Dr Hans Merensky was born on 16 March 1871 at his father’s mission station at Botshabelo north of Middelburg in what was then the Transvaal province of South Africa. His father was the famous missionary and writer, Reverend Alexander Merensky. His father’s varied interests and sense of adventure were not the only influences on Merensky’s life; he was also widely influenced by Karl Mauch, the pioneer prospector and geologist 1. With this kind of background and a love of the great outdoors, Merensky decided to study geology in Germany, but first had to undergo military training in the German army – an experience that had unfortunate repercussions for him in later years. Merensky studied geology and mine engineering at the State Academy of Mining and the University of Berlin in Germany, and passed with honours. He completed his practical training in coalmines in the Saar region in Silesia and began work for the Department of Mines in East Prussia.
Soon becoming bored with a monotonous work routine, Dr Merensky took a year’s study leave to South Africa in 1904 – and it was 20 years before he saw Germany again. Sometime after his arrival he started a successful private practice as a consulting geologist and mining engineer in Johannesburg. His main focus being to identify, analyse and evaluate mineral samples, Dr Merensky embarked on a journey through the Transvaal in order to conduct geological surveys. He did work for several mining companies, and reported possible mining prospects. He discovered tin near Pretoria, and was sent to Madagascar to investigate a reported discovery of gold, which he proved to be fake.
In 1913 Merensky went bankrupt as a result of the Depression and during World War I he was called up and stationed in a camp near Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. After the war the mines began employing their own geologists on a permanent basis, reducing the need for consulting geologists, and Dr Merensky’s business suffered as a result. With the occasional support of Sir George Albu, however, he overcame this challenge and in 1924 discovered large platinum deposits near Lydenburg. This 48km reef, which was later named after him, together with other geological discoveries, made him a very prosperous man. 2
In 1926 he visited Germany and was abroad when diamonds were discovered in Namaqualand. Applying knowledge from his previous studies on the association between diamonds and the presence of fossilised oyster shells, Dr Merensky later visited the oyster beds at Alexander Bay on the West Coast of South Africa. His prospects led to the discovery of an enormous number of pure diamonds in the area, which was reserved, and Dr Merensky received 1 250 000 pounds.
Anxious that his fortune should be put to constructive use, so that others might also benefit from his windfall, Dr Merensky donated money to universities, schools, libraries, hospitals, charities, cultural organisations and other people in need. He was the leader in establishing agricultural schools in South Africa and made it possible for the University of Stellenbosch to create a Forestry faculty, which greatly boosted the large-scale forestry industry in South Africa. His funding also helped establish the Merensky High School in Tzaneen, not far from his farm, Westfalia Estate.
Dr Merensky felt that he had a debt towards the country that had given him so much. He expressed his feelings publicly a few years later in a speech delivered at the opening of the Hans Merensky Library at Pretoria University:
“This country has given to me so much, that I am only too happy to be allowed to help it to develop in some way, and I am grateful to be able to give back to it a fraction of what it has given to me.”
This speech was a genuine expression of Dr Merensky’s feelings, and for the next 20 years of his life it was to be the underlying leitmotiv of all his actions. He was particularly interested in doing something for “future generations”. This gift of a library to house all the books of Pretoria University was followed by substantial donations to the University of Stellenbosch. With his support, Stellenbosch was able to found a Department of Forestry, and then the Hans Merensky Physics Block.
Much of the wealth that he generated from the abundant treasures of the soil he gave back to South Africa, in the form of generous donations to universities, and the establishment of trusts and bursaries for underprivileged students.
As his legacy, he allotted the larger part of his fortune to the Hans Merensky Trust (drafted in 1949) to ensure that his projects in agriculture, horticulture and forestry operations on Westfalia Estate would be sustained after his death. In 1973, the Hans Merensky Foundation was established, replacing the Hans Merensky Trust.
Today it is obvious that Dr Merensky was not only a scientist of note, but also an extremely farsighted and thoughtful strategist, agricultural trendsetter, humanitarian and philanthropist.