European Book Launch of All Rise at the PREPARED Conference

July 2024

We are very grateful that Roger Chennells agreed to launch his tales of human rights and wrongs at the PREPARED conference dinner in Amsterdam.

The PREPARED coordinator Doris Schroeder, who moderated the event, said that “The book has been launched to great acclaim in Africa. I am very happy to launch it in Europe today”.

The main thread running through my book All Rise could be described as ‘Law meets Ethics’. After many years of practicing as a human rights lawyer in South Africa, I was introduced to the field of ethics by Doris Schroeder in 2003. We were both working on benefit sharing from different angles.

Andries Steenkamp, Petrus Vaalboi, Doris Schroeder, Collin Louw, Miltos Ladikas and Roger Chennells front row, 2003

Ethics proved to be a perfect partner discipline to law. The new (to me) discipline of ethics provided an entirely fresh lens within which to frame and pursue my work.

My type of human rights law is legal assistance to those in society who are vulnerable and in need. For decades, I simply assisted and termed ‘clients’, those who crossed my path and sought my help.

Without much deliberation, I found myself deeply engaged with the needs and rights of the Indigenous San, Indigenous Australians, other Indigenous tribes, Rastafari, sex workers and refugees, to name the most prominent.

Stories from different worlds

Legal encounters with people and communities from different worlds provided a body of stories over decades, which I finally – at the encouragement of friends – put into a book. Work with the San and Australian Indigenous Peoples, iconic hunter-gatherer societies with ancient practices, invariably exposed the gaps between their world and mine.

For example, in my first meeting with the San, a roll call revealed that there was supposed to be nine more people present. My first thought was that the San were either joking or insulting me. When I enquired about this discrepancy, they politely corrected me amidst much mirth that the nine ‘missing’ people were ancestors who were not visible to me but were certainly attending the meeting.

This was the first of many challenges to my Western notions of facts, reality and normality. Belief systems, world views, notions of spirituality and life priorities were no longer to be merely assumed and became far more fluid.

Shifting horizons and a charred kangaroo

Whilst working for the Pitantjadjara in South Australia, I experienced an event that similarly shifted my horizons as a professionally trained lawyer. After two months of preparing the leaders’ contributions for a very important regional meeting that would affect their futures, the day of the meeting dawned.

Clad in our most formal attire, which for them translated into clean shirts and long trousers over bare feet, and for me a suit, we set off in an old Toyota Landcruiser to drive over 200 kilometres through the semi-desert scrub. On the way, some kangaroos crossed the road, causing the driver to veer off the sandy road and into the bush.

After hitting and killing one, I checked my watch anxiously and reminded my companions that we needed to get back onto the road. However, to my alarm, a fire had already been started. In the book, I describe my increasing horror as the kangaroo was tossed into the roaring flames, ungutted, and my companions animatedly prepared for a feast whilst I fretted about the passing of time. Eventually, the charred creature was yanked out of the fire and sliced up by numerous knives which miraculously appeared. The smell and taste of the kangaroo meat was memorably awful, yet I felt obliged to at least pretend to eat the charred meat rather than the raw bits offered to me.

The entire bush-barbeque ordeal ended when everyone was sated, and I had reluctantly accepted that the days’ priorities had shifted far beyond my control. When we finally arrived four hours late to at the meeting, all reeking of Roo meat, the gathering simply accepted the reason for our lateness: Roo! No questions asked or judgement passed. Clearly in that setting a Roo blessing easily trumps a formal commitment.

Different lessons

Further encounters with the San and Venda indigenous peoples throw up different lessons, all of which challenged my original perspective as a Western-educated person. In some, what first appears as primitive naivety shows itself as highly educated practices in a different context. In one, an uneducated San tracker astounded his educated companions by being able to predict the behaviour of a large herd of galloping Eland. In another, the near-photographic memory of a San leader acquired in the Kalahari semi-desert was employed to help a lost group navigate the dark streets of Geneva.

And in many of the stories, the presence of the supernatural in some form is shown to be worthy of awe and respect, as part of belief systems that should not be underestimated in any way.

After the launch, all books sold within minutes. Fellow South African Fritz Schmuhl, Executive Editor at Springer, gave an impromptu laudation: “Subtitled Tales of Human Rights and Wrongs, the book highlights the enduring power of storytelling, whilst the main title All Rise alludes to the tenacity of humans living under challenging conditions”.

Dr Roger Chennells is a human rights lawyer and co-founder of the law practice Chennells Albertyn in Stellenbosch and Cape Town. He has received human rights awards from the US and the UK, and obtained a PhD in ethics from the University in Central Lancashire, funded by the Wellcome Trust.