Renias Mhlongo - Master Tracker

Renias Mhlongo - Master Tracker

The title of master is bestowed often with scant regard for what it really means – mostly because those bestowing the title do not truly understand what they are witnessing. It is the sort of designation often given by inexperienced practitioners of whatever craft is being revealed. For example, people who cannot play the guitar and watch me play often remark that I am a master of the instrument. I’m not bad but I’m not a master. Because I have been playing for the last 25 years, I know a master when I see one – someone with that rare skill (be it speed, musicality, sublime knowledge etc.) in whose presence you feel both utterly dejected and supremely inspired.

This is not a story about guitars or music however. It is a story about a master of another craft.

I have worked in the lowveld of South Africa on and off for the last decade or so, much of this time tracking animals (or trying to) – I cannot pretend to be a ‘tracker’ in the true sense of the word but I know what a tracker does and what he looks for. I have spent countless hours searching for the minutest signs – obscure footprints, broken vegetation, urine-smelling bushes, birds tweeting in alarm etc. – so I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to be a tracker and I know that I’m far short of calling myself one.

A few weeks ago, I followed a pride of lions with a man who is a master of his craft – the very ancient craft of tracking. We didn’t find the lions because they crossed out of the reserve but for a few hours I marvelled as Renias Mathanjana Mhlongo, a 56-year-old Shangaan (Tsonga speaking), followed three lionesses through the late summer bush.

Renias Mhlongo motivational Speaker

We found the tracks at about 07h00, just a scuff on a road. At least four game drives had driven over and past the pug marks during the course of the morning – that is to say four ‘trackers’ had failed to notice the feint scuff marks in the sand where one of the lionesses had rested briefly during the night. We left the car and headed east through a thicket of stunted guarri bushes and stony ground. I couldn’t make out any further signs of the cats but Renias set off as though following a six lane highway.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘see they were hunting here.’ My bemused expression, made him smile patiently. ‘Here,’ he pointed at a piece of ground like all the other pieces of ground around it, ‘see there is only one here. Over there and over there, ‘he indicated another two patches of dew-hardened sand, they split up here to hunt something in the thickets over there.’

Sure enough, a few minutes later, the distinctive tracks of running impala showed where the wits had been spooked out of a herd. Renias followed the lions, track by track, showing me how their gate had changed as they ran and then where they had slowed again. So it went for the next hour or so – Renias following the pride and interpreting their behaviour. Much of the time I couldn’t see what on earth he was looking at – he’d patiently point out where a paw had tread and I’d stare at the empty ground and then pretend I could see what he could.

Why did I pretend? One, because I didn’t want Renias to become frustrated with my ineptitude and the second – well, I was just enjoying the performance. Far more than actually finding the lions or learning how Renias was doing what he was, I just loved watching him work – in the same way that I might enjoy watching a master musician at a concert. The way you might marvel at the skill of an orchestra or a ballerina. Sure you might wonder about how they do what they do but at the end of the day, you derive pleasure from watching a performance of masterful artistry.

Alex and Renias Injured Lioness Tracking 1

As we walked, I thought about this ancient art. Is it actually just an art in the same way that guitar playing or painting are arts? Is that its intrinsic value? Renias travels the world doing exactly what he did for me. He takes groups to find bears in the US and kangaroos in Australia. People marvel at his skills and no doubt go home to talk with great respect about ‘the great African tracker’ in the same way that they would after watching David Gilmour play master his Stratocaster at the Albert Hall.

But is there a use for this art outside of a performance spectacle? It’s undoubtedly a dying art – fewer and fewer people can claim to be true trackers. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps we should see nostalgic emotions for ancient tracking in the same way that we see Morse code or fax machines – great but now obsolete examples of human achievement.

Watching Renias that day, I became increasingly convinced that while I was enjoying the art for the sake of the art, tracking remains a skill with a value beyond delighting an audience. No machine can yet come close to being able to achieve what he can in the field. His interpretation of wilderness is of immense value to nature tourism, anti-poaching and conservation research.

Renias and his partner Alex van den Heever know this, and through their work at Tracker Academy, they are ensuring that Renias’s skills along with those of other tracking masters are not lost with the passing of this generation but will survive, moulded to modern conservation needs, honed for the preservation of humanity’s last wilderness areas. That’s the importance of the skill.

And what of the art? Well that’s possibly even more important. The art and the performance thereof are a way for expert trackers to connect people to the wilderness – to something beautiful and worth conserving because it’s a part of us. In many ways this is what Bruce Springsteen is doing when he performs his art. Music is a part of our humanity. In many ways, people watch The Boss to reconnect with this element of us, an element that, like the wild makes us whole and is very difficult to find in the modern world.

Note: Renias Mhlongo is a certified CATHSSETA NQF4 Lead Tracker

James Hendry

Guide, musician, author and presenter with 20 years of experience

Alex And Renias Blog

By Renias Mhlongo | Translated by Alex van den Heever

Renias Mhlongo was born in what is today the greater Kruger National Park. As a young boy Renias was responsible for 17 head of cattle; protecting them from lions, hyaenas and leopards resident in the area. His father’s rule was simple – come home with all the cows or not at all. Today Renias is recognised as one of the best wildlife trackers in the world. Alex van den Heever, his friend and colleague of 23 years, sat down with Renias to hear his thoughts on diversity and transformation in South Africa. Together with Alex, Renias has spoken internationally on the “The Power of Relationships” – their motivational presentation.

Here Renias offers 10 practical ways in which business leaders may improve their intercultural relationships and realise the power of diversity. The points below were translated by Alex. Renias’s home language is Tsonga.

10 Ways to Create Diversity & Transformation in the Workplace

  1. Demonstrate a willingness to engage

Sometimes we need to go out of our way to demonstrate, in practical terms, a willingness to engage someone from a different culture. For example, learn to greet in their language. At work, managers should know the important ceremonies held by his/her staff, such as the (Hluvula) ceremony which marks the end of a mourning period. Of key importance here is the act of seeking to sincerely understand. You will be surprised at the response to showing genuine interest in people – their jobs, their children and their particular life situation. Not only will this earn you respect but also deepen your understanding of fellow South Africans.

  1. Share knowledge

In this fiercely competitive world there is a tendency to hold onto knowledge and skills, often as a means of survival. If we are to build a transformed and productive country, we need to break this scarcity mentality and share. In fact, we have little choice – South Africa needs for its ordinary citizens to be active in developing the skills of those less fortunate. If every South African reached out meaningfully to someone in need, even just one person in your lifetime, it would not be long before we experience positive results.

  1. Learn the language

It’s really simple; you cannot hope to fully understand a person from another culture (or language group) unless you learn their language, or at least attempt to do so. Again, the emphasis is in the trying.

  1. Make use of public transport

This provides an informal opportunity to engage with ordinary South Africans, to understand their plight, for example, why people who use taxis are often late for work. Unless you have travelled on a train or taxi, you do not have the moral high ground to make comment to those who do use public transport.

  1. Visit their Homes

Try to visit and stay at the home of a person (work colleague or associate) from a culture different to yours. This is simple but profound. Productive relationships are formed when you understand the life story of the person you are dealing with – and this is what you will gain when you immerse yourself into someone else’s life at their home. The power of solidarity that comes of this simple act cannot be underestimated.

  1. Share meals

It is a globally recognised fact that sharing food and drink brings us together. This is fundamental in developing relationships in Africa.

  1. Share the company vision

Few managers and business leaders take the time to share information of the company’s performance (unless forced to do so). Workers want a greater understanding of how the business functions, the challenges it’s facing; the successes, the shortcomings, its financial situation, and the company’s vision. Again, the mere act of sharing these insights causes staff to feel validated and important. It binds them to the organisation.

  1. Do not generalise

South Africans love to generalise; to assign a label to someone or something they do not understand. Judging generalisations are borne of fear and intellectual laziness. Remember that everyone is an individual with a unique set of life experiences which shape their behaviour; even the taxi driver who cuts you off in the traffic.

  1. Personal Conduct

We often estrange people unknowingly. So, learn what is considered to be disrespectful behaviour for the various cultures with which you interact. And don’t be ashamed to share the same of your culture. Equally, learn what is regarded as culturally respectful, not just politically correct. For example, your office cleaner may be a highly respected member of his/her community and therefore should be greeted with a certain reverence and term. Find out. Your staff will be delighted that you took the effort to engage and demonstrate a public show of respect. Speak up if there are issues to be dealt with. Even the most sensitive, difficult conversations can be held if the message is delivered from a position of “I want to help this relationship”, as opposed to “I want to be right”. We all have the right to air our views, but do it with calmness, respect and factual accuracy.

  1. Search Yourself

Take a moment to delve deep into the shadows and find where you hold prejudiced thoughts and feelings. We all have them. If not acknowledged, this hidden intolerance will become evident when you least expect it. And people notice the very subtle, yet obvious, acts of bigotry.

To book Renias and Alex and hear them tell their true story, click here.

 

Alex and Renias Cultural Diversity Keynote Motivational Speakers

Introduction

South Africa is a melting pot of many different cultures, which not only consist of different races, but also different religions, languages, customs, and values. While this may in many instances be a recipe for disaster, especially considering South Africa’s turbulent past and the fact that we have 11 official languages (not including other minority languages such as Mandarin, Greek, Portuguese, Hindi, Urdu, etc.) and many different religions, there are many benefits that one can reap from cultural diversity, not only in everyday life, but in the workplace as well.

Having a culturally diverse workforce all working towards the same goal is good for social cohesion in a country where racial tension is often rife. Unfortunately, social cohesion is difficult when different cultures don’t mix in everyday life due to geographic and socio-economic differences. Social cohesion in the country therefore starts in the workplace, where people from different cultures work together and mingle. While this contributes immensely to the bigger picture of a better country and life for all, it also contributes positively to the success of an organisation. The following benefits are only a few examples of how cultural diversity benefits the workplace.

  1. More options to choose from

One of the most obvious benefits of a culturally diverse workforce is that there is a wide range of talents, skills, experiences, ideas, etc. People from all walks of life can bring different perspectives to the table. While one person might be more analytical, another person might be more creative, or more efficient in problem solving. Sure, this diversity is also present in individuals from the same culture, but the range is much bigger where different cultures are concerned. For example, people from different backgrounds would approach a specific problem differently, which increases the chances of the problem being solved efficiently. With more cultures applying for jobs, employers also have the luxury of recruiting employees from a much bigger pool of options, which can create a very strong workforce.

  1. Improved morale and employee relations

In organisations where cultural diversity is well managed, i.e. where everyone is treated equally and are provided the same opportunities, employees feel more validated. This leads to increased morale, which in turn benefits the company. High morale among employees creates a happy work environment, which leads to increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and a positive corporate image. Employees conversing with one another, learning about other cultures, and facing difficult situations together create a strong bond between employees. This bond positively affects teamwork, which in itself has a myriad of benefits for organisations.

  1. Better community relations

An organisation can benefit greatly if it mirrors the demographics of the community it serves. Having a culturally diverse workforce enables a company to better understand the needs of their clients/customers. This creates improved community relations, which will increase sales and positive word of mouth. Expanding the workforce by hiring employees from different cultures offers organisations the opportunity to expand their business to other parts of the world, or at least forge strong business relations with organisations from other cultures. Clients who can identify with the culture of some employees will feel more valued, creating return business, among other benefits.

  1. Increased innovation

People from different cultures have different ways of looking at the world. Bouncing ideas off one another will lead to new innovations, better strategies, etc. If people from different cultures work together as a team, the outcomes will be much more diverse than those presented by a homogenous team. This is because working with someone vastly different from yourself takes you out of your comfort zone and challenges the brain to think differently. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologyfound that a mock jury consisting of members from different cultures made less factual errors than members of a homogenous group. This study is applicable to the workplace, where thinking objectively has many advantages, among others a wider range of ideas.

  1. Healthy competition

A culturally diverse workforce is more likely to engage in healthy competition, where employees from different backgrounds try to outperform one another. While a homogenous group might be easier to manage, it might also lead to stagnation, whereas a culturally diverse group will continue to strive to give their best. As stated in the Harvard Business Review, “Working on diverse teams produces better outcomes precisely because it’s harder.” For this reason, the challenges of working in a culturally diverse team will actually lead to a higher sense of satisfaction, of a job well done and of personal and professional growth, which will benefit both the organisation and the individual.

Conclusion

Many studies have found that culturally diverse companies outperform homogenous companies. For example, a study by McKinsey & Co. of 366 public companies showed that businesses with the highest racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to experience returns beyond their industry average. A study by Herring (2009) showed a strong correlation between gender and racial diversity and increased revenue and greater profits. In a corporate context, there is a pot of gold at the end of our Rainbow Nation.

In nature, ecosystems with a large bio-diversity thrive. This is a fundamental characteristic of nature, and it applies to the corporate world. While it does have its challenges, diversity is the natural order of the world, therefore, especially in South Africa, we should all learn to benefit from it. If we are to become more culturally sensitive towards one another, and try to find the things we have in common, the workplace is the best place to start because it’s where people are necessitated to work together and leave their petty differences behind. After all, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Diversity Keynote Presentation: Alex and Renias

Alex van den Heever and Renias Mhlongo have experienced firsthand the power of diversity in the workplace. They have worked together for the past 23 years presenting internationally and teaching wildlife tracking.

Listen to the two men tell their true story with humour, humility, and sensitivity. But it’s openminded yet practical people like Alex and Renias who will help to change the business sphere of South Africa.

These two formidable men have created a motivational presentation to share their inspiring story with others. Both South African and international audiences can take away key concepts of productively dealing with diversity in the workplace.

Learn how to build trust in challenging circumstances; how to create an environment that facilitates mutual understanding; how to get to know your diverse colleagues better; and how a multicultural workforce creates big benefits for everyone involved.

To book Alex and Renias, see https://www.motivationalspeaker.co.za/book-motivational-speaker.html

The two speakers from very different backgrounds have come together to share their motivational talk, “The Power of Relationships,” reports www.motivationalspeaker.co.za

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

(Johannesburg, S.A.)–Though the system of Apartheid ended in the early 1990s, its impact can still be felt in modern South Africa, where racial, cultural, and class differences are still often perceived as barriers between people. Two friends and colleagues who have utterly broken down those barriers, Alex van den Heever and Renias Mhlongo are now sharing their story, “The Power of Relationships,” with the goal of helping others overcome obstacles to communication and friendship.

According to www.motivationalspeaker.co.za, the motivational presentation tells the true story of Alex, a white game ranger, and Renias, a black tracker and inheritor of the Shangaan pastoralist tradition. In working side by side and sharing a love of wildlife and animal tracking, a friendship developed between them despite their racial and cultural differences. In order to get to know each other well, they taught each other their own languages. “Learning Shangaan has made such a difference in my ability to understand Renias and where he comes from,” Alex commented.

The presentation also details the two men’s encounters with each other’s cultures. First, Alex visited Renias’s village, Dixie, where he was treated as a VIP guest. “In the 1990’s I thought that the villages were dirty and full of crime,” Alex commented, “but I experienced a level of generosity and a level of humanness I had never experienced before.” Renias then joined Alex for a trip to London, his first trip out of Kruger Park and his first encounter with a large European city. A thrilling story about how Renias saved Alex from a leopard attack demonstrates the immense trust that developed between the two men.

“Our goal in sharing our story,” said Alex, “is to inspire others to open their minds and learn how to actively participate in diverse teams. We want to show that it’s possible to build a deep trust and a productive friendship with someone from a different culture, and that diversity can be a source of strength.” The speakers emphasize that their story is not meant only for South Africans, but for international audiences.

In addition, they hope to offer simple steps to get rid of their own prejudices and meet others on an equal footing. According to Alex, simply being willing to listen to and try to understand another person’s experiences is the first step in breaking down the barriers of racism. To learn more about Alex and Renias or to book them for a presentation, visit motivationalspeaker.co.za

About Motivationalspeaker.co.za

Alex van den Heever and Renias Mhlongo have worked together for 23 years, conducting safaris and training wildlife trackers. Their work has taken them to many countries in Africa, Australia, South America, and North America, and their story has been featured in several TV news documentaries. Their long friendship and working relationship represents the breaking down of racial barriers and serves as an inspirational model for the multicultural society of South Africa. They perform their cultural diversity presentation for corporations and businesses trying to learn and grow together in South Africa’s unique cultural and historic landscape.

Media Contact

Alex van den Heever

1st Floor Oxford Gate Hyde Park Lane
Hyde Park, Johannesburg, Gauteng 2196
South Africa
Telephone: 013 735 5653
Email: alex@nns.co.za

Website: www.motivationalspeaker.co.za

DISSOLVING MY RACIAL PREJUDICE

The question of racism is a big one in South Africa at this time. It gets wide ulturaloverage in the news when a Durban estate agent says something disparaging about the people on the beach-front, or two Cape Town motorists fight it out over a parking place using abusive language; or the Premier of the Western Cape says something historically questionable and inappropriate. I have witnessed these outbreaks of nastiness with some disbelief and sadness because I have had the privilege of experiencing multiracialism from a different perspective, in fact a unique perspective which I enjoy telling people about.

I was born in the Knysna provincial hospital in 1975, about the time South Africa was at last allowed to watch television and it was in the year before that a generation of black children rose up in Soweto in violent protest about the government’s insistence that they should be taught in Afrikaans.

My great-great grandfather’s name was Daniel Petrus van den Heever otherwise known as “Oom Daantjie”. He was a Member of the Cape Parliament who led the charge for the introduction of Dutch (which of course later became Afrikaans) as an official language in that August house in 1882. To celebrate this achievement, a Taal (Language) Monument was erected in Burgersdorp (his constituency) in 1893. The monument is in the form of a statue of a woman, apparently modeled on Oom Daantjie’s daughter, and one wonders about the significance of its gender (perhaps simply aesthetic). British soldiers beheaded the statue during the Anglo Boer War, but it still stands today, headless.

In 1995 I started working at Londolozi game reserve in Mpumalanga as a guide taking tourists on safari. I was paired with a man called Renias Mhlongo, 13 years my senior. He was to be the tracker and the two of us were to conduct safaris together.

Renias And Alex Early in their relationship at Londolozi

Renias was born in a mud hut under a Jackalberry tree situated in what is today the greater Kruger National Park. Although the responsibility of the safari lay with me as the guide, it was clear on the first afternoon game drive that Renias was in total control. As a clueless 20 year old, I was fortunate that Renias ‘adopted’ me, and kept our guests and me safe in the bush. I have come to know Renias as the most ecologically literate person I have ever met, and he will surely be remembered as one of the greatest wildlife trackers in our country. That afternoon in 1995, a two-decade long relationship began – a mentorship for which I am deeply grateful and which has shaped my life fundamentally.

In that time I have had the privilege of sharing many experiences with Renias, taking safaris, trailing dangerous animals, travelling to other countries teaching wildlife tracking skills and presenting our story to whomever was prepared to listen. The relationship has allowed us to enjoy a hugely fulfilling life doing exactly what we love to do.

In the early years of our relationship I would frequently experience waves of shame and guilt, horrible emotional surges whenever Renias spoke of his family issues, his financial woes or the education of his children. I kept telling myself that I had nothing to do with the past and the ills black people faced during the time I was a boy. I reconciled with myself that I had no responsibility for any of that. Yet this did nothing for my emotional state. To compensate for my culpability I found myself getting unnecessarily involved in Renias’ personal matters – always trying to fix what I perceived as being wrong. When I ask Renias about this today, he tells me that I was only trying to make myself feel better.

Renias and I were culturally very far apart, but on the journey of dissolving one’s prejudices one comes to learn that race and culture do not define the essence of the human being. As most of us know, in South Africa there exist gross generalisations of culture that creates widespread intolerance by both blacks and whites. To combat this in ourselves Renias believes the mere act in seeking to understand, sincerely, another person’s culture or belief system is a powerful first step to dismantling the bigotry currently at large in our country.

In 1998, I spent my first weekend at Renias’s village, Dixie, in rural Mpumalanga, which in hindsight was a momentous event in the overall development of our relationship. In three days I learnt more about Renias’ life than I had in the previous three years of knowing him. According to him this was a crucial moment in our relationship, and if I had not gone, the bond may not have grown as it has.

Over the years Renias taught me to speak Tsonga, his home language, which created an opportunity for me to access a degree of understanding of him and his family.  Similarly, I taught Renias to speak English so that he may understand me better. Language separates us, even accents do, and having learnt an African language I am convinced South Africa would experience a fraction of its racial issues due to simple misunderstanding and misinterpretation. I am always astounded by the goodwill I receive when I speak to people in the street in their own language.

After years of mulling I came to the cold realisation that my guilt was less about my responsibility for Renias and more about how I had benefitted materially from apartheid.

The lopsidedness of the situation bothered me – I had enjoyed vastly more ‘Western oriented’ resources growing up. I went to a good Model C school, received the best nutrition and ultimately had access to a network of influential people who could guide me. People tended to give me opportunities simply because of my appearance, my education and my ability to communicate well. On the flip side, Renias was never given the opportunity to go to school, (instead he was responsible for his father’s cattle herd); he experienced extreme hunger regularly and knew no one who could help him. When compared to my African counterparts, being born white gave me an unassailable lead in life. Even though apartheid is officially over, its effects are still present today, particularly in rural parts of the country. I am a first-hand witness to the fact that South Africa is still producing Renias-type childhoods.

In my Land Rover one afternoon on our way to a conduct a motivational presentation I felt compelled to acknowledge and apologise to Renias for the roles we as whites had played directly and indirectly in the injustices that took place under apartheid. I told Renias I was sorry. I apologised for what white people have done and because I wanted to deepen my relationship with him.

Later, when I asked him about the apology he said: “I felt an ease come into my heart. And I felt much more comfortable with you.” He continued to say that the wounds of apartheid were still there in every black person. He said that little acts of prejudicial behaviour by whites is noticed and keeps the wounds festering. Renias believes if whites acknowledge and say sorry it will give that wound a chance to heal.

Since the day of my apology a sense of lightness and freedom has entered our relationship. To say it unshackled us from the past may not be correct, but it certainly had a significantly positive impact. A sincere apology is one of the most profound human interactions one can have.

Nation building rests with the actions of civil society. It is apparent that our current crop of politicians lacks the will to facilitate integration in order for us to experience the true power of diversity. If I consider in the microcosm of my relationship with Renias the effort the two of us have put in, South Africans have a lot to do if we are serious about building a thriving, transformed, free country.

Renias recommends that white people try the following to get the best out of their black counterparts:

  1. Demonstrate a willingness to work together.
  2. Share information and knowledge.
  3. Focus your energy on skills development, even with one person.
  4. Don’t hold back; speak if there are issues to be dealt with.
  5. Learn an African language and seek to understand black culture properly.
  6. Make use of public transport like taxis and buses.
  7. Make the effort to visit and stay with black people at their homes.
  8. Share meals and laugh together.
  9. Give workers a greater understanding of how the business works, the challenges it’s facing, the successes, the shortcomings, its financial situation, and the company’s vision.
  10. Do not generalise – remember that everyone is an individual with a unique upbringing and set of experiences.
  11. Show an interest in peoples’ jobs, their families and their particular situation.
  12. Learn what is considered to be disrespectful behaviour in black culture, and share the same for white culture.

Try to find in your heart where you hold prejudiced thoughts and feelings, as these come out in subtle ways, which are noticed by blacks.