Theo Engela (1930 – 1985)
Theo Engela – Author
Theodorus Cornelius Landman Engela, otherwise ‘just Theo’ was a musician and writer. He became 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. A collection of his short stories was published in 2005, 20 years after his death.
- Writing Career
- African Assignment
- A Way Of Life
- Only Yesterday
- Shakandazu Valley
- Cigarettes & Ivory
- Poetry by Theo Engela
- A Treatise On The Musician’s Approach To The Piano
- Writing Career
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. After that he worked as a chartered accountant in Queenstown and later in Port Elizabeth. Thomas William was an elder at the NG church and a member of the local Free Mason lodge, and his wife Hendrika was a school teacher and organist at the local NG church.
Mrs Engela also earned extra money playing the piano to accompany the silent movies at the local cinema. A family legend has it that Thomas William 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 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.
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! He served in the South African Army as an NCO for ten years (1945-1955) before moving to Rhodesia for a better salary, 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, after his divorce, 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. He 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. Theo’s mother gave away his baby-grand piano to Carrie as a wedding gift as though it were hers to give; it was a traumatic betrayal he resented for the rest of his life. Carrie is currently the sole surviving sibling.
Theo’s mother died in 1960.
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.
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. 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 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 couldn’t continue his studies. 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.
Theo enlisted in the South African Police (SAP) in the early 1950’s. While in the SAP, he also played the flute in the Police Band.
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 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.
Theo had ‘itchy feet’ on numerous occasions, leaving the SAP to go on some or other adventure, only to re-enlist 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.
Among the various employment positions he held include pay clerk for a construction company, salesman and consultant for various local music stores selling pianos and other instruments. Mostly during his late thirties until his death in 1985 at the age of 55, he was self-employed working as a piano-tuner.
He was a very strong, tough and physically robust man. He suffered numerous broken bones (especially ribs) 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 him suffering sinus-problems the rest of his life. Another time he was struck by a passing car in a hit-and-run incident. Despite having knee-trauma, he still got up and walked to his destination and back again. In his last year, while suffering ill health, he took a tumble down a long steep flight of stairs at a local church 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 certain issues which bothered him. A short selection below, including Apartheid, racism, censorship and 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, who was 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 of the Witsies-hoek riots in the SAP during the 1950’s, 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.
Throughout these years, Theo continued to write and place his hopes on ‘writing a bestseller’, which never realized. His health gradually declined from heavy smoking and the cumulative effect of alcohol, and between 1984 and 1985 he was emaciated and virtually bed-ridden. 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 in Port Elizabeth’s Provincial Hospital, with both Yvonne and Christina at his side.