Defend Truth


The slippery slope of the appliance militia

Born in South Africa in 1962, Greg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative photojournalist and is co-author of The Bang Bang Club, a nonfiction book on South Africa’s transition to democracy, and Murder at Small Koppie based on his investigations into the Marikana massacre of miners by police. He is an associate editor for Daily Maverick. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2013/14 and teaches photojournalism and visual journalism at Boston University’s Journalism school, where he also indulges a passion by leading analogue workshops on archaic film cameras.

If it is not my operating system, then it is my anti-virus software that is out of date. My browser needs updating; my editing software needs an upgrade. And then there are dozens of apps and programmes I just have to get. Sometimes it just gets a little much, which is why I am relieved to discover that there is a worldwide movement gaining strength that appeals to my Neo-Luddite, egalitarian-ish sensibilities.

My digital life is chaotic: hard drives all over the place, copies of copies, and badly filed digi-data. Lost passwords and license numbers will be the ruin of me. And so, when I turn my head from the shimmering blue lights, I look for solace in things I can put my hands on.

Yes, yes, I admit it. I am, at heart, a Luddite. Perhaps a Neo-Luddite. That sounds a bit cooler, and I don’t have a beard. 

Two festive seasons ago, our tumble dryer and dishwasher broke within hours of each other. Short of paying work, I convinced myself it was time for the Appliance Militia to be called up. My children (then six and four years old) were dead keen. 

Within an hour the dishwasher was fixed. On a man-over-machine high, we plunged into the innards of the tumble dryer. This was quite tricky, and in fact, despite a full afternoon’s labour alongside my valiant assistants, we were a little stumped. Pieces of machinery and screws lay like fallen soldiers across the battlefield, as the sun set and a gloomy dusk crept over suburbia.

We trudged off for a meal and I plonked the motor with its broken fan cowling on the kitchen table…  okay, I made that part up. Actually it lay on the kitchen floor, waiting for me to break a toe on it when stumbling about in the wee hours.

Who would make a part under stress from brittle plastic? Only some swine wanting my precious appliance to break just after the warrantee had lapsed. Luckily we found a local repair guy who worked in the happy season, but the cost of the part was almost the cost of the machine. The repairman managed to jury rig a fix with galvanised sheeting that worked. 

The kids and I swiftly reassembled the machine. Okay, so it took a couple of re-dos to get all the parts lying in the yard utilised. Finally, we had it running, and threw in a load of wet washing. Triumphant high fives all round.

Hours passed, and the clothes were still damp. I tried redoing the wiring – still no heat, just spinning away. Groan. I loaded the thing into the back of the car and dropped it at the repairman’s place.  Repairman with moustache said that sometimes, if a machine runs with a broken fan, the heater element or sensor goes. Of course it does. Our appliance survival-ism felt at an all-time low.

Forty-eight hours later: “Hello? Mr Marin..awitzsh?” struggled the appliance guy’s admin lady.


“It was your heater element. S…..g have spares; R1,150.”

“That much?”


“Umm, do you have a second-hand machine for sale?”

“Jus’ a sekkie.”

I waited. She gets back on the line, “Yes, R600.”

“Really? And it works?”

“Three-month guarantee.”

I fetched both the machines and brought them home. “A new one?” asked Luc, eyes alight.

“No, second-hand, but look, it’s exactly the same model as ours.”

“So, the old one is not working?”

“No, we’re keeping it for spares.”

“Can I take it apart, pleeez?”

There is, without doubt, a primordial urge to take things apart. Though, of course, the more evolved among the species also have an urge to put these things back together.

So when I read in that the Dutch had started a series of Repair Cafes where volunteer community members spend a few hours a month or so fixing things, from vacuum cleaners to irons, I was thrilled. At last, a fightback against the throwaway culture of modern life. The Netherlands has even put relatively serious money into ensuring these cafes have tools, coffee, biscuits – you know, the basics of life.

All kinds of people with a passion for tinkering wash down butter biscuits with a slurp of coffee as they bend over a wide range of household objects, fixing heirloom vacuum cleaners and non-steaming steam irons. What a great idea, whose time really has come. In the two and a half years since the first Repair Cafe started, they have spread across the Netherlands, and now even boast a Repair Bus.

Resist built-in or planned obsolescence, comrades, resist. Fight the waste makers.

In fact, the term planned obsolescence was coined and popularised by an American industrial designer called Brooks Stevens, in 1954. The concept spread rapidly throughout the industrialised world, and soon everything from tape recorders to motor vehicles to toys were all being designed to break. While the idea outrages me, some, especially those of the capitalist running dog bent, might say this is actually a good thing. It allows economies to grow, and gives space for new, perhaps better, technology to grow into.

This is based on the presumption that things just get better and better. That all advances in technology are positive. In some fields this may well be correct, but this economic model ensures people stay indebted in perpetuity, never able to pay off or get full value from an item before it is redundant or broken. 

The objects of our increasing desires are debt traps, and add to Earth’s burden of litter and resource consumption.

Now, we all know some archaic piece of early electrical appliance or electronica that just keeps working. My mother-in-law has a National microwave that is now 31 years old and still works perfectly. It even has faux wood to make it look ‘friendlier’. 

Volkswagen Beetles from the fifties are still running faithfully, with just a little TLC. Today’s designers would call that over-engineered. They would recommend ‘value engineering’, which is a more beguiling term. Can you imagine contemporary cars – which cost fortunes more than the modest Beetle and its competitors, still running fifty years on? Twenty? Doubt it.

Oh, did I tell you that I bought the kids a 1972 Citroen Club? Mind the car parts on the lawn when you come and visit. DM


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