Attention true crime lovers! Strap in because this is an exciting one. As you may well already know, true crime podcasts have been having a moment and we’re in no short supply of award-winning true crime content locally. Last year, a docu-series called Devilsdorp was released on Showmax and instantly became a hit in South Africa and abroad. If you need a recap, the companion podcast will fill you in on what you need to know.
That’s what brings us here today, my fellow true crime fiends. Devilsdorp sparked a true crime wormhole from which I have not returned. After watching the show, and listening to the companion podcast, I became fixated on learning more about South African true crime history and psychology. I delved in further, and found the holy grail. True Crime South Africa, hosted by Nicole Engelbrecht.
Discovering True Crime South Africa…
True Crime SA is the nation’s top true crime podcast and with good reason. Nicole researches, picks apart and postulates on the events, evidence and psychology behind some of South Africa’s most known and unknown cases, giving a voice to victims of violent crime. Before that, though, Nicole worked in corporate as a sales manager, not knowing just how far her storytelling abilities would get her. Now, I’ve got the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Nicole, to find out more about the enigmatic host and her love for true crime.
Getting to know Nicole Engelbrecht, host of True Crime South Africa
What first sparked your love for true crime?
I’m a naturally a curious and observant person, I love figuring out puzzles! When I was in grade 8, a classmate’s 11-year-old sister was kidnapped and murdered and, although at the time, my young mind simply couldn’t process how something like that could happen, it was only when I left school that I really started to wonder about the person that may have committed the crime. That event played a major role in my true crime interest as I spent many years afterwards trying to figure out what had happened with the few details I remembered. I talk about that case in the episode entitled, Ewa Nosal: The Case That Started it All.
When and how did you discover your knack for storytelling?
I think I was born a storyteller. My first memory of writing a story is from when I was 6 years old and had probably just learned to write. From there, it’s just been something that has always been in my blood. Over the years, the amount of energy I’ve put into my writing has ebbed and flowed, but there came a point when I realized that when I wasn’t writing my life was like a black-and-white photo – still beautiful, but missing something. Then, three years ago, I decided to leave my corporate job and try my hand at a creative entrepreneurship.
I hoped that I might be able to advance with my writing and the true crime podcast was part of this plan. I only really realised that I may have the knack for telling stories when listeners started to respond so positively to something that came naturally to me, I had no choice but to sit back and think, “Okay maybe this thing you can do is kind of special?”
I don’t think I ever could have dreamed that I would be traditionally published one day, but thanks to the success of the podcast, my first true crime book, Samurai Sword Murder: The Morne Harmse Story, is being released in early October and it all still seems extremely surreal.
You’ve worked on documenting so many cases. Are there any that were particularly challenging for you to get through, and why?
Many of the cases I’ve covered have been challenging but perhaps for different reasons. Although all murders are senseless, I think cases where the crimes seem absolutely motiveless and particularly heinous stand out as some of the most challenging. An example of this would be the multiple murder case in Nieuwoutdville in which a group of men broke into a house and viciously killed all the occupants (with one surviving). One of the victims was a child and another was her mother. Replaying the events of that night in my mind was extremely difficult.
Other cases are challenging because I find it really hard to decide whether I should actually be covering the case. I’m always very aware that me retelling a story could bring up memories for people who have tried to forget. In some cases, where the offender was also in some way a victim, and they’ve served their time, I wonder whether it is fair to them to bring the story back up again. In all of these instances, though, to push through I have to go back to the core reason I create in the true crime space: is this serving the victims in some way? If the answer to that question is ‘yes’ then I will continue to push through.
We don’t hear enough about women at the forefront of criminal justice in SA. Who are the local ladies you really look up to in that regard?
I have been really lucky to meet some phenomenal people through the podcast and we really do have some amazing women pushing for justice in this country. One person who certainly stands out is Vanessa Lynch from DNA for Africa. Vanessa’s dad was murdered in a home invasion in the early 2000s. The crime scene was badly handled by the SAPS and valuable DNA evidence was lost. Her father’s murderers were never brought to book, but Vanessa started to campaign for better DNA legislation and systems in South Africa. She is one of the main reasons that we now have much of the DNA legislation we have in this country and she continues to campaign and educate to ensure that SAPS has access to these vital crime solving tools.
What inspired you to start your second podcast, I Lived Through This?
I realised how powerful every single person’s story is for them, as well as others. Of course, on True Crime South Africa, the stories almost always have a very sad ending, but I started to realise that there were many other stories out there that wouldn’t necessarily fit the true crime genre but that had so much value in them. I Lived Through This was created as a space for people to tell their stories that might not necessarily tick the requirements boxes for mainstream media coverage, no matter what the subject matter.
I Lived Through This has also become a healing space for people telling their stories as they often stop midway and say, “Oh I’ve just remembered that,” – referring to a specific detail that either their mind had completely blocked or they just hadn’t considered before. Seeing people inspired by these stories becomes beneficial to the survivors who share them, too. There’s something about hearing someone else tell their story that automatically creates a safe space for others to do the same. It’s contagious in the best way possible.
Run us through a day in Nicole’s shoes?
I’m grateful to say that there isn’t really an average day for me anymore. What I do in a day depends on what projects I’m working on at the time. For the most part, I’m up and working by about 6am. I usually start with some writing work for international clients, and then move into either writing or research for my podcasts. My favourite days are when I get to interview people for my podcast. I am constantly struck by how lucky I am to have people trust me enough to share their stories with me.
Besides work, much of my day is spent wrangling my 11-year-old blind beagle, Chumlee. For the most part he knows his way around pretty well, but he occasionally needs a helping hand and is always very keen to participate in lunch time.
I do try to stick to “normal” office hours, but when I have multiple projects on the go, I will often take a break to make dinner and then carry on working. It’s probably not the healthiest schedule but I cannot bring myself to ignore the opportunities that are currently being presented to me. There’ll be time for rest and relaxation later!
True Crime South Africa and I Lived Through This are available on all podcast platforms including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. You can also listen directly through the website.
True Crime South Africa releases an episode every week (usually on a Friday) and I Lived Through This releases every two weeks (usually on a Monday).
Feature Image: Nicole Engelbrecht