Theys was born into a working class family and was raised in Cape Town’s southern suburbs before moving to the northern suburbs just before high school. He has two older sisters.
“They never let me forget that I am the baby. They keep me humble and grounded,” he says.
He has known his wife, Karen, since primary school and has been married to her for the past 21 years. They have a nine-year-old daughter, Hannah.
After completing a technical matric, equivalent to an N3, at Kasselsvlei High in Bellville, Theys pursued a national higher diploma in mechanical engineering at the then Peninsula Technikon.
He spent eight years with Luwa South Africa, the local subsidiary of a Swiss industrial group, where he worked his way up to the position of senior project engineer while at the same time completing his BTech degree in mechanical engineering.
He then joined Eskom, which required him to travel to power stations around the country.
The opportunity presented itself
“I did not enjoy the demands of the travel and was looking out for a change when I was alerted to the vacancy at Properties and Services,” says Theys.
He started at P&S in 2001 as a project engineer, a position he held for about five years before moving on to become the head of Engineering Services.
When John Critien retired from his post as the executive director of P&S in 2013, Theys applied successfully for the post.
“There are very few precincts in Cape Town that have the infrastructure, plant, building stock, mechanical and electrical plant, laboratories, data centres and sports facilities that UCT has in one location,” he says.
“I was privileged to work alongside and with external consultants with huge international reputations and I was always looking to learn from them. I will forever be in Chris Briers and John Critien’s debt for the trust they put in me and the opportunities they allowed me.”
He is also grateful for the support he received from his then line manager Deputy Vice-Chancellor Sandra Klopper.
“They all allowed me to grow, explore and experiment – something I will always value.”
He says that as a result of this he has been able to develop his staff and there have been some remarkable examples in Properties and Services that he is proud of.
“UCT allowed me to carry out postgraduate studies, which brought me into contact with such great people, coaches and motivated personalities. I was able to surround myself with people who raised my standard, who helped me become a better version of myself.”
No two days were ever the same
Although he had one of the biggest and most challenging portfolios at the university, Theys enjoyed the diversity and complexity of his work.
“I was always busy and I enjoyed the work I did. It was varied, complex and challenging, but never boring. I never ever woke up in the morning not wanting to come to work,” he says. “It was always a great comfort to know that the research, student success and academic project was moving along with some contribution from P&S.”
He played an integral part in maintaining UCT’s smooth operations during challenging times. Some of these were the load shedding in 2015, disruptions caused by protests in 2015 and 2016, the removal of the Rhodes statue in April 2015, the current urgent need for water conservation and the recent insourcing of staff members, which increased the P&S staff contingent substantially.
There have been joyous moments
“My biggest challenge was managing the facilities to the expected and perceived reputational standard with a budget that does not even approach international best practice,” he says.
A large part of his job included getting the broader executive to realise that while P&S was not core business, it was a strategic partner to the academic and research project.
He has many fond memories of his time at UCT.
“There have been so many interactions with amazing people, interesting projects that I have worked on, unique problems that P&S were able to solve, near misses that we were able to learn from,” he says.
One memory that stands out was being involved with the visit of former US president Barack Obama to UCT. Theys later received a personalised letter of thanks from the White House.
More recently he oversaw the completion of the New Engineering Building (NEB), the new Teaching and Learning Building and the New Lecture Theatre (NLT), as well as the purchase of the new fleet of Jammie Shuttles.
“The feeling I got every time UCT opened a new building that I knew P&S delivered, the successful commissioning of any new physical plant or infrastructure always inspired me; all of them are remembered fondly,” he says.
Persistence pays off
Theys played a vital role in seeing through the completion of the NLT, which was delayed by legal action.
“One of my first priorities when becoming [executive director] was getting this project completed,” he says. “I had to do plenty of negotiating with the provincial minister in getting the legal challenge sorted and the plans for the NLT approved.”
P&S also had to implement drastic contingency plans to complete the NEB and Teaching and Learning construction projects when the main contractor went into administration.
Theys directed the P&S partnership with Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS), which resulted in a very successful five-year Classroom Renewal Project. He also directed the creation of three of UCT’s data centres and the installation of underground networks for ICTS’s fibre optics, which today form the backbone of UCT’s world-class IT infrastructure.
His and his team’s hard work has also ensured the strengthening of UCT’s electrical infrastructure.
“I cannot recall when last a campus-wide power failure was due to faults on our network,” he says.
His friendly disposition and people skills also came in handy when building relationships with external stakeholders such as the nearby police stations, which has helped ensure a relatively crime-free campus. And after a prolonged series of negotiations with the surrounding taxi associations, UCT has been able to run the Jammie Shuttles unhindered.
“For me, working on all these projects, initiatives and management processes all contributed to a much evolved P&S, a more systematised P&S with better structure and understanding of a customer-oriented ethos.”
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