To customers at the shoe repair shop on Auckland's North Shore, Ryk Hattingh was the cobbler who had carefully mended their footwear and cut their keys for the past two decades.

Thousands of kilometres away, however, Hattingh was known in his native South Africa for having skilfully crafted words as an award-winning playwright, novelist, journalist and publisher.

And the two worlds intersected brilliantly but all too briefly when Hattingh was flown to Cape Town to receive one of the country's biggest literary awards for his newest book.

But on Tuesday, 10 days after winning the prestigious kykNET-Rapport Book Prize for fiction for his novel Huilboek (Crying Book) - an award set to reignite his literary career - the 60-year-old died after suffering a sudden heart attack at his Murrays Bay home.

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Hattingh's wife, Martene Mentis, was at home with their sons Julius, 22, and Blake, 18, when he collapsed. Daughter Sophia, 24, has flown back from Australia.

Mentis said it was a complete shock. Her husband was healthy and "really buzzing about all these new things that were going to open up" after his kykNET-Rapport win.

"He was fit and well", she said. "He was on the top of the world really. He was in a very good place altogether."

Hattingh was "an unbelievable husband and father" who "gave up a huge life" in South Africa to bring his young family to New Zealand 20 years ago to find a better future for their children.

She was glad he had enjoyed the acknowledgement of his most recent literary prize, even though it was all too short.

"It was very wonderful that he could after all these years - do something for himself. And for the kids again - so they could see him for who he was. So, I'm very pleased that he did get that recognition. And it was such a joyful time before this happened."

Hattingh wrote several novels in South Africa, one of which was nominated for the Rapport Prize. In 1988, his play Sing Jy van Bomme (Do You Sing of Bombs) won five awards.

A musician and published poet, he also worked as a journalist for an Afrikaans anti-apartheid newspaper and a progressive Afrikaans-language monthly.

"He has a huge, huge following of people from back in the day," Mentis said. "There was such a big alternative community that followed him."

But she said their young family had "lived under very stressful conditions", and decided to move to New Zealand. "We knew it was safe".

Shortly before making that decision, Mentis had been the victim of a brutal carjacking in Johannesburg. On her way to a pottery class in the evening, she was forced from her car and an attacker pointed his gun at her and pulled the trigger. She doesn't know whether the weapon misfired or wasn't loaded.

"I was dragged out the car, and I was screaming and in shock and I couldn't stop screaming, so he tried to shoot me." "I was very fortunate. I managed to survive."

Arriving in New Zealand, there had initially been limited job opportunities for her husband in his field, Mentis said.

He had walked past the Cobble shop in Browns Bay and seen it was for sale. "He said, 'I can fix shoes', and he learnt how to do it. And within three months he was a cobbler. And he [had] been there ever since." He had liked working with his hands and connecting with the community, and it allowed him to support his family.

Their children have "flourished" in New Zealand, said Mentis, an art teacher at Hato Petera College in Northcote. "We live in a beautiful place. We've really come to love it here".

Hattingh's kykNET-Rapport win had re-energised him and he had been invited to collaborate in a number of literary projects, Mentis said. Those opportunities were now cruelly denied him.

Huilboek was Hattingh's first new prose work to be published since he left South Africa. The novel centres around a South African immigrant in New Zealand. He explores his childhood in the 1960s, but also his life in New Zealand, and the reasons he has turned into the man he has become. The title refers to a notebook Hattingh had as child, in which he wrote each time he cried.

In awarding it the top prize for fiction, the judges praised Hattingh "for his gentle handling of big issues, the subtlety of expression, the modest tone and total absence of self-mollifying". "The way in which he eventually establishes personal pain without political grandstanding, establishes it in the context of the trauma of a whole country, is exceptional and makes of Huilboek a beacon of how large forces can be set into motion with the minimum words and showiness."

Mentis said she was unable to express how much she missed her husband, who died at North Shore Hospital, where he had been taken by ambulance after his heart attack. It was their 25th wedding anniversary next month.

"I don't think we've been apart for a week in all of our [time] together."

Her husband's death follows that of her father Peter in June, and mother Pamela in August. Her parents, both aged 87, had lived nearby in Rothesay Bay. "It has been an awful run".

•A service to celebrate Hattingh's life will be held on Sunday [SUBS NOTE: 15-10-17] at Outram Hall, Murrays Bay, 3pm.