The Power of Relationships

Renias Mhlongo and Alex van den Heever are from two completely different worlds.

Over 25 years they have built a relationship of deep respect and mutual reward.

I listened to their story this week. It moved me and it got me thinking.

Alex is of 14th generation Afrikaans heritage. His great-great grandfather introduced Afrikaans into the Cape Colony in the late 1800’s. Renias is an 18th generation Shangaan. His family was painfully evicted from the Kruger National Park region in the early 1960’s.

It is unlikely they would ever have met.

But Alex went to work at the Sabi Sands Game Reserve as a safari guide. Here he met Renias, who was by then a seasoned and experienced wildlife tracker.

Alex was 19. He was enthusiastic but inexperienced.

He needed Renias.

He needed to learn from him to be any good at his job. But he was also curious. He wanted to learn about Renias’ culture and the Shangaan way of life.

His interest was genuine.

Renias was sceptical in the beginning. Alex was not the first guide he had worked with. There had been many over the years. He admits to losing faith that white people would want to learn about an African culture.

Early on an experience shaped their relationship. It built trust and confidence.

They were tracking a mother leopard together in a donga. She had cubs and charged them fiercely. Alex tripped and fell in the commotion and for a while was in great danger. Renias took control. He became the protector and got Alex out without harm.

This cemented something essential in their relationship.

Alex learnt that Renias could be trusted.



In time, Renias invited Alex to stay at his home in Dixie, Mpumalanga.

Dixie is a small Shangaan community of 400 people on the edge of the Kruger National Park. Like every other village in the area it has no running water and electricity. The houses are made of mud walls excavated from termite mounds.

Alex turned him down.

Not once, but many times. He admits to being afraid, unsure of this step into the unknown. Renias too had concerns. He was unsure what the community would think. Bringing a white person into Dixie was not common at the time.

Together they were breaking new ground.

In the end they both took a risk.

What followed sealed their relationship. Renias not only opened his house. He opened his heart. He moved out of the main bedroom so Alex could sleep in comfort. A steaming hot bath was prepared in a community with no running water.

In Alex’s words, “The spirit of hospitality was extreme. It was the ultimate form of giving.”

Deep into the night they sat around the fire.

Under bright shining stars they opened up to each other. They spoke about what mattered to them. What was troubling them. A spirit of empathy entered their relationship and they began to identify at a deep level with each other.

Many adventures followed. All are beautifully told.

Notable to me was that Renias began teaching Alex Shangaan or Tsonga. To learn someone’s language is to enter a rich new world of meaning and relationship. Alex was an eager student. He persevered and now speaks Shangaan fluently.

The benefits of their relationship began to flow.

They loved their work and being together.

Their personal chemistry was energizing. Perhaps the greatest fruit from their relationship is the Tracker Academy.

Founded by Mrs Gaynor Rupert, they started it to train disadvantaged rural people in the ancient art of tracking.

For the past 10 years, over 136 unskilled, unemployed people have had their lives changed by the Academy. 94% of them now have full-time employment in the safari/ecotourism industry.

The story of Renias and Alex is inspiring and simple.

They took a risk. They got to understand each other’s life circumstances. This built empathy, which led to trust and respect. Benefits flowed for both of them and others that have been rich and long-lasting.

It’s a wonderful legacy. A legacy which flows from the Power of Relationships.

Please comment below. We love to hear from you!

20 replies
  1. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    An illustration of collaborative effort spawned by humanity, shared value system and absolute trust.

  2. Jacques Lambert
    Jacques Lambert says:

    This is a great inspirational story reflecting the importance of finding common ground through communication and bridging rational differences. Ultimately culminating into deep relationships and mutual respect.

  3. Roz Dunkley
    Roz Dunkley says:

    An inspiring and heartwarming story, crossing divides between race and culture. Many thanks for sharing.

  4. Ian Schubach
    Ian Schubach says:

    Alex and Renias are an inspiration. They are testament to the idea that powerful personal relationships can transcend many of the limitations society attempts to place on us.

    Thanks Grant for sharing their terrific story!

  5. Holger
    Holger says:

    Thank you for such a positive story on how relationships cross borders, races etc. Such a welcome relief, compared to reading our newspapers earlier today

  6. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    Dear Grant,

    This is very wonderful story. Developing trust and respect within teams is very critical for team spirit. Thank you grant for sharing, hope to connect with you again some day in future. kenny

  7. JudybGuffey
    JudybGuffey says:

    So many great things happen (and start) at Londolozi. Thank you for sharing this ‘love story’.

  8. Frances Fish
    Frances Fish says:

    Thank you for sharing this heartwarming, positive and uplifting story of opportunity and possibility in reaching across wide divides to find we are all only human after all! Thank you for sharing it with us. In times of uncertainty these rare and special connections encourage and give hope for our future.

  9. Georgiana Ngeri-Nwagha
    Georgiana Ngeri-Nwagha says:

    This is a heartwarming story of a close bond between two persons which supersede barriers of race and color of the skin. If only people of various races could get to know and relate closely with each other, there would be little or no discrimination or hatred based on suspicion and fear of the unknown.


    Beautiful story, thanks for sharing.
    Heartlines is an organisation that has a campaign around the power of story and this story illustrates that so well. Personal storytelling gives us a non-threatening foundation from which we can have authentic conversations that help us understand each other better. It’s a simple way to start breaking down the suspicions and prejudices that divide us, so that we can work better together towards the hard work of reconciliation.

    Imagine a South Africa where, instead of creating more negative stereotypes about others, we start getting to know each other better by sharing our stories …
    Will you join the storytelling revolution?

Comments are closed.