Hans Merensky was born in quite modest circumstances on his parents’ farm in what was then the Transvaal, in 1871. His parents were missionaries from Brandenburg. Later he went to Germany, where he was educated in the German education system, did his military education, studied mining and geology and became a Prussian mining assessor. At the age of 33, he returned to South Africa and soon became one of the leading geologists in the country. He was interned as an enemy combatant for having served in the Prussian army, resulting in his losing his farm in the Ermelo District. However, within a year of his release, his fortunes turned for the better after he discovered the first enormous platinum deposits in the Lydenburg district. The discovery of vast mineral resources, especially the diamonds on the West Coast and the creation of a showpiece estate at Westfalia, were Hans Merensky’s most important achievements.
Dr Merensky spent the last 22 years of his life farming on his large farm Westfalia, which he developed into a model farm. In those years he became a universally respected proponent of scientifically and ecologically sound agriculture and a trendsetter in the struggle against soil erosion and the destruction of the landscape. With common sense and a scientific approach he improved the water flow, soil and land with advanced soil conservation methods. The water-sponge areas and rivers were rehabilitated through the removal of alien plants. Eucalypt trees were planted and citrus and avocado orchards established. He especially experimented with avocados, but also investigated new grass types, researched fruit and animal breeding, built a large dam and produced timber. Within ten years he had created a prize forestry and agricultural estate.
Dr Merensky formed a trust in 1949 that included all his assets plus Westfalia and the Northern Timbers Sawmill at Politsi. This became the cornerstone of further growth of the Hans Merensky Trust, the forerunner of the Hans Merensky Foundation. All of the Foundation funds come from these assets.
Dr Merensky had a long-term view in mind for the Foundation as a legal entity. This was expressed in the opening paragraph of Schedule C of the Merensky Trust Deed.
The emphasis was to be on “developing” the “resources” – especially the “natural resources” of southern Africa.
This would take place via the following activities:
- Research, experimentation and demonstration
- Correlation and application of scientific knowledge
The aim was practical rather than theoritical.
Dr Merensky’s short-term view is expressed in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of the Merensky Trust Deed in which Westfalia had a special place and emphasis. The agricultural, horticultural and forestry operations are to be continued with the primary aim of demonstrating the importance and value of the experimental work which he initiated.
Although this is stated to have been Dr Merensky’s short-term view as opposed to the longer-term view expressed in the opening paragraph of Schedule C, the use of the expression “short-term” is relative. Dr Merensky envisaged the continuation of Westfalia as a viable entity for the foreseeable future.
He used Westfalia as a land unit which, because of its situation and characteristics, could serve as a unique demonstration of what can be achieved in a practical way through conservation of water and preservation and the improvement of the soil in an operation aimed at bringing about balanced conditions. He believed that if the state of the soil could be restored to something like its former state under natural conditions, it would support, and make economic, appropriate types of agricultural, horticultural and forestry operations.