In the Citrusdal Valley in the Cape, at Karnemelksvlei, on one of the oldest farms in the Valley, Gerrit van der Merwe and his brothers, All and Lieben, founded one of the best known and most advanced citrus businesses in South Africa.
Yesterday it was formally announced that Gerrit has succumbed from injuries he suffered while being in Malawi on holiday with his wife.
Fredo knew Gerrit well and through his work in the South African fruit industry worked with him on many occasions. He was a remarkable man and true South African citrus industry and agricultural leader. Most of all he was a man one can describe as larger than life who filled an enormous space in so many lives.
Fredo first became closely involved with the Van der Merwe’s of Karnemelksvlei when in 2005 Gerrit asked him to assist with media cover for the Cedar Citrus project – a partnership between the Van der Merwe brothers and 30 of their workers. This project has grown to be one of the most successful transformation and empowerment projects in South Africa, mainly due to the enthusiasm with which Gerrit embraced the project. Back in 2005 Fredo decided to invite Archbishop Desmond Tutu to meet with the shareholders in the orchards of Cedar Citrus to ‘bless the new crop’ before the harvest. The full story about this remarkable event will be described in Fredo’s book, ‘A citizen of Africa’, which will be published soon.
What is important here is that that particular visit also resulted in a close relationship between Gerrit and Arch – and many donations of fruit to the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. When Fredo now meets Arch, he always wants to know how Gerrit and the shareholders of Cedar Citrus were – a deep respect from Arch for all he had achieved.
Fredo’s involvement with Gerrit van der Merwe continued in terms of the launching of the very successful Summer Citrus campaign in the United States. Gerrit, and colleague Piet Smit insisted that this should be done with a truly South Africa ‘braai’ on the quayside of the Port of Philadelphia. There we were, on a bright and sunny day, braaiing with the US trade.
This was followed by later campaigns, with one of the most important being the story of the “Harvest of Hope’, on video – produced by Fredo and veteran filmmaker Alex Learmont. Gerrit and the farm workers of the citrus farms in the Western Cape played a major role in this and the video reached the upper levels of politics in the USA.
Perhaps the most telling tribute to Gerrit comes from his brother All van de Merwe, now 80 years old. “Gerrit filled such a large space that the hole in our lives has now become enormous, impossible to fill.”
All recalls that the Van der Merwe’s arrived in the Citrusdal Valley in 1768. Recently the family celebrated 250 years in the Valley. “Gerrit was a man who always had a plan – and he thought of things that would never even cross our minds.”
Piet Smit says Gerrit van der Merwe’s undying love for Africa is amongst the things he will remember most. “Every year he and Lizette would take the road – sometimes with friends, sometimes on their own – Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. This time they were in Malawi, on their way to Uganda to walk with gorillas, when he was so tragically injured in a freak accident.”
Gerrit’s vision to create ALG Estates with his brothers, expand production, built packhouses and coldstores, even a processing plant, showed that he was always at the forefront of the South African citrus industry. “He found solutions when others saw problems, he inspired people to work with him and kept them working with him whatever the odds.”
His interest and love for the United States, mainly stemming from working for so many years in the development of the South African marketing programme, was another feature. No US visitor ever came to Citrusdal and did not spend time in the Karnemelksvlei homestead or under the giant oak tree outside, often eating those delicious sheep tails he would nurse on the fire. Gerrit was always at the centre, happy to see them and making sure they would never forget that moment.
Piet Smit says for the past 29 years Gerrit had an annual hunting trip with six friends. “He never missed one – but he never fired a shot either. He just wanted to be there, in the bush or around the camp fire – to talk and share stories with his friends.”
Gerrit so unexpectedly suffered injuries in Lelongwe from which he would never recover. His friends say that they had a feeling that when his life ended, he would have wanted it to be ‘under a tree, next to a river’ somewhere in the African bush. “This is perhaps so close to that scenario than one can imagine.”
Piet Smith says that under his guidance the next generations have been well equipped to carry on with the work at ALG Estates. The large community of people involved with ALG Estates, however, will be devastated in losing their inspirational leader and will be going through difficult times.