On first appearance this remote area, where steep, parched-brown hills are dipped in dusk's lavender at sunset, is not unlike most black-populated rural districts. Along the main road are men with bicycles, barefoot schoolchildren and hefty Zulu women whose colorful, disc-shaped traditional headdresses rest like permanent halos on their mud-caked hair. Their store-bought argyle knee socks and sneakers provide an incongruous match.

But this outward normality and serenity is illusory. Msinga, one of the most violent places in South Africa, is caught up in a self-destructive spiral of factional fighting among its displaced inhabitants that local police and whites familiar with the district calculate has taken more than 800 lives in the past four years.

The high, distant dells of Msinga District's hills often reverberate to the screams of attacking men armed with axes, assegais (spears), knobkerries (wooden clubs) and guns while the nights are often aglow with burning kraals, the circular mud-and-wattle homesteads of the Zulu people.

Because of Msinga's isolation and the fact that it is one of the 11 unconnected districts of the black homeland or reserve of Kwazulu, this feuding between black groups traditionally has aroused only mild interest in most whites. But a bizarre episode in the fighting here has changed that and, in addition, led to one of the most unusual trials of a white man in South Africa.

Johan "Rick" Verster, 28, top marksman, reservist paratrooper decorated for action in Angola in 1978, is on trial in nearby Pietermaritzburg on charges of murdering 14 Zulu tribesmen of the Zwane faction during a factional fight in Msinga in June 1979.

Verster allegedly conspired with a chief of the rival Sithole faction to act as a long-range sniper against Zwane warriors during the battle. Although only one body had an automatic rifle bullet wound, Verster, under South African law, could be found guilty for all the deaths because of his alleged conspiracy with the tribal chief.

So far, the state has put some of Verster's former paratrooper buddies and an ex-policeman on the stand to recount how he contacted them to ask if they "wanted to go shooting houties," a derogatory term for blacks.

They quoted Verster as saying he had "found a way to make a lot of money" and had taken part in past faction fights that had been "very successful." He allegedly told his friends they would sit on a hill and shoot from a distance as the fight took place and would receive about $800 for their effort. His comrades, who were willing to go along at first, said they backed out after hearing that the security police had learned of the plan.

Verster's case is the first time a white has been charged with participation in factional fighting. Blacks are usually charged in a lower court and fined about $250 if found guilty, even if there has been a death in the clash. This is because factional fighting is regarded as a tribal affair and blacks have "less moral culpability than someone with Western standards," said Gideon Scheltema, the state prosecutor in Verster's trial.

"But to my mind if a white becomes involved in faction fighting, it's not faction fighting anymore because he is not a member of the tribe. You have to look at the accused to see how civilized he is," Scheltema said.

The trial's proceedings are also of interest because it is the first time in anyone's memory that a white has stood trial for so many murders of blacks. Murder carries a compulsory death sentence, barring mitigating factors. The often highly disparate sentences given black and white defendants in South African courts ensure that the verdict and any subsequent sentencing of Verster will be closely watched.

Earlier this year, a 19-year-old white soldier was found guilty of killing a 9-year-old black child and of wounding another when he took potshots at them as they walked home from school. The soldier got 15 years in jail. Many South African blacks contend that if the soldier had been black and the victims white, he would have been hanged.

Despite the gravity of the charges against Verster, he is free on bail of $60.

Whatever happens to Verster, Msinga is likely to continue in the grip of factional fighting. Its causes are complex -- part psychological, part sociological, some steeped in tradition, some in pure revenge. The fundamental factor, according to many who have studied the situation, is overcrowding and land hunger, conditions that are exacerbated by the government's policy of racial separation, known as apartheid.

Because of the government's massive resettlement effort in which thousands of blacks have been forced off "white" land into their "homelands," approximately 98,500 blacks now live in Msinga's 770 square miles. The area does not have enough land for them all to graze their cattle and cultivate.

"We must farm in our pockets," said one black man to a researcher.

Abutting Msinga are white farms that in recent years have increased in size. Between 1970 and 1976 the average white farm holding in the area increased from 287 to 1,495 acres, according to one study.

The contrast has made Msinga's boundaries one of the rawest edges of apartheid, a place where the gut issue of the system -- who owns how much land -- comes into stark relief in a potentially explosive situation.

Inevitably there are clashes between white farmers and the blacks, with each side accusing the other of assaults, shootings and trespassing. Many white farmers have taken to impounding the trespassing cattle of their black neighbors and then claiming damages that the black cattle owners are often unable to pay.

The Msinga people, powerless against the white man, have turned in their land hunger to a self-destructive infighting. Chief Owen Sithole, the man who allegedly hired Verster, recently told a local newspaper, "There have been many removals to this area. People pushed off the white farms come to see me seeking land and I have no more to give them. We were here before the Zwanes the rival tribe . Now they must be given other land and we take the land they occupy."

The problem is that, under the present political set-up in South Africa, there is no more land to give them. There are, however, guns aplenty. A special police operation set up in 1962 to confiscate the illegal firearms from the feuding Msinga people has netted more than 8,000 weapons, according to white policeman J.M. Freese.

But the guns continue to pour in from the big cities, where many Msinga residents have been forced to go and work as migrant laborers. Most of the guns are either stolen or bought on the black market, Freese said.

As the fighting goes on, it also gets more sophisticated and vicious.

"Each group has its own army. The chiefs try to stop the fighting but if the army decides it wants to fight, they fight," Freese said. "In the old days it was hand-to-hand combat; now it's more of a hit-and-run operation. They ambush each other."

Most ominous is the formation of "assassination squads," according to researcher Jonathan Clegg, who has studied Zulu culture and that of Msinga in particular. Because most Msinga men are migrant workers in cities, they hire "full-time professional feuders" who fight for them "by proxy," Clegg explained. These paid hit squads have a vested interest in prolonging the fighting, he said. They carry the Msinga feuds into the black townships of the cities, often shooting their victims in daylight at point-blank range.

In Msinga the authority of the chiefs and older men to contain the fighting has so eroded that "now you have anarchy," Clegg wrote in his report. As dusk began to fall on Tugela Ferry one recent night, policeman Freese warned: "If you stick around, you'll probably hear gunshots."