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HANS MERENSKY (1871-1952)
Hans Merensky was born in 1871 in Botshabelo in the Transvaal. His father Alexander, a German, was an ethnographer interested in the scientific study of local African culture; he was also resident missionary in the area.
In 1882 the family returned to Germany where Merensky finished his schooling and then went to the State Academy of Mining in Berlin to study mining geology and engineering, and then took a doctorate in geology at the Royal Technical College of Charlottenburg. His course professor in Berlin remarked on Merensky’s sixth sense for ferreting out mineral deposits.
Following that he worked in the coal mines of Silesia before joining the Department of Mines in East Prussia. In 1904 Merensky returned to South Africa on sabbatical from the Department to do some geological field studies and it was here that he made the first of a suite of major mineral discoveries in southern Africa. Working in the Transvaal he discovered tin near Pretoria and then became associated with Premier Diamonds.
His growing reputation as a highly skilled and successful geologist led to a number of mandates from mining companies in South Africa. Following this success he resigned from his position with the Department of Mines back in Germany and settled permanently in South Africa, setting himself up as a geological consultant, a role that kept him busy.
In 1909 he was commissioned by De Beers to travel to South West Africa, then a German colony, to look at the prospects for diamonds there following the first discovery near Luderitz. Merensky correctly believed that the diamonds discovered came from the sea and predicted further substantial discoveries. For the next few years Merensky experienced a major downturn in his fortunes as he was made bankrupt by the economic depression of 1913 and then interned as an alien during the First World War.
During this period he was financially assisted by General Mining founder Sir George Albu and after the war his career resumed its upward path with a run of major mineral discoveries including the Namaqualand diamond fields in 1926 and two years before that the platinum reefs of the Bushveld, the main reef being named after Merensky.
Although following these discoveries Merensky bought a farm at Westphalia in the north of the Transvaal and began the next phase of his life as a farmer following sustainable techniques, he continued to do work as a consulting geologist and was involved in the discovery of the Orange Free State gold mines, the phosphates of Palabora and huge chrome deposits at Pietersberg. Indeed this run of world-class mineral deposits discovered by one man is probably unique in mining history. So is the fact that Merensky was not only a brilliant exploration geologist but also a dedicated environmentalist.
Merensky’s later life passion, his farm in the Transvaal, led to him investing in environmentally-sound practices covering agriculture, plantations and forestry, with a particular emphasis on soil erosion and water conservation. He never married so wrote his will in trust to benefit a large number of causes in South Africa over the years through the Hans Merensky Foundation.
One of his earlier endowments was the Hans Merensky library in 1937 at the University of Pretoria. Other philanthropic causes included bursaries to students studying farming and mining. Today, 60 years after his death, the foundation has over 4000 employees and is one of the largest timber and fruit growers in South Africa with Merensky’s belief in sound sustainable cultivation still the driving philosophy – surely a fitting legacy for an outstanding life.