A Little Background – Theo Engela, Christina’s Dad


Theo Engela (1930 – 1985)

Dad

Theo Engela – Author

Theodorus Cornelius Landman Engela, or ‘just Theo’ was a fairly renowned local South African author of the 1960’s and 70’s. During that period, numerous short stories written by him appeared in radio dramatizations on Springbok Radio (SABC) produced by Michael Mc Cabe.

Background:

Theodorus Cornelius Landman Engela was born in Queenstown, in the northern part of the Eastern Cape on January 6, 1930 to Thomas William Engela, a chartered accountant, and his wife Hendrika Landman, a school teacher and an organist at the local NG church. Mr Engela was an elder at the church and a member of the local Free Mason lodge. Mrs Engela also earned extra money playing the piano to accompany the silent movies at the local cinema. The family relocated to Port Elizabeth in the 1940’s after work became scarce in the war years.

The family consisted of four siblings, 3 boys and 1 girl. His younger brother G.P. Engela served in the South African Army as an NCO before moving to Rhodesia for a better salary, reaching the rank of Captain before his death in July 1972 resulting from complications after knee-surgery. His eldest brother Thomas William became a teacher at Grey, the prestigious Port Elizabeth school for boys, before becoming principal at Paarl Boys High in Paarl, in the Western Cape. His sister Caroline married a Dutch-reformed minister. Theo had an unhappy childhood for various reasons, and dropped out of school due to ill health in Standard 7 (Grade 9). He was sent to the Police Depot in Mount Road to be ‘toughened up’ by the physical training program police recruits were put through. After a year, he opted to join up instead of going back to school, a decision which would negatively affect him the rest of his life.

While the rest of his siblings either had pursued good careers, Theo was considered to be the ‘black sheep’ of the family, partly because he was allowed to drop out of school, but mainly because while in the police, he took to heavy drinking, which led to him being treated for alcoholism on numerous occasions.

Over much of his life he built up diverse experiences, having served in the South African police for a number of years, partly as a ‘foot-slogger’, but also as a mounted policeman patrolling farms in the Transvaal bushveld, where he developed his love for the African outback. He signed up as a mercenary to fight the Mau-mau rebels in the Congo, and also toured the old diamond-mining towns of South West Africa (Namibia), and even worked as a cook and deck-hand on a cargo ship for a while. Among the various positions he held include Paymaster for a construction company, salesman and consultant for various local music stores selling pianos and other instruments. In his last years, while suffering ill health, he performed casual work as a piano tuner.

Theo was largely self-educated, and was well-versed in poetry, philosophy, history, the classics – and was regarded by most who knew him as ‘very intelligent’. Having been raised in English-language schools, while his first language had originally been Afrikaans, resulted in him adopting English as his first language and almost forsaking his native tongue altogether.

Despite his lack of formal senior high-school education, Theo was admitted to study BMus at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the 1950’s – having caught the eye of a Professor Gruber who described him as ‘one of these amazing South Africans’ with a real feel and love for music, and wrote a motivation to get him admitted. Music was his first love, and he studied for the BMus degree – with visual arts and painting as a secondary focus – until he ran out of funding and had to quit. This was a great disappointment in his life, one that would leave a mark of sadness on him forever, but it didn’t stop him from writing some music as well. It was after this that he turned his focus to his secondary talent – writing.

Marriage and Later Life:

In 1948, the Van Der Westhuizen family moved into a house in Brister Place, Port Elizabeth, across the road from where he was staying with his parents. Although the houses in that closed circle were close together and often the residents attended the same events, he was something of an introvert and didn’t socialize that much. In the 1950’s he endured a bitter romantic disappointment when he discovered the girl he had been dating for 2 years and wanted to propose to, had been cheating on him with his police sergeant.

He later married one of the 5 Van Der Westhuizen sisters, Yvonne in 1955. They had one child 17 years later, Christina, born in 1973. Theo’s drinking caused problems for their relationship, and from the early 1970’s Theo was unemployed, working for himself as a piano tuner. Yvonne was the breadwinner for the family, working as a typist from home after Christina’s birth. Money was tight and times were hard. They divorced in 1976 due to financial problems. More to the point, Yvonne could not afford to support both Theo and a growing toddler, and had to choose. Despite this separation, relations between them continued to be cordial and friendly for the rest of Theo’s life.

Throughout these years, Theo continued to write and place his hopes on ‘writing a bestseller’, which never realized. His health declined from heavy smoking and drinking, and between 1984 and 1985 he was virtually bed-ridden. He died from complications most likely relating to cancer on 16 August 1985 in the Port Elizabeth Provincial Hospital, with both Yvonne and Christina by his side.

Writing Career:

Although Theo Engela was moderately well-known in South Africa during the 1960’s and 70’s for his short stories which were broadcast on local radio at the time, he never really rose to the sort of prominence he desired as a writer.

He wrote poetry, short stories and novels, mostly set in the South African bushveld or in the general society between 1950-1985.

Despite having written several full-length novels in his lifetime, the only items that were ever published up to the time of his death, were his short stories.

There were various compelling reasons for this, and not being ‘good enough’ was not one of them. The main reason his novels were not published was the political atmosphere at play at the time – white South African authors were simply not welcome by overseas publishers during the embargo years, and also, in the ‘old days’ before computers, writing, editing and typing a novel was a tedious and time-consuming chore that took months if not years. Also, for example, when “Only Yesterday” was submitted to several publishers in England and the USA, it was turned down because another very similar story had already just been published on the subject of living with alcoholism, a topic Theo knew very intimately.

Theo Engela’s stories were set in the South African bushveld and society of the 1950’s and 60’s. To read them now provides the reader a fresh look at a world now long vanished. Using imagery and place names unfamiliar to folk living in the 21st century, the author shows us a simpler, less complicated world filled with wonder and mystery, where crime could still be ‘perfect’, pass undetected, while the world lived fearfully under the ever-present threat of the Cold War.

Mesmerizing African folklore and almost-vanished cultures stand side by side. Rounded off in his own unique style, Theo Engela displays a biting sense of humor and acidic irony in his works, which would probably not seem out of place in a Hitchcock serial. Published in local magazines of the 1950’s, the shorts were dramatized for local radio in the 60’s and 70’s, appearing on the now legendary Springbok Radio. Only 12 of these remarkable short stories still exist in print form – those that feature in the anthology “African Assignment” – lovingly compiled, revised and edited by his daughter Christina.

Despite the radio dramatization of many of his short stories, only one copy is known to exist (“Assignment”) which is in the possession of his daughter, Christina Engela. No other copies are known to exist, not even in the archives of the SABC or on website archives dedicated to Springbok Radio.

Bibliography:

(Short stories appearing in “African Assignment”)

The Devils Pearl
Harry’s Diamond
Moment of Action (Kith and Kin)
A Change of Heart
Run, Hide!
Assignment
Year of the Wild Dog
Caprivi
The Wonderful Nightmare
Mad Moon
Assegai
Under A Sickle Moon

(Short stories lost)

Farewell to the Bush
Song of Death
Transkei Trader
Man With A Crow
The Hunter
The Ghost Carrier
Habanera
The Return of Savu
Ingwe
White Devil Leopard
The Elephant Curse
Thieves Fall Out
The Tramp
Appassionata

(Novels)

The Drums Talk (lost)
A Way Of Life
Only Yesterday
Shakandazu Valley
Cigarettes And Ivory (incomplete at the time of his death).

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