, Indian and colored South Africans) while also pursuing legislation requiring the country's white business sector to sell equity stakes to historically disadvantaged investors. In the regional economy, South Africa has used its extensive human and technical resources to negotiate favorable business and economic deals with African trading partners. The ANC has maintained South Africa's superior military capability relative to its neighbors, but it has not been required to deploy that option. None of South Africa's contemporary neighbors are receiving foreign military assistance of any significance, and those neighbors remain dependent on South Africa for their trade relationships. Their capacity to resist South Africa's economic hegemony is limited, which means South Africa does not need to deploy a security option to reinforce its dominant influence.

South Africa still depends on an abundant and freely flowing supply of labor migrating from neighboring states to service its labor requirements. South African technical and financial assistance are still critical components behind many mining activities throughout southern and central Africa (and increasingly beyond). The ANC government will therefore keep its borders open to regional migration, despite calls from ANC supporters inside South Africa that economic immigrants are taking jobs away from South Africans. It will maintain extensive diplomatic relations in Africa, help to portray South African interests on the continent as friendly and establish economic and cultural conduits to expand South African influence.

South Africa is entering a new phase of regional influence. The ANC — now the South African government — is no longer supporting the border states as it did when it was a movement of freedom fighters and anti-apartheid activists. The border states are weaker now and more divided than they were during the apartheid era, with landlocked Botswana ravaged by AIDS and famine-plagued Zimbabwe on the verge of economic collapse. This makes it easier for South Africa to dominate the region, as it did during the colonial era, through sheer economic might. It retains the threat of force, if needed but not preferred, to ensure its dominant position.

At the same time, South Africa is moving into a new phase of government. For all practical purposes, former President Thabo Mbeki, who led South Africa from 1999 to 2008, was a transitional leader as the country exited the old apartheid regime. South Africa, under Jacob Zuma, who will be inaugurated president on May 9, will have its first truly post-apartheid leader who can run South Africa like the dominant regional power that it is, unrestrained by the legacy of apartheid.

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