Although Theo Engela was moderately well-known in South Africa, and particularly the Port Elizabeth area 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 or deserved as a writer.
He primarily wrote short stories and novels, mostly set in the South African bushveld or in the general society between 1950-1985.
Despite having written three full-length novels in his lifetime, the only items of his that were ever published up to the time of his death, were his short stories. His longer works, although published after his death by his daughter Christina, remain almost completely unknown, despite being very good, well-structured, intelligent and in fact, captivating works.
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 a matter of timing. The political atmosphere at play at the time was chiefly to blame. White South African authors were simply not welcomed by overseas publishers during the embargo years at the close of Apartheid – 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. Hence, while Theo was always writing something, it afterwards had to be typed manually on a typewriter, copied, and sent via snail-mail to traditional publishers in South Africa and elsewhere.
As another example of ‘timing’, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s 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… and the publishers didn’t want to “burden the market with too many similar books”.
A lot of Theo Engela’s stories were set in the South African bushveld and in popular society of the 1950’s and 60’s. Some of them have a hint or feel of Hitchcock. 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, Theo opens a window onto a simpler, less complicated world filled with wonder and mystery, where crime could still be ‘perfect’ and 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 displayed 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, most or all of these shorts were dramatized for local radio in the 60’s and 70’s, appearing on the now legendary Springbok Radio which operated from 1950-1985.
Only 12 of these remarkable short stories still exist – those that feature in the anthology “African Assignment“.
Despite the radio dramatization of many of his short stories, only one copy is known to still exist (“Assignment”) which is in the possession of his daughter, Christina Engela. Until 2016, no other copies were known to exist – not even in the archives of the SABC itself, or on website archives dedicated to the much-missed Springbok Radio. A new web resource dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the much-loved radio station, featuring audio clips, is due to resurface before the end of 2016.
This is a complete listing of works by Theo Engela:
Short stories appearing in ‘African Assignment’:
- The Devils Pearl
- Harry’s Diamond
- Moment of Action (Kith and Kin)
- A Change of Heart
- Run, Hide!
- Year of the Wild Dog
- The Wonderful Nightmare
- Mad Moon
- Under A Sickle Moon
Short Stories appearing in ‘The Drums Talk’ (lost):
- A Farewell to the Bush
- Man With A Crow
- Thieves Fall Out
- The Drums Talk
- The Elephant Curse
- The Ghost Carrier
- The Hunter
- The Return of Savu
- The Tramp
- Transkei Trader
- Song of Death
- White Devil Leopard
- Slowly Fades The Light
- Drunkard’s Wife
- Mr. Veil
Musical Compositions (for piano):
- Adoons (Adonis)
- Moon Melody
- My Dearest Heart
- Verlate Hart (Forlorn Heart)
- Wandelaarsbloed (Wanderer’s Blood)
- Welkom My Nooi (Welcome My Love)