Hans Merensky was born 1n 1871 at his father (Alexander Merensky’s) mission station at Botshabello north of Middelburg.
His father’s wide and 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.
With this kind of background and love of the great outdoors, he decided to study geology in Germany. However before he was allowed to study he had to undergo military training in the German army, an experience that had major unfortunate and nasty repercussions for him in later years.
Once he had received his degree he was active in various different German institutions where he received specialized training. About nine years after he had begun his studies and had written and completed his last examination, he accepted a post in the Prussian Civil Service’s Department of Mineral Affairs. However he soon became bored with the work routine and took a year’s study leave in South Africa. It was twenty years before he saw Germany again.
In Johannesburg he was reputed to be an able gentleman of integrity in his dealings and associations with mining magnates and powerful financiers with whom he interacted on a daily basis. Through his knowledge and awareness of day to day business affairs he made a small fortune for himself on the stock-market.
At the pinnacle of his success during 1914 however, fate dealt him a disastrous hand. He failed to read the prevailing business climate correctly at the time and as a result lost heavily on a falling stock-market.
Furthermore he lost his family’s farms in the Ermelo district, and having received military training in the Prussian Army was interned as an enemy combatant for the rest of the 1st World War. In 1919 he was eventually released in Pietermaritzburg – a sick, broken and depressed man. At 52 years of age he felt a total failure in his own eyes.
However in 1920 within a year of his release his fortunes turned for the better after he discovered the first enormous platinum deposits in the Lydenburg district. He suddenly became a celebrity, while making another fortune.
Hans Merensky made many massively important discoveries of mineral deposits during his lifetime. In an obscure corner of Namaqualand he found the fabulously rich oyster trench diamond hoard near Alexander Bay. He then discovered more enormous platinum reefs in the Lydenburg, Potgietersrus and Rustenburg regions, which are some of the largest reserves on the face of the earth. Furthermore he also discovered vermiculite, phosphates and copper in the Phalaborwa district. He went on to find rich gold fields in the Freestate. To crown it all – he discovered the world’s largest deposits of chrome in the Jagtlust region south of Polokwane.
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. However he possibly got the most joy from the results of his work on the estate.
He bought the run-down and neglected Westfalia farms near Tzaneen from Sir Lionel Phillips in 1929. 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 by removing the alien plants. Eucalypt trees were planted and citrus and avocado orchards were established. He especially experimented with avocados. Within ten years he had created a prize forestry and agricultural estate.
Merensky loved trees. After purchasing Westfalia he started experimenting and did pioneering work with the production of eucalypt sawlogs. Eventually his company became the leader in this area.
Merensky formed a trust in 1949 that included all his assets plus Westfalia and the Northern Timbers Sawmill at Politsi. This formed the cornerstone of further growth of the Hans Merensky Trust and was the forerunner of Hans Merensky Holdings.
Hans Merensky Timber has for several decades been a timber processing company owning several sawmills in four different parts of country and growing eucalypts for sawlogs, poles and mining timber on plantations near Tzaneen.
Sawmilling opportunities for Merensky Timber emerged during the 1960’s. Merensky’s timber business was up to that stage focused on the growing and processing eucalypt sawlogs. The initial steps to expand into pine growing and milling was taken by Jan Roets. This initiative started in the Natal Midlands when a joint venture between Merensky, Sanlam and the McKenzie family was formed to acquire Clan Syndicate. Clan grew into a fully integrated sawlog plantation, with a sawmill and lamination plant.
Apart from the eucalypt sawmill, Northern Timbers at Tzaneen, which sources its logs from own plantations in the area, Merensky Holdings acquired and built two additional eucalypt sawmills; one in Sabie and one in Port Dunford. In conjunction with these two sawmills, he convinced the Department of Forestry to develop eucalypt sawlog rotation plantations with appropriate silvicultural treatments, which enhanced log quality and volume yield.
In 1973, Merensky Holdings were invited by theTranskei Development Corporation to establish a sawmill in the Transkei. Singisi Sawmill was built in the Umzimkulu region. This was followed three years later by the takeover of small mills and the building of the Langeni Sawmill near Mthatha. It has specialised equipment to process the large volumes of relatively small sizes forthcoming from the surrounding Matiwane plantations.
In 1981, Merensky Holdings entered into a joint venture with the State.The Tweefontein Company was formed which contained the Sabie and Weza sawmilling assets of Merensky and the State. The joint venture was ended in 1993, after which Merensky retained the Sabie sawmill and the State retained Weza sawmill through SAFCOL. The Sabie sawmill, known as Tweefontein, was over the years incrementally improved to its current status as first in class for SA sawmills boasting amongst others, innovations such as commercial scale wet off saw, kiln drying of eucalypt timber since 1985 and sawing both pine and eucalypt logs in the same wet mill since 1990.
In 2001, a significant pine plantation area comprising of 58,000 ha in Southern Natal and in the old Transkei area, was acquired on a long-term lease from the RSA Government via the privatisation of the State forests. This step secured the raw material supplies of Langeni and Singisi sawmills. As part of the assets, the Weza sawmill was sold and once again ended up with Merensky. The combined company known as Singisi Forest Products was the first in the industry to achieve the status of a level three black empowerment contributor.
Two years later, eucalypt plantations near Graskop, purchased from Mondi Forests, were added. This was followed in 2006 with the purchase of pine plantations near Sabie, from 5 British owners. Merensky’s total owned and managed plantations increased to 59 400 ha pine and 15 300ha of eucalypt plantations.
Through all these years the Merensky focus was to improve efficiencies and yields of its sawmills. The company continued to invest in and update the sawmill equipment and these investments kept the company at the forefront of technology. Over many years this vision inspired many people to stay the course. The temptation to give up was there, especially during the 1990 to 2000 era when pulp and paper company returns outnumbered sawmilling by a factor.
Merensky has a proud history of development, sustainable management, and the efficient processing of high quality saw logs and sawn products. Today, it is still a large and successful forestry and agriculture company – all thanks to Dr Hans Merensky having bought a run down piece of land in 1929.
Much of the wealth that he generated from the abundant treasures out of the ground he gave back to South Africa, in the form of generous donations to universities, and the establishment of trusts and bursaries for under privileged students.
In spite of the fact that he was an exceptionally wealthy man, he lived a simple undemanding life in his house at Westphalia, and never let his associations with all sorts of important people amongst whom he mixed, and whom he always received with charming aplomb, affect him in his dealings with ordinary people.
Gleaned from “There is Honey in the Forest” by Willem Olivier.
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