The road to Msinga begins in white South Africa and runs for hours through neat and orderly white farmland, not so different in appearance from parts of central California. Some ten miles beyond the last white town, you cross the border between the First and Third Worlds, between white South Africa and black kwaZulu. The border isn’t marked; there is no need. You know you are coming into a different country, a different world. The white centreline vanishes, and the road itself starts rearing and plunging, like a turbulent river rushing towards a waterfall. The very mood of the landscape changes. And then you round a bend, and the tar falls away beneath the wheels, and you’re looking down into Africa, into a vast, sweltering valley strewn with broken hills, mud huts, and tin-roofed shanties. From the rim of the escarpment, it looks as though some mad god has taken a knife to the landscape, slashing ravines and erosion gulleys into its red flesh and torturing its floor into rugged hills. This is Msinga, a magisterial district in the self-governing homeland of kwaZulu, the place of Zulus.
As white South Africa fell away behind me, the countryside grew barren and dusty. There were no fences. Goats and cattle strayed into the road. The deeper I drove into Msinga, the worse it got: less grass, less hope, more goats and more hopeless black people sitting motionless as stones in the roadside dust. The place was an ecological Hiroshima. The last big trees looked like mangroves, stranded high and dry by a receding tide of soil. The earth at their feet had washed away down gaping erosion gulleys and into the river, leaving the first nine inches of root dangling in thin air. In some places, there was no soil at all, just sheets of grey slate and clayey subsoil baked hard as concrete by the sun. Thermals rising from these zones of devastation caused such turbulence at 30,000 feet that white businessmen jetting between Johannesburg and Durban were losing their lunch over Msinga. South African Airways solved the problem by rerouting its flights. That was white South Africa’s usual response to Msinga’s problems: avoid them.
Whites couldn’t bear to look at Msinga because its devastation was to some large extent their own fault. Msinga was declared a location, or Zulu reservation, in 1849. As early as 1878, government reports were noting that it was dry, barren and prone to famine. In the century since, the district’s population had quintupled to maybe 120,000, the natural increase augmented in the late 1960s by 22,000 ‘surplus people’ – blacks cleared off nearby white farmland and dumped across the border in kwaZulu. The land was carrying at least twice as many humans, cattle and goats as it could support. That is why it was turning into desert.