At Mgungungdlovu, the grassy hill of King Dingane's capital, we stand at a monument where 35 Boers were killed in 1838, triggering the Boer-Zulu war that followed, which ended badly for the Zulus. Dingani, who is self-conscious about his name around Afrikaners, has an uncomfortable moment. Four Afrikaners (latter-day Boers, who originally came to South Africa as Dutch settlers in the 17th century) get out of a car to pay their respects to the dead. When they see him giving us a tour, their faces tense and they file past quickly. "They know I'm telling you the story from a black perspective," he says. "South African history is all about people with competing stories." So many battles were fought here, in the heart of Zululand, ending with the final British victory against the Zulus in 1879. Today, a hereditary king, Goodwill Zwelithini, is in office, and there's a regional parliament in Ulundi as well as in Pietermaritzburg, and solid Zulu representation in the national government. But things are far from settled. Despite the Afrikaner alliance with the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party, there is tension between the two groups over land rights and the ongoing economic and social discrepancies between blacks and whites. "History is not finished here yet," Dingani says. "Not at all."
We are finding complexity everywhere: in AIDS awareness posters, in conversations about corrupt Zulu chiefs elected to office through questionable voting procedures, and in the faces of children who give us a roadside choral concert that ends with outstretched hands and pleas of "I am hungry." There is complexity in nature, too. And I don't mean in the fact that one night, at a lavish candlelit dinner at Ndumo Wilderness Camp, after being introduced to a crocodile named Oscar we get to watch crickets hop down the pretty linen dress of a dignified South African hostess. I mean that the question of who controls nature in South Africa is complex. "The trouble with the government," says Phillip Mphini Khumalo, a local man who acts as our wilderness guide at Ndumo, "is that it looks after rhinos, not people."
Ndumo, situated on the Usutu River adjacent to the floodplains along the Mozambique border, has been a reserve for more than 60 years. It doesn't have any big cats, but it does have a big problem with the neighbors, whose crops are being destroyed by the hippos the lodge is protecting for tourists to see. Besides destroying crops, the hippos prevent locals from being able to fish in their own waters. "The point of a fence, more than keeping animals in, is to keep people out," says Khumalo, who is happily employed and fond of his white South African bosses at the lodge. "It separates locals from their burial grounds and ancestral homes. These days social ecologists are trying to work out new deals and compromises to let villagers back into the parks."
Dingani is less optimistic about such developments, even with KwaZulu-Natal gaining control of the administration of its parks and the increasing presence of private, socially conscious programs like the Cashew Nut Project, which trains Zulus to grow crops that do well in sandy soil. "I like the idea of it," Dingani says. "But the project is still run by outsiders."
"So, are you ready to see the animals at Phinda?" Dingani asks sarcastically as he navigates the dirt road from Sodwana Bay to a small private game reserve located just west of Lake Saint Lucia and the Indian Ocean. Our final stop in KwaZulu-Natal is a famously posh place, and Sarah is ecstatic about seeing animals. At this point, knowing what I know about conservation in Africa, I feel defensive about going somewhere to enjoy nature. This is a good place, I tell Dingani. Phinda, I have been informed, is the model of a new type of game preserve, developed with the idea that to conserve wildlife in Africa, the local people must also receive serious attention. He's skeptical at best, and our parting, at Phinda, is more bitter than sweet. "Enjoy the trees and animals," he mutters before driving off.
On our first game drive, we see zebras, giraffes, rhinos, and lions. We'll see elephants later. To be enjoying such things is a relief. Nature is always hopeful. In addition to bush walks, Phinda offers its guests "educational community trips." And so the following day finds us driving outside the electric fence around the paradise of the preserve, which covers 42,000 acres of sand forest, savannah, and wetland ecosystems. Jason King, Phinda's general manager and a white South African, is taking us for a look around. With him is Gladys Zikhale, a local Zulu who worked her way up at the lodge from chambermaid to one of its two full-time community liaisons for charitable projects. These projects include school and clinic construction, land rehabilitation, scholarship programs, and employment initiatives, such as offering loans to sewing clubs that make school uniforms. "We realized early on that if the people don't want us here, then we won't exist," King says. I know it's his job to make Phinda look good. Still, his focused concern is convincing, as is the simple fact that there have not been any land claims against Phinda since it came into the area 10 years ago. When Phinda builds facilities in the communities, King tells me, they are designed with input from local people. He shows me a new school and a 24-hour health clinic that serves three villages and 70,000 people. Inside there are boxes of supplies, donated by a Canadian dentist who was inspired while staying at the lodge (many of Phinda's guests end up making substantial contributions). Dingani might say this doesn't help people to help themselves. He might cringe at the scene I saw next—a village man deeply moved by the gift of some boxes of clothing and stuffed animals. But to date, Phinda has raised more than a million dollars for community projects. "What we're doing is unusual, but not impossible," King says. The same is true of a country struggling so intensely to right so many wrongs in such short order.