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Theo Engela

Theo Engela, Suspense Writer

Theodorus Cornelius Landman Engela (1930-1985) otherwise ‘just Theo’ was a South African musician and writer, better known locally for his short stories which appeared on Springbok Radio during the 1960’s and 70’s in dramatized form.

During that period, numerous short stories written by him appeared in radio dramatizations on Springbok Radio (SABC) produced by the renowned Michael Mc Cabe.

He was an adventurer who loved Africa and especially the veld, and had a love and fascination with local people and their culture. During the 1950’s and 60’s Theo traveled throughout Southern Africa, including much of South Africa, South West Africa (Namibia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and dabbled in such diverse activities during his life as being a police constable, enlisting as a merchant sailor to see the world, and even signing on as an aspiring mercenary!

He died in 1985.

A collection of his surviving short stories, and several novels, were published between 2005 and 2018.

About Christina’s Parents

Family Background:

Theodorus Cornelius Landman Engela was born in Queenstown, in the northern part of the Eastern Cape on January 6, 1930 – the second-eldest of four children to Thomas William Engela and Hendrika Landman.

Thomas William was a veteran of WW1, having been with the SA Army group sent to German South West Africa in 1914 with General Louis Botha. Thomas William sent numerous letters, photos and post cards of his exploits in ‘German South West’ home to his parents.

After his time in the army, he worked as a chartered accountant in Queenstown and later in Port Elizabeth. Thomas William was an elder at the NG church and later a member of the local Free Mason lodge. His wife Hendrika was a school teacher, pianist and organist at the local NG church.

It’s something of an Engela family legend that Mrs. Engela earned extra money playing the piano to accompany silent movies at the local cinema! Another family legend has it that Thomas William literally walked the soles of his shoes through looking for work during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

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. All were well-educated in various arts and classical music and were all very accomplished and talented pianists and singers. Even so, not all their interests rested in the arts.

In 1945, Theo’s younger brother Gerhard (G.P.) Engela ran away from home to join the Army while under-age, and enlisted (as many boys eager to go to war did in those days) but World War 2 ended before he even started his training! Nevertheless, G.P. served in the South African Army as an NCO for ten years (1945-1955) before moving to Southern Rhodesia in pursuit of a better salary and career prospects, reaching the rank of Captain in the Rhodesian Army before his death in July 1972 resulting from complications after knee-surgery. During his time in Rhodesia, he shot for Rhodesia’s Federal team and also for the national Bisley shooting team, and was involved in the training of infantry. At the time of his death, he was the officer second in command at the School of Infantry at Gwelo.

Theo was very close to all his siblings, but perhaps more to ‘G.P.’ than the others, even though he idolized his sister ‘Carrie’. His brother Tom was very good to him in his later years, a period in which he struggled financially. Tom often sent him a little money, and once very kindly even bought him a bed when he had nothing suitable to sleep on.

Theo’s eldest brother Tom became a teacher at Grey, the prestigious Port Elizabeth school for boys, before becoming a much-loved principal at Paarl Boys High in Paarl, in the Western Cape. Tom retired early due to ill health in the mid or late 1990’s, and died in 2000. His funeral was attended by well over 1000 people, including most of the school, the school rugby team, old boys union, and choir.

Their youngest sibling, a sister – Caroline, trained as a school teacher, and married a Dutch-reformed minister (a dominee), Tjaart Theron.

Home & Early Life

Theo was born in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape Province (then part of the Cape Province) on January 6, 1930. The Engela family spent much of Theo’s early youth in Queenstown before moving to Port Elizabeth in the 1940’s.

At school, Theo formed an attachment to a girl at the age of 14, and when she moved away from Port Elizabeth with her family, Theo ran away from home to try and find her. Due to the resulting emotional breakdown, Theo dropped out of school due to ill health in Standard 7 (Grade 9). Following advice from a local doctor, his parents sent him to the Police Depot in Mount Road (the site of the preset Mount Road Police Station) to be physically ‘toughened up’ by the physical training program police recruits were put through.

After a year of gymnastics and boxing, he opted to join up instead of going back to school, a decision which would negatively affect him the rest of his life, especially since he was best suited to pursue a career in arts or academics. Not too long afterwards, young Theo left SA Police employment for the first time.

While Theo had been working at Strand Music House as a salesman, he’d bought himself a baby-grand piano on a hire-purchase scheme. Since at that time he still lived with his parents, Theo kept the piano there and played it lovingly and often. Although Theo adored his mother, his adoration was never returned; his mother was ashamed of him and also looked down on him. When she returned home, she would find him playing the piano – and would ask him to stop on account of a headache – and minutes later, would ask his sister Carrie to play and sing something for her.

Not long after, Theo’s mother gave away his baby-grand piano to his sister as a wedding gift as though it were hers to give; it was a traumatic betrayal he resented for the rest of his life – even long after he’d finished paying off the debt he’d incurred in buying it. Carrie is currently the sole surviving sibling.

Theo’s mother died in 1958, which devastated him. Although Theo’s mother never returned his affections, he’d continued to adore her, and her death traumatized him considerably.


Theo was an avid reader and was largely self-educated, and became 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. In fact, his Afrikaans was know to be very poor by comparison. Theo left high school early due to his ill health at the time, having only a Standard 7 certificate, and after 2 years intense training and gymnastics, enlisted in the South African Police.

Despite his lack of formal senior high-school education, Theo was admitted to study BMus at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the mid 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 Theo’s 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 couldn’t continue his studies. This was another great disappointment in his life, and one that would leave a mark of sadness on him forever, but it didn’t stop him from composing some musical pieces as well. It was after this disappointment – where the door closed on his musical options – that he turned his focus to what he considered his secondary talent – writing.

Working Life:

Theo enlisted in the South African Police (SAP) in the early 1950’s without finishing high school. This lack of formal educational qualifications restricted his options throughout his life. Not so his talents, which were diverse and he pursued them vigorously on his own. While in the SAP, he enjoyed gymnastics and also boxing, becoming a featherweight boxing champion for a time. He also learned to play the flute in the Police Band.

After his stint in the Police, Theo spent most of his adult life moving from one low-paying job to another – he moved between jobs at various furniture shops in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg, and he was also a salesman at Strand Music House in Port Elizabeth for a while, where his musical talent and knowledge put him in good stead. He also had a job as a paymaster at a construction company for a while, but lost that when he punched his boss during a disagreement!

While the rest of his siblings either had pursued good careers, and excelled at them, Theo was considered to be the ‘black sheep’ of the family, partly because he was allowed to drop out of school with a standard 7, but mainly because while in the police, he’d taken to heavy drinking, which led to him being treated for alcoholism on numerous occasions.

Over much of his life he built up diverse experiences. While in serving in the South African police he worked as a regular police constable, a ‘foot-slogger’, but also as a mounted policeman patrolling farms in the Transvaal bushveld, where he developed his love for the African outback – which he wrote about a great deal.

Theo had ‘itchy feet’ for most of his life. He was restless, and on numerous occasions he would – rather irresponsibly – leave a stable job to go on some or other adventure to seek his fortune, only to return home and re-enlist with the SAP again for a year or two.

On one occasion, in 1964, he signed up as a mercenary to fight the Mau-mau rebels in the Congo, and on another, he toured the old diamond-mining towns of South West Africa (Namibia) in search of a job and re-location there, and then even worked as a cook and deck-hand on a cargo ship for a while.

Mostly during his late thirties until his death in 1985 at the age of 55, he was self-employed working for himself as a piano-tuner. At that time, there were only two piano-tuning services in the Port Elizabeth area – Eddie Yapp, and Theo Engela. He was kept quite busy, and did a lot of travelling in the area.

Theo was a very strong, tough and physically robust man. He suffered numerous broken bones (especially ribs) during his lifetime, and is probably best remembered by some relatives for sawing off plaster casts after a few hours since they got in his way while writing!

Once or twice, whilst walking home late at night, he was attacked by local ‘tsotsi’s‘ (thugs), who stabbed him in his hands and face, resulting in sinus-problems the rest of his life. In 1980, he was struck by a passing car at night in a hit-and-run incident. Despite having knee-trauma, he still got up and walked to his destination and back again. In 1985 – his last year – while suffering ill health, he took a tumble down a long steep flight of stairs at a church in Whites Road, Port Elizabeth after seeing to their piano, and broke his right wrist in two places.

Politics and Social Activism:

Theo was not what we might today call an activist, however he certainly did write a fair amount of letters to the press on specific social justice issues which bothered him. A short selection below, includes Apartheid, racism, censorship and Afrikaner nationalism:

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.

Sometime after that, one of the Van Der Westhuizen sisters, Dulcie, caught his eye, and he asked her to a dance. She was not really interested, but suggested her younger sister (a recent divorcee’) Yvonne. They went out on a date together, and while at the party venue Theo was asked to play the piano – which he did. As it turned out, this is one of the points that won Yvonne over to his charms!

Theo and Yvonne married in August 1955. Theo’s mother Hendrika passed away in 1958 after a failed operation, and after a month-long illness in hospital, literally bled to death. Theo and Yvonne were then living in Johannesburg, and Theo (moved by an instinct that something was bad was going to happen) had gone to Port Elizabeth to be with his mother. Yvonne followed, to be met by a distraught Theo at the train station, to learn that his mother had just died.

Thomas William – although ten years older than Hendrika, his beloved ‘Trixie’ – lingered on for a few more years, before literally drinking himself to death from grief, in 1960. Both are buried in Port Elizabeth’s North End Cemetery. Theo was shattered, having been immensely in awe of his mother, a strong personality, and having been extremely close to his ‘dear old Dad’, to whom perhaps, he had been the favorite son.

Haunted by memories of his experiences in the SAP during the Witsies-hoek riots, during which some of his police friends had been killed at his side, Theo’s drinking caused problems for their relationship. From the early 1970’s Theo was unemployed, working for himself as a piano tuner, traveling into the countryside looking for opportunities to find work.

They eventually had one child after 17 years of marriage, Christina, born on Feb 1, 1973. 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 1977 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. Neither ever remarried.

Writing Career:

Although writing was one of Theo’s major talents, music and especially the piano were his first love. Robbed of his dream of studying music to pursue a career as a musician, Theo turned to writing instead. Although he was a very good writer, it remained his secondary skill to music. In many of his stories he referred to music and included music as a feature of the story.

Fifteen of Theos thirty-two short stories were published in the SAP magazine during the 1950s. In the 1960s-70s many of these were dramatized for broadcasting on Springbok Radio.

Throughout his later years, Theo continued to write and place his hopes on ‘writing a bestseller’, which never realized. He wrote two novels; “A Way Of Life” and “Only Yesterday” during the mid 1960s. His health gradually declined from heavy smoking and the cumulative effect of alcoholism, and by 1984 he was emaciated and virtually bed-ridden. He completed and sent away the manuscript for “Shakandazu Valley” during early 1985. In August 1985 he was admitted to the Provincial Hospital at Port Elizabeth with low blood oxygen levels and suspected bowel cancer. It was at this point when finally, he found the resolve to stop drinking and smoking simultaneously, virtually on his death-bed. A few days later, on 16 August 1985, he died from complications most likely relating to cancer, with both Yvonne and Christina at his side. A fourth novel, “Cigarettes & Ivory”, was incomplete at the time of his death. Theo’s last rejection note, for “Shakandazu Valley” arrived shortly afterwards.

The following is a visually enhanced 1975 radio dramatization of “Assignment”, a short story by Theo Engela, contained within the anthology “African Assignment”.

In 2005, some twenty years after his death, Theo’s short stories were published in a collection entitled “African Assignment” by his daughter Christina. “A Way Of Life” followed in 2018, followed by “Shakandazu Valley“. “Only Yesterday” remains pending.

About Christina’s Parents

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