Reflecting on a life

My mother’s best friend recently emailed the draft introduction to a book which will be the completion of the work my mother had been busy with when she died: a book reflecting on nearly 15 years of coordinating a project aimed at understanding the relationship the millions of ordinary South African’s have to land, property and housing, in order to improve their tenure security and lives. The project was Leap – Learning Approaches to Securing Tenure. I won’t share the introduction in full until it is finalised and published, but here are a few extracts to provide a flavour:

“Mosadi wa go swara thipa ka bogaleng”

One who handles the sharp side of the knife. A brave woman.

On 31 May, 2011, South Africa lost a unique and respected land activist. Tessa Cousins died during a rockfall while climbing a mountain in the Isle of Skye in Scotland. This book is a tribute to a friend, colleague, sister and leader.

Tessa was born, in 1955, into a politically conscious family at a time when South Africa was lurching into repression and when the policy of forced removals was just taking hold. Her life involved exploring — and helping to build — a world in which people experimented with alternative politics and ways of relating to the land. She farmed, raised children, set up and supported rural co-operatives, facilitated organizational development, led the development of participatory planning processes for early land reform implementation and worked in and closely with rural, land rights and water NGOs.

The person and life of Tessa were in many ways inseparable from Tessa at work. Not only did work meetings take place in her warm, earthly coloured house in Cape Town, but colleagues were welcomed with freshly ground coffee, home-grown nuts, olives and jams and hot bread from her oven. She had a rare talent of leading by drawing people out rather than dictating or directing and was widely recognised as one of South Africa’s best facilitators of dialogue and processes. Everyone who worked with Tessa was fascinated by her skill at facilitating discussion and meetings, by ‘holding’ each person’s contribution, each deemed as important as the rest. As one colleague said, “She made me feel and believe that I had something to contribute and that my contribution would be worthwhile.”

Tribute after tribute from colleagues following her death attested to Tessa’s tenacity and persistence in a work environment that was as conceptually confusing and complex as it was frustrating and frustrated. What Tessa sculpted was not an organisation but a ‘space’ in which to explore, brainstorm, disagree, grapple and stumble. The end was not to be clever, or right but to penetrate real-life situations through doing and combining different energies, skills and awareness. Integral to this style of co-ordination was her deftness in pulling back when the energy flagged and to wait for fresh energy and new pathways to emerge.

Tessa Leap

It was Tessa’s broad compassionate humanism that nurtured our combined energy, and left its mark on the people who worked with her. A grieving colleague despaired that he’d been “robbed of one of the greatest transformers of our time” while another observed that “at times and in the spaces Tessa created, we indeed found ourselves living in a better world”. Tessa enriched not only our work, but our lives.


When I hear or read the many words of love and appreciation many of those who knew her have for my mother, I am bathed in gratitude for all that she brought to the world, and that I was fortunate enough to have her as my mother and mentor for so many years. It therefore took me by surprise to find that, within my tears, was not just the usual loss and gratitude, but something more complex and difficult to identify.

In part of my reply, I wrote, “How rich, textured and moving – it painted a very clear picture of who mom was and how powerful an impact she had with her being as well as her work. Thank you. It was also a bit daunting to be reminded of her amazing working contribution. I usually just see her as an ever-inspiring role model, but I suddenly felt… Hard to put my finger on… Unequal to the task of trying to bring something of equal value into the world through my work and life.”

It’s hard to express my appreciation for the peace and perspective her reply provided: “Jip, your ma was special Laur, but I doubt she knew the extent of it when she was alive, and I also doubt that people working with her would have thought, while she was alive, to phrase it in the way they did. You’re already an extraordinary woman but I would hope that you don’t know the full dimensions of what can only be known when people take stock on your death!”

I felt my heart open and my body relax as I remembered once again that’s not about having a clear goal, or trying to achieve some specific legacy or grand impact – it’s just about putting energy, love, warmth and creativity into each interaction, every day. The river-bed is, after all, made up of many small and time-smoothed pebbles – each one a unique pause, touch, breath, listening ear, shifted view-point or word, not placed deliberately but falling into a space that can only seem logical when seen from the perspective of a life fully lived.

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