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Taming Chaos: The Dynamics of Narrative and Conflict

“This article originally appeared in Track Two (Vol. 8 No. 1 July 1999) , a quarterly publication of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and the Media Peace Centre (South Africa).”

The narratives or stories that people tell in situations of conflict are of tremendous significance to its maintenance and resolution.

But what is a story? Who tells stories? Where are they repeated?

Why do particular stories become dominant?

What makes them powerful?

And how do they change?

Lesley Fordred reflects…

In early 1995 a major crisis erupted in headlines across South Africa. In the small town of Matatiele on the southern border of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Lesotho, the provincial government of the Eastern Cape was reported to be annexing a parcel of land that had been the source of long-standing disputes. The province, apparently, had mobilised hundreds of settlers to invade the town.

‘The invasion of Matat’ became for a few days a national crisis. Despite newsbills announcing that the Eastern Cape was invading KwaZulu-Natal there was no evidence that the Eastern Cape government had urged an invasion, although their flat denials continued to be reported as cover-ups that confirmed the conspiracy. A month later, media narratives put the matter to rest, telling an ordinary tale of a town council that was facing transformation much like any other town in a country.

What had happened?

Like every other town in South Africa, the greater Matatiele region was divided into black and white zones. In this case racial divides were marked by provincial borderlines, with the Eastern Cape section being predominantly black and the KwaZulu-Natal section predominantly white. A legacy of the creation of bantustans in the 1970s, the provincial divides were drawn when the apartheid state created the Transkei in the northern Eastern Cape. Local farmers (then in the Eastern Cape) had implored the provincial cabinet to make their land part of KwaZulu-Natal to avoid being incorporated into the Transkei bantustan.

In January 1995, Matatiele’s black citizens claimed the right to share in a development proposed by the Transitional Local Council (TLC) – a scheme not going to benefit them because they were considered to be living in another province. Geography proved con-venient in dividing up the council’s small economic pie.

In their narration of events in the press, however, journalists relied on the terms used by the Mayor and the outgoing TLC: the action was an “invasion” conducted by “settlers”. The Mayor “refused to give in to the demands” of the local ANC to withdraw his allegations that it was a provincial invasion. In this way, council and Mayor were able to present themselves as heroes who refused to give in to “demands” – as defenders of civility and democracy. And since Matatiele was half a day’s drive from Durban, most reports relied on telephone and faxes, effectively excluding the points of view of those without access to telecommunications.

Even though the banal realities of the conflict were available in the history of the town and on the wire from a local news service, the media at large persisted with a tale of provincial conspiracy. The term ‘invaders’ remained the currency of reports covering the crisis. But the conspiracy narrative was part of the structures shaping the conflict in the first place; indeed, it effectively became part of the conflict itself. By conveying events in the council’s conspiracy narrative, the media both extended and legitimated the conflict, strengthening the stronger party – giving them a national audience – and weakening the weaker. Without serious debate, the story stayed headline news for several days, died down and resurfaced periodically until at-length, in-depth features explained the underlying dynamics of the story and the conspiracy was forgotten.

The story of the ‘Matat crisis’ provokes many questions about the relationship between media and conflict. But it also provokes many questions about the role of narratives in situations of conflict – the way narratives position people in particular ways, and how people take on or resist that positioning. Drawing from several writers’ recent work on narrative, self and society, I want to offer some thoughts about the articulation of narrative and conflict.

Narratives are integral to conflict

Anthropologist Robert Thornton has suggested that narratives of violence have a specific social and cultural function (Thornton, 1994). By narrating events we link a series of actions – whether by chronology, conspiracy or psychological predisposition – into a comprehensible framework. In this way the violent event that has radically disrupted the flow of normality appears to have been predictable, and the moment of chaos that has challenged order is tamed. Nigerian writer Ben Okri puts the point well: “When we have made an experience or a chaos into a story we have transformed it, made sense of it, transmuted experience, domesticated the chaos” (Okri, ibid). Narrative is an essential cultural and social process for making sense of events, for reassuring us that our worlds are not out of control. What these narratives are and how they come to be dominant, is a vital question.

Allen Feldman, who has researched the life stories of activists in Northern Ireland, takes the point even further. He argues that narratives not only explain events; they are integral to how we decide what is an event and what is not (Feldman, 1991). The Matatiele story illustrates this well: if it were not being narrated as a provincial invasion, the squatters’ occupation of the contested land would never have been an event on headline news. Implicit, too, in narratives are pointers of authority and the likely course of the conflict’s resolution.

Peter Bruck, an Austrian communications specialist who researches news formats and socio-cultural formations, argues that “crises are specific forms of discourse which build on specific codes of significance É [that allow] the exercise of authority, the establishment of failures and the attribution of guilt and responsibility with ensuing sanctions” (Bruck, 1992). His work enables an understanding of the relationship between the entrenching of a narrative and the deepening of a crisis.

“Three sets of roles are available and necessary to the reportorial staging in order to achieve a crisis,” Bruck writes. “The human community needs to be split into perpetrators or transgressors, objects or victims, and authorities and responsibles” (Bruck, ibid). Thus, conflict escalation is paralleled in narrative processes: as conceptions of groups change in response to a crisis, the emerging arrangements of power are named, characterised and given form and motivation in stories, anecdotes and news narratives. In the Matatiele story as told by the then-Mayor, the perpetrators were Eastern Cape invaders, the victims were the town and democracy and the voices of reason and arbiters of democratic action were the Transitional Local Council and the police. Crisis established, the story (and the turmoil) ran for two weeks.

Myths, cultural logics and the self

Commenting on journalists’ tendency to fracture facts to produce a punchy story, television producer Danny Schechter has coined the word ‘mythinformation’ to describe the way narratives can link objects, intentions and events into a powerful brew that appears true because it is familiar. Indeed, the power of the narrative is in the fact that it offers a ready cultural logic that appears true simply because it is so familiar. French semiotician Roland Barthes cautions well that the cultural logic of narrative is not scientific proof (Barthes, 1988).

In the Matatiele saga, the ease with which the conspiracy narrative was reported and believed highlights the ease with which existing narratives – such as myths and stereotypes – can be brought to bear on a series of events and offer a common-sense wisdom about the resolution of the crisis. The conspiracy narrative offered a compelling logic of connections between perplexing events – and a powerful set of reasons as to why the ‘invaders’ had to be resisted. What is disturbing, however, is that in failing to distinguish between a narrative account of events and the events themselves, journalists failed to enable their readers to critically evaluate the proposed course of action.

Journalists, however, are easy targets to blame for the narratives that circulate in society. While not excusing the failures of the journalists who covered ‘Matat’ in 1995, it is important to note that journalists are not the only ones whose stories may intensify prejudices or expand the imagination. Writing on popular myth in contemporary Britain, fairytale writer Marina Warner explores archetypes of women, childhood, home and men in sources as diverse as museums, comics and movies such as Jurassic Park (Warner, 1995). These stories are powerful because the structures and meanings that comprise them are reproduced in a thousand more places. They become part of the way people think about themselves. Filtering into taxi buzz, pub talk, playground taunts and discussions over the fence with the neighbour, they establish ideas of what the nation (and the world) is, who I am in it, who I could be and how I can expect to be treated.

Dominant narratives, like that of the Matatiele Council in 1995, affirm senses of self in the world and senses of place and power in society. They reflect social structures and expectations. Drawing on prior narratives, myths and stereotypes, cultural logics can hide social faultlines or provide powerful illumination. As Okri suggests, great leaders know this. “Great leaders understand the power of the stories they project to their people,” he writes. “They understand that stories can change an age, turn an era around” (Okri, ibid). So do spin doctors and media executives and therapists. The overarching narrative determines the meaning of events.

From my own research on news stories about violence in KwaZulu-Natal, it seems to me that once a dominant narrative has achieved a level of general acceptability, people, as social actors, tend to frame and situate their experience within that overarching story. Conflicts in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s and early 1990s were so easy to reduce to an equation – ANC vs. IFP – that it became extraordinarily difficult to communicate violent events in any terms other than the established categories (Fordred, 1999).

People tend to understand themselves and their experience in narrative units (‘I am x and they are y’), and communicate their experiences of events in those narrative units to journalists (‘the x-ers did that and the y-ers did that’). When all the first-hand evidence is already cast in a particular form, predisposed to a particular meta-narrative, it becomes extraordinarily difficult for a journalist to cast events in a different story despite the fact that the violent event may owe more to feuds, family quarrels or stock-theft. It takes a new set of political conditions, and the courage to question the apparent accord between events and the stories that communicate them, before new narratives of events will begin to emerge. In this way, a changing political landscape offers optimum conditions for the rethinking of given explanations that appear to contain so much common sense.

Stories and change

A third important point: Stories are not omnipotent, but offer an astonishing resource for reflection and transformation. People are able to play with the structures of given stories and create new stories.

Researching men’s narratives in the social and political upheaval in pre-war Lebanon, anthropologist Michael Gilsenan notes that while the older generation of landowners tended to draw excessively on the heroic mode in their anecdotes of everyday life, their sons (more directly engaged in changing conditions of economic production and power) tended to tell similar stories, but parodied the heroism of their fathers’ stories and paraded instead the buffoon (Gilsenan, 1996). Gilsenan’s work suggests that in times of change, irony becomes a dominant mode and heroes become fools. His work is well demonstrated locally by the ‘Yebo Gogo’ Telkom advertisement that subverts and mocks a narrative of identities offered by grand apartheid.

But narratives do not change only via irony and parody. Writing on pro-choice and pro-life activists in one small city in the U.S., anthropologist Faye Ginsburg points out that almost all the activists she interviewed were very much aware of the dominant narratives and logics that would be expected of their lives (Ginsburg, 1989). In telling her their life stories, the activists inevitably explained how their stories were different from ‘the norm’. Distinguishing one’s own story from dominant narratives that would define one’s identity is a potent means of empowering people to be agents of change, and key among the arts of resistance.

“Human living is story-forming,” writes Canadian theologian and psychoanalyst Jim Olthuis. “Not only do we understand our lives in terms of stories, not only do we tell the stories of our lives, our lives are themselves stories: stories asking to be told, stories in process, stories in stories, broken stories, broken-off stories, repressed stories, even untold stories” (Olthuis, 1990). If this is true, work on memory and history in contexts like South Africa assumes an enormous importance: enabling people to story their lives and communities apart from dominant discourses.


Some weeks after the initial crisis the Matatiele Council returned to the Supreme Court to extend a court order that barred settlement on the contested piece of land. At the hearing, the question of ‘the invasion’ arose and the Sheriff of the Court testified that when he had tried to serve the initial court interdict on the squatters on January 3, his loudspeaker had been taken over by a man who told the crowd that KwaZulu-Natal law did not apply there. Thereafter, he said that whenever he had tried to speak the crowd had taken up the chant “Eastern Cape!”

Given the peculiar political geography of the area, and the fact that blacks in the area were sick of being excluded from Matatiele’s resources on the grounds that their area constituted ‘Eastern Cape’ territory, it is quite feasible to argue that the crowd’s behaviour did not reflect a provincial cabinet-ordered intervention, but a display of fine resistance: an inversion – a subversion – of the rules of the game as defined and used by the powerful. An historical form of domination could be used to benefit people who had always been told that because their land belonged to another province they had no access to the resources of the town. In this sense the chant, “Eastern Cape! Eastern Cape!” became the euphoric slogan of people using the terms of their disempowerment to gain power.

Okri, again, sums up the dual power of narrative: “Stories can drive you mad… Stories can heal profound sicknesses of the spirit”(Okri, ibid).


Barthes, R. The Semiotic Challenge. New York: Hill & Wang, 1988.

Bruck, Peter. “Crisis as Spectacle: tabloid news and the politics of outrage,” in Media, Crisis and Democracy, edited by Marc Raboy and Bernard Dagenais. London: Sage Publications, 1992.

Feldman, A. Formations of Violence: narratives of body and terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Fordred, L. Narrative, Conflict and Change: journalism in the new South Africa. 1994-97 (doctoral thesis for the Department of Anthropology, University of Cape Town), 1999.

Gilsenan, M. Lords of the Lebanese Marches: violence and narrative in an Arab society. London: Tauris, 1996.

Ginsburg, F. “Dissonance and Harmony: the symbolic function of abortion in activists’ life stories,” in Interpreting Women’s Lives, edited by the Personal Narratives Group. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Okri, B. “The Joys of Storytelling,” in A Way of Being Free. London: Phoenix, 1997.

Olthuis, J. Finding, Forming and Telling Stories that Give Life. Toronto: Institute for Christian Studies, 1990.

Thornton, R. “On Accounts of Violence: the human process”. Unpublished draft, Department of Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand, 1994.

Warner, M. Managing Monsters. London: Virago, 1995.


Lesley Fordred Green

Lesley Fordred Green is an anthropologist based at the University of Cape Town. This article is based on her PhD dissertation, 'Narrative, Conflict and Social Change: Reporting the New South Africa 1994-1997'. MORE >

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