During the 1830s and early 1840s, the northern part of what is now KwaZulu-Natal was occupied by the Zulu Kingdom while the southern part was, briefly, the Boer republic of Natalia before becoming, in 1843, the British Colony of Natal. KwaZulu remained independent until 1879.
KwaZulu-Natal is the birthplace of many notable figures in South Africa's history, such as Albert Luthuli, the first non-white and the first person from outside Europe and the Americas to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1960); Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the founder of the African National Congress (ANC) and South Africa's first black lawyer; John Langalibalele Dube, the ANC's founding president; Harry Gwala, ANC member and anti-apartheid activist; Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP); Anton Lembede, the founding president of the ANC Youth League; Jacob Zuma, the former President of South Africa; and Bhambatha, a 19th-century Zulu chief who became an anti-apartheid icon.
Two areas in KwaZulu-Natal have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park.
At around 92,100 km2 in area, KwaZulu-Natal is roughly the size of Portugal. It has three different geographic areas. The lowland region along the Indian Ocean coast is extremely narrow in the south, widening in the northern part of the province, while the central Natal Midlands consists of an undulating hilly plateau rising toward the west. Two mountainous areas, the western Drakensberg Mountains and northern Lebombo Mountains form, respectively, a solid basalt wall rising over 3,000 m (9,800 ft) beside Lesotho border and low parallel ranges of ancient granite running southward from Eswatini. The area's largest river, the Tugela, flows west to east across the center of the province.
The coastal regions typically have subtropical thickets and deeper ravines; steep slopes host some Afromontane Forest. The midlands have moist grasslands and isolated pockets of Afromontane Forest. The north has a primarily moist savanna habitat, whilst the Drakensberg region hosts mostly alpine grassland.
The province contains rich areas of biodiversity of a range of flora and fauna. The iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, along with uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park and Ndumo, are wetlands of international importance for migratory species, and are designated as Ramsar sites. South Africa signed the 1971 Ramsar Convention to try to conserve and protect important wetlands because of their importance to habitats and numerous species.
The former Eastern Cape enclave of the town of Umzimkulu and its hinterland have been incorporated into KwaZulu-Natal following the 12th amendment of the Constitution of South Africa. The amendment also made other changes to the southern border of the province.
The northwesterly line of equal latitude and longitude traverses the province from the coast at Hibberdene (30°34′35″S 30°34′35″E) to northeast Lesotho.
KwaZulu-Natal has a varied yet verdant climate thanks to diverse, complex topography. Generally, the coast is subtropical with inland regions becoming progressively colder. Durban on the south coast has an annual rainfall of 1009 mm, with daytime maxima peaking from January to March at 28 °C (82 °F) with a minimum of 21 °C (70 °F), dropping to daytime highs from June to August of 23 °C (73 °F) with a minimum of 11 °C (52 °F). Temperature drops towards the hinterland, with Pietermaritzburg being similar in the summer, but much cooler in the winter. Ladysmith in the Tugela River Valley reaches 30 °C (86 °F) in the summer, but may drop below freezing point on winter evenings. The Drakensberg can experience heavy winter snow, with light snow occasionally experienced on the highest peaks in summer. The Zululand north coast has the warmest climate and highest humidity, supporting many sugar cane farms around Pongola.