Social-justice activist killed in freak biking accident
It’s unclear exactly what caused Hochfeld to swerve on Saturday afternoon while she rode behind her youngest child with her husband in front. It could have been a bump in the road caused by a jutting tree root, or the fact that a dustbin caused an obstruction in her view.
She was hit by a car at the corner of Greenhill and Greenfield Road, and died instantly. Frantic neighbours rushed to assist, immediately shielding the couple’s ten-year-old son from the scene of the tragedy, while Hochfeld’s beloved husband of 21 years (this Friday) and soulmate, Rafi Leigh, watched in shock.
Her untimely passing has left an indescribable void in the lives of her devastated family, and the lives of the countless people whose lives she enriched and transformed through her work in social activism.
Hochfeld’s mother, Penny, told the SA Jewish Report this week that their daughter was always “a peacemaker around the house, and had an insight into people from a young age”. The grieving mother went on to say: “When she was a toddler, she ‘mommied’ her baby sister who had hearing problems and helped translate everything she said. She was different, she had a mind of her own and it was completely self-evident that Tessa was going to be a carer..”
“She had an essential wisdom and knew what she wanted,” said her father, Steven. This did not make parenting easy at times, they admit, describing their daughter as a bit of a rebel.
“She was very clever, but she absolutely hated school. She left Hyde Park High School before they kicked her out,” said Penny, fondly remembering that her daughter chose to go to Woodmead High School because it was multiracial, and that her daughter always “swam upstream”.
She may have scraped through matric having bunked most classes, they said, but she went on to shine at university, being an independent free thinker.
She graduated with a degree in social work from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), followed by a Masters degree from the London School of Economics, and a PhD from Wits.
There has been an outpouring of grief from all walks of life and around the world in response to Hochfeld’s death. She has been celebrated as an uncompromising activist for social justice, a person with her own mind, passionately determined to make a difference, and improve the lives of the less fortunate. People have described her as a deep thinker, with a serious intellect, a zany sense of humour, and a contagious laugh.
“She lit up the room,” said one of her heartbroken colleagues at the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA). “You could hear her laughter following her through the front door.”
Hochfeld made a significant contribution to building the centre at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), where she has worked for the past 13 years. According to her colleagues, she leaves a rich legacy of research and action for social and gender justice.
“Tessa’s work echoed the way she lived her life. She described herself as a social worker, and cared deeply about those she interacted with. She was an excellent researcher, outstanding academic, and a gifted teacher. The body of intellectual work that she leaves behind, both in her written contributions and public engagements, will continue to shape social development thinking, policies, and practice for years to come,” said her colleague.
“We take leave of Tessa in Women’s Month. She takes her place alongside the remarkable women of our country who fought for justice such as Helen Joseph, Amina Cachalia, and Ellen Kuzwayo. Hamba kahle (go well), Tessa.”
Hochfeld had many hobbies including gardening, travel, and cooking, according to those who knew her well. She read voraciously – was never without a book in hand – and enjoyed writing, hiking, and camping.
Her sisters Kim and Claire Hochfeld described her as their “best friend”.
Kim told the SA Jewish Report that although the three of them lived in three different countries, Kim in London and Claire in Canada, they were so close, “we know what we eat for dinner most days”.
“My overriding memories of Tessa are her selflessness, her focus on everyone around her over and above herself, and how much she adored Rafi and her kids. She was such a caring, exceptional individual who was trying to make the world a better place. She lit up the world”.
She said Hochfeld flew across the world to be with her sisters when they had tiny babies to look after. “She dropped her life to come and share the special moments in ours,” said Kim.
A colleague of hers at the CSDA, Professor Adrian van Breda posted on Facebook, “I have always been dazzled by her brilliant mind. She is one of the very smartest people I know – well and deeply read, incisive, creative, wonderful! And the kindest person you could meet – warm, caring, emotionally connected, and with no sense of superiority or arrogance. A wonderful sense of humour. And a deep-rooted social-justice ethic.”
One of her closest lifelong family friends, Daniella Jaff Klein, remembers Hochfeld as a rebel at school. “It’s no secret Tessa was a terrible student, and got her friends and herself into a lot of trouble at school. She wasn’t afraid of authority or to rock the boat. She was a fierce feminist, and a complete individual.”
She said the family had a farm where Hochfeld formed her love of nature and simple pleasures. “Tessa was so down to earth, pragmatic, and yet so compassionate, kind and thoughtful. She would go out of her way to help people. She transformed people’s lives.”
It was this “lionhearted spirit” that emboldened her when it came to the fight for social justice, particularly for women and children. One of her passions was research into child-support grants, and she was outspoken about its effectiveness in bringing real social change. She has written extensively and has been interviewed broadly on the subject across a wide spectrum of media.
Rabbi Dovid Hazdan told mourners at her funeral, “Tessa is no doubt re-ordering heaven and creating teams of angels for good. The world is poorer without her. Her legacy will live on in the hearts of people she touched.”
- A memorial service will be held for Hochfeld at the Protea Auditorium at UJ on Friday at 09:00.