Zen and The Art of Sheep Farming
Human Rights lawyer, sheep farmer and Zen Buddhist — Antony Osler is not your average Karoo inhabitant.
Story and pictures by Wanda Hennig
First published Sunday Times Magazine, March 6, 1994
There’s nothing moderate about the Karoo. Relentless summer heat. Relentless winter cold. Relentless wind. And politics that run from heavy right to raging left. Somewhere close to the heart of all this is Antony Osler — novice sheep farmer, Zen Buddhist, human rights lawyer.
Antony, nephew of legendary Springbok rugby flyhalf Bennie Osler and son of former Springbok centre, Stanley Osler, played first division rugby for Stellenbosch University Under 20. Then, when he graduated in 1970, he gave it all up “to sit on soap boxes in smoky dives singing folk songs about life on the railroad.”
A self-taught flautist and piano player, he headed for England as part of a trio with Marloe Scott Wilson and Normal Coates. During what turned into a 16-year trail of self-discovery, he later came into contact with some Tibetan Buddhists while teaching in Scotland.
He returned to South Africa in 1979 to run the Buddhist Retreat Centre at Ixopo and do an Honours degree in theology at the University of Natal. After that, he went to live for three years as a monk at Mount Baldy Zen Center in California.
Lawyers for Human Rights wanted to set up something round here
He returned to further his law education and finally, five years ago (in 1989), realised a dream when he put down roots in the Karoo on a farm at the end of a long, dusty road 30 minutes from Colesberg, where he established the landmark Karoo Law Clinic, the only fully fledged rural human rights legal practice in South Africa.
“Lawyers for Human Rights wanted to set up something round here, but they hadn’t come across anyone qualified who was nutty enough to settle in the area,” he says.
Antony works with two paralegals, or barefoot lawyers, Charles Mayaba and Oupa Mpekula. “They know the background better than I do. The take statements, interpret, do their own cases. I do more of the consultancy.
“I’m contracted by communities all over the Karoo. Someone’s been arrested or killed. Police assaults. Labour matters. Boycotts.” The clinic is the only recourse to the law for about 200,000 people. Since it opened, there has been a marked drop in labour abuse, and policing which had a reputation for harshness has relaxed into a more normal maintenance of law and order.
Margie Osler was a 31-year-old University of Cape Town graduate teaching children with speech and hearing defects when she first encountered Antony, then 36, nine years ago. “We met at a yoga class in Cape Town,” she explains.
“He had no hair. I thought he must either have come out of the army or prison. Two weeks later, he was back in class. He phoned and asked me to movies and told me he had just spent three years as a monk in a Buddhist monastery in California.
I mean, what do you give a monk for dinner?
“As you can imagine, this caused great consternation. I mean, what do you give a monk for dinner? I was sure he wouldn’t drink. Or smoke. Or swear. In fact, he was quite normal.
“We couldn’t get seats for the film so we ended up chatting all night — and that was it.” They have been together ever since.
Antony’s older brother and neighbour, Maeder, a doughty scrumhalf in his Natal University days, served a term as Nusas president in the mid-‘60s. He gave up a career in teaching to run sheep on the 5,500ha farm that has been in the family since 1830.
Maeder and Antony have always stood out like sore thumbs in the predominantly right-wing white community where Anton runs his human rights practice and Maeder, his newspaper, the Toverberg Indaba, established in 1990 as a non-racial organ.
Antony describes the area as feudal conservative. “I don’t mean that in an entirely negative way. I mean things are notably polarised. Few people realise the daily humiliation endured by people in these areas, the real difficulties and the quality of hearing they get if they have a complaint.”
Antony, Margie and their two small daughters, Emma and Sarah, live in a farmhouse that stood abandoned for 20 years before they moved in. They have transformed it into a delight in minimalistic farm comfort with more than a hint of the Japanese traditions that gave root to Zen.
But they are not planning to put in electricity or a TV.
“We have solar heating for our water and candles that give warm light,” says Margie. “TV is an escape and we are both escapists so it is better not to have one.”
Anyone in Colesberg can point you to the Karoo Law Clinic. Antony’s search for premises head-banged him with the system. Opposition came from white residents and would-be landlords.
What is Zen Buddhism?
Eventually, he bought a small settler house. “Those were the early days. I don’t say the establishment has grown to like us, but they accept us.”
Antony lectures part-time in Buddhism at Rhodes University. Zen Buddhism, he says, is simply about being awake. “In touch, earthy, light, compassionate. It’s about allowing oneself to be touched by the world. It’s about giving yourself to every situation you’re in and every person you meet.”
Meanwhile, Antony tries, with difficulty, to live simply with the growing demands of farm, family and law. In between and during my visit, overseeing the inoculation and shearing of the sheep and sitting, early each morning and in the evenings, in the small zendo he and Margie have created in a little old stone shearing shed.