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Dr Chris van der Merwe

‘Creating Curro is one of the many beautiful phases in my life but I could never have achieved it without the teachers, parents and learners who joined Curro in its infancy.’

– Dr Chris van der Merwe


The Curro we know and love today has more than *59 970 learners, 177 schools and 76 campuses. Rewind about 22 years and you will see where it all began – with 28 learners, four founders, a school in a church, and an idea on a ‘stoep’ with a wife saying to her husband: ‘Shouldn’t we start our own home school?’.

This husband was of course Dr Chris van der Merwe, the brilliant mind behind the idea of Curro. Along with the idea, all he needed to turn his vision into reality were three brave co-founders, 28 learners, a church as a venue and of course his wife, Stephnie. Chris and Stephnie met in 1993 and have two children, Mieke and Rudi, and Stephnie is the real pioneer of Curro – the quiet force that kept Chris going.

It all began on one evening in 1997 on a ‘stoep’ without a railing in Coetzer Street, Durbanville. At the time Chris and his wife, Stephnie, were both deputy heads at their respective schools – Stephnie was at Parow North Primary School and Chris at Fanie Theron Primary School. Chris had applied for a departmental position, which he unfortunately did not get. So, on this evening Stephnie said to him: ‘Hello, you’re 31. Are you going to be a deputy head for the rest of your life? There are at least 30 years ahead of you, and your opportunities are dwindling. Why don’t we start our own home school?’

Their initial plan with the school was to teach forty learners in Grade 4, in English and Afrikaans. Stephnie would take the Afrikaans group and Chris the English. They would rent an old house with four to six bedrooms (they were interested in one across from the tennis courts in Durbanville). After Grade 4, they would take the group to Grade 5, then Grade 6 and by the end of Grade 7 they would have registered the next Grade 4s. As they told friends about their idea of a home school, more and more people started hearing about it and parents began stopping them after school, saying ‘surely you can’t take only 40 learners. It must be a bigger school’. And that’s how the ball started rolling …


Dr Chris may be the first to say that he was just ‘a naïve teacher’ when the idea of Curro was born, but he had one advantage: He already had a business under his belt – SkoolCor, founded in 1993 when he was a teacher at Gene Louw Primary School. It was at Gene Louw, interviewing for his first teaching job, where Chris met Thys Franken, another one of Curro’s founders. Thys and Dr Alex Volschenk had started experimenting with a modular approach to education which was of great interest to Chris and he eventually went on to complete his master’s degree on the subject. Theory was put to practice when he started SkoolCor with Eddie Conradie and Boetie Ungerer, Curro’s other two founders. The company published and sold electronic learning modules as surrogate for textbooks.

Boetie had also been the external supervisor for Chris’s master’s thesis and was the first to join him on his new endeavour – Curro. ‘Bolstered by Boetie joining, I put in my request to resign from state education and started looking at possible sites for a small independent school, while working on my business plan. My first letter to the municipality of Durbanville was written in June 1997 but was unsuccessful. In November, my resignation was accepted along with my offer that I’d pay for a substitute’s salary for six months. This bought me some time.’ At the beginning of 1998, there was a setback when Boetie informed Chris that he would be unable to join Curro. ‘I remember the Tyger Talk community newspaper came to do an interview and there I was, all dressed up in my green suit (my wedding suit), not sure if I would still be able to pull this off.’ Fortunately, Boetie called not long afterwards and announced that, after a long talk with his wife, he was back on board.

The next step was deciding to open in July, at the start of the third term. To market the school the two men printed 40 000 pamphlets using SkoolCor’s printing facilities. ‘The only problem was we still didn’t have a building, office or secretary. So, we printed “RSVP secretary” and my home number at the bottom of the pamphlets and I asked my housekeeper, Cynthia Onverwag, to man the phone. The first few days there were zero calls. Then a few and eventually there were about 160 names on our list.’

It took some time to get all their ducks in a row, and it certainly wasn’t smooth sailing, but on a rainy morning in July 1998, Curro opened its doors – in a church in Vierlanden. No one could have predicted the success that would follow. At the end of 2010 Curro Holdings had made a massive profit and listing on the JSE didn’t sound like such a far-fetched dream. Many people are aware of Chris’s passion for cars (he is even in the process of designing his own one) and one day, Chris decided it was time. He got into his precious small black BMW Z4 and drove to Jannie Mouton, CEO of PSG’s, office. ‘“Jannie”, I said, “I want to list.” Jannie looked at me. Then he started laughing. “Chris,” he said, “Now I like you.” And then we listed …’

They say it’s one of the most important moments in a company’s lifetime – that period between nine and eight thirty on the day you list. ‘In the army I learned to keep a pretty good rhythm. So when the representative of the JSE announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, the CEO of Curro Holdings is about to list Curro on the stock exchange,” I started banging out a brisk beat: 08:58 … 08:59 … 09:00. Still drumming, I looked up, the screen flickered and the price flashed on the screen: R5,50. The next moment the numbers started rolling. Climbing and climbing. By eleven it hit R11 before it slowly levelled out to R7. And we thought it would be R3 …’ Listing Curro on the JSE is one of the highlights for all four founders.

In 2017 Chris stepped down as Curro’s CEO, but he certainly has not been sitting still. He helped to launch Stadio Holdings, which provides tertiary education and although he has since resigned as Stadio’s CEO, he is still serving as non-executive director on the board. It seems this wine maker, car enthusiast and business genius doesn’t have any intention of slowing down.

Dr Chris might be the brilliant mind behind the idea of Curro, but he credits all those involved with the vision becoming a reality. ‘To all the crafters of Curro, all the catalysts to growth and building, I salute you with the words of Nelson Mandela: “There is no passion to be found in playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”’


*Numbers as in June 2020