TV Service & Repairs
As a schoolboy in South Africa, one of the two subjects I most detested was Industrial Arts, which, in addition to drafting and metal work, covered the theory of such things as the internal combustion engine. All things mechanical smacked of a surpassed or fading age, and were of no interest to me. Although I shared with most boys the urge to tinker, mine was directed toward electronics. I even, at the age of 14, solicited brochures for an American correspondence course on Television Service & Repairs — despite the fact that television broadcasting had not yet arrived in South Africa, being a medium that the government was politically leery of. Television would be introduced, on a restricted, single-channel basis, a year or so later — only to be followed a year after that by the Soweto uprisings.
Television intoxicated me as a technological object. Imagine: moving images appearing not on a big, public cinema screen but on a relatively small piece of milky glass at home. I would dream of seeing that convex glass with its rounded corners flicker to life, and it didn’t matter whether with monochrome or color images. And the brochure from International Correspondence Schools in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, seemed to promise that the course would eventually send me the parts and instruments for me build a television from scratch.
But I must have misunderstood the ICS brochure or been deliberately misled by it, for when the course arrived, it turned out to involve no practice with real parts. There would be no TV kit to assemble, no instruments to test circuits with. Even if there had been a kit, the resulting American TV would have been of no use in South Africa, which adopted the higher definition, 625-line German PAL system instead of the 525-line American NTSC, besides also supplying its electricity in different voltages and currents.
So all I learned was theory, about a TV system and TVs that would never be found in South Africa: seven or so volumes of instruction containing multiple choice tests. For a while I enjoyed reading those books and learning how to diagnose, isolate and pinpoint a malfunction — a process that somewhat resembled, I thought, the deductions of Sherlock Holmes, whose stories I was reading at the same time. I dreamt of dropping out of school, which I found dull and oppressive in its English-colonial-era style of regimentation and teaching methods, to become a sort of television-repair detective, with a Watsonian sidekick working alongside me in a little shop, surrounded by TVs divested of their cabinets, the tiny metropolises of their electronic innards gloriously exposed. But, as it became clear that the ICS course was all theory, my TV fantasy began to wear thin.
In the meantime, school grew more tolerable: I shot up in height and more girls took notice of me, which increased my desire to be where they were. I also discovered a flair for debating and for writing essays. The isolate, diagnose and pinpoint logic of the TV course may have played a role in this, although the course’s influence was most perceptible in another encouraging development in school: my becoming top of the class in science.
As for my dream life, I found a new object for it in the aftermath of a momentous event in my native land, Portugal: the 25th of April Revolution, which had ended four decades of fascism. A flood of information on leftist ideology became available to me. Via the Portuguese newspapers and magazines arriving at the local Portuguese club, I was finding out about Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky and Mao, and what their followers were doing back in Portugal. I was now passing idle time in class not, as I used to, by drawing diagrams of connections between resistors, capacitors, and transistors, but by listing political manifesto points or drawing party logos that would include a socialist clenched fist or one of the most taboo symbols in Communist-phobic South Africa, a hammer and sickle. And as I did this I fantasized about leading my fellow high-school students in protests — to change, say, the curriculum, or the behavioral and dress rules, or to end corporal punishment. With increasing frequency, I drew teachers into debates which, to the delight of my classmates, could take up entire study periods.
In the meantime, my disenchantment with television only grew. Months before the official start of programming, TVs were displayed in the windows of furniture stores, but they showed only a test pattern, which I knew from the ICS course was useful for assessing picture quality and diagnosing problems having to do with the color and contrast controls and the vertical and horizontal holds. Of course, the colors on the South African Broadcasting Corporation test pattern were well-controlled and everything held perfectly, as seemed to be the case in the apartheid nation at large. Yet the government may not have been reassured, for after a while it began to seem that it would never, after all, allow us to see much more of TV than that SABC-TV pattern.
During my TV repair-course phase, I had curiously not given much thought to what I might enjoy watching on a TV. I must have assumed that anything shown on it would share the appeal of the TV itself. But, as I discovered when programming did finally start, the dazzle of the technology receded, and what mattered was what was being shown.
My family did not immediately buy a TV. I would watch in a cafe, among a crowd, much as if we were all at a cinema, so that the TV lost its personal aspect, becoming simply a smaller, inferior cinema screen. Each broadcast would kick off and sign off ceremoniously, with an image of a national monument or the national flag fluttering while the national anthem or some other hymn played. The early broadcast, starting at 5:30 p.m. and lasting two and a half hours, would be in Afrikaans one day, the other in English. There would be 15 minutes or so of children’s programming, none of it animated, all of it educational in a ham-fisted way. A fifteen-minute news segment would follow, read by a paper-shuffling, teacher-like presenter, often with footage of the most boring events and none of the most interesting. Then, if this were a day in which the English broadcast came first, we might enjoy an American sitcom like The Brady Bunch or Eight Is Enough (no British programming, because the British government had imposed cultural sanctions on South Africa,) followed by a locally produced drama. After this, at 8:15 in the evening, the broadcast would recommence in the other language, with slightly different programming as dictated by the later hour: a variety show, a talk show, a documentary. Both sessions were aimed exclusively at whites. I identified strongly with none of the offerings, which seemed only to dissipate what remained of the electronic magic that a TV had once held for me. It became a matter of indifference to me as to whether I would ever have a TV of my own.
On June 16, 1976, the Soweto riots erupted, as if to kick off South Africa’s own revolution. But none of it ever showed up on TV, further condemning the medium in my eyes. I followed events in the Rand Daily Mail and my political fervor, which had begun to fade, was revived. I could not help but be dazzled by the fact that the uprising had been led by high-schoolers like me, and astonished that the spark had been the imposition of Afrikaans, the other subject I detested. While I had been daydreaming about it, my black counterparts had been bracing for real action. The least I could do, I thought, was to defend their cause in what discussions I had about what was going on.
I was the only student in my school who did so. That should not have surprised the school’s faculty, since by then I had already earned a reputation for my espousing liberal views in debates and essays. Some of the teachers were surprisingly encouraging; none had censured me. But now I came up against an unexpected foe: none other than the Industrial Arts teacher, an Afrikaner with the comical-sounding last name most often used in jokes about Afrikaners, Van der Merwe. And he looked somewhat comical, being flatfooted, paunchy, balding, mustached, missing a digit on one hand. But he did not put himself across as a figure of fun; nor was he slow to resort to corporal punishment.
One day toward the tail end of the uprising, Van der Merwe set the Industrial Arts Theory textbook aside to ask us, with a glance at me, what we thought about what was going on in Soweto. I kept quiet at first, hearing classmates say what he expected them to say, things such as, “We should just kill all those bloody baboons!” Then, suddenly, Van der Merwe rounded on me. What did I think? Startled, I stammered, “I think they may have a real point or two.”
He laughed, which irked me, so I kept speaking, defending the rioting schoolchildren’s uppermost grievance: the fact that the government had decided they should be taught mainly in Afrikaans. “This is an English school,” I said. “How would we all feel if we suddenly had to become an Afrikaans school?”
It was a thought that seemed to give my classmates pause. But Van der Merwe changed tack belligerently, asking me if I was a kaffir boetie (a nigger lover.) Then: “Let me just ask you this, okay? Would you marry a black girl? Yes or no?” As I tried to argue that this was irrelevant, he raised his voice to insist, “Yes or no?” My classmates took up the refrain, chanting “Yes or no” every time I tried to speak. So I yielded: “Yes,” I meekly said, then quickly added: “If I wanted to marry her, and if it could be done.”
The class rocked with mocking laughter and Van der Merwe, satisfied, called the discussion off. I wondered if word of what I had said would percolate through the school. Would I be ostracized or persecuted? It was with more apprehension than usual that I went to school in the following days, but the incident seemed forgotten. Nobody picked on me in the corridors and grounds, and girls did not seem any less friendly.
But a few months later, at the start of the new term, two of the more supportive teachers let me know they were under strict instructions not to engage in debates with me. In light of the Soweto riots, even white students with dissenting ideas were not to be taken lightly — or so Van der Merwe must have argued in the staff room, for I was convinced that this crackdown on me was a direct consequence of his interventions. In the school corridors, the deputy headmaster, Vorster, a Dickensian villain with a florid, brown-mustached face, began keeping an eye out for me, isolating me from the crowd, pinpointing actual infractions of school rules, issuing warnings.
I’d soon had enough and decided to drop out. I had conceived the idea of finishing high school in the same way I had learned TV repairs — via a correspondence course, which would have the advantage of freeing me to do two years in one if I wished. And I did manage it, but my grades were mediocre, so that, rather than go on to college, I had to go look for work, become a proletarian. By way of simplifying this unpleasant process, I accepted the first position I found — as a clerk in an auto parts store.
Carlos Cunha’s stories and narrative essays have been published in The Kenyon Review, The TriQuarterly, The Seattle Review, Gulf Coast, The Manchester (U.K.) Review and elsewhere. Born in the Azores, Portugal, he grew up in South Africa and lives in Florida, where he works as a copy editor for The New York Times International Weekly.