‘Plot for Peace’, produced by the African Oral History Archive, tells the fascinating and previously untold story of Jean-Yves Ollivier or ‘Monsieur Jacques’, a French businessman who, in 1981, began a journey to encourage dialogue among Southern African leaders at the height of Apartheid in the 80s.
The struggle against apartheid in South Africa was spilling into the Frontline States with intensified geo-political proportions with the involvement of external actors such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and the United States.
Despite being gripped by the truly remarkable story told in this documentary, one could not miss its colonial overtones, overtones which were particularly pronounced during a tense Q&A after the screening I attended, chaired by Audrey Brown from the BBC World Service, with directors Mandy Jacobson and Carlos Agulló, and the documentary’s protagonist Jean-Yves Ollivier himself.
Using an effective mix of exclusive interviews with key political figures including Winnie Mandela, Joaquim Chassano and Eduardo dos Santos, and archival footage, ‘Plot for Peace’ paints a fascinating picture of political intrigue and the informal relationships which drive high level political negotiations. Ollivier is a great story-teller and had the audience engrossed and occasionally in stitches while he told stories of his adventures.
Ollivier was raised in Algeria, whose independence in 1962 prompted his family and community to leave the country and restart their lives in France. This experience, explained at the outset of the documentary, highlights the specific lens through which Ollivier viewed Apartheid in South Africa. He repeatedly said that his aim was that the white minority community would not be ‘driven into the sea’.
His business ventures, which began in cereal trading, and moved to the oil and coal industry, took him all over the continent.
He was particularly drawn to difficult contexts, attracting him to South Africa in 1981. Ollivier makes an interesting case against sanctions as a form of crisis diplomacy, stating that they were counter-productive and prevented dialogue. His business ventures gave him a ‘unique address book’ as he described it, putting him in contact with major players in the political scene in South Africa.
As voiced in the documentary by Odile Biyidi of ‘Survie’, a French NGO, there are allegations that Ollivier used business as a cover for intelligence, and his work lacked accountability. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that Ollivier had important successes in his self-appointed role as saviour of Southern Africa.
With fascinating clips of apartheid South Africa, depicting violence in urban areas and white police brutality, the film paints the picture of a chaotic situation. Enter Monsieur Jacques. ‘Zigzagging the battlefield’, as he put it, he was able to mediate between key individuals in government, organising both formal and informal meetings.
He negotiated prisoner exchanges, allowing for the release of South African Captain Wynand Du Toit, who had been captured during a covert mission to damage the reserves of an American owned oil company in Angola.
Captain Du Toit was swapped for 2 ANC members and 133 Angolan soldiers in Maputo in 1987.
These were of course, hugely important gains, but ‘Plot for Peace’ began to lose me as it simplistically tied these events to the resignation of President P.W. Botha and appointment of F.W. de Clerk.
According to the documentary, these events started a ‘domino effect’ that led to inevitable discussions in the South African government about Apartheid.
Even more problematically Ollivier’s story is boldly promoted as being the secret story behind Mandela’s release from prison. Although ANC activists Winnie Mandela and Matthews Phosa were interviewed in the documentary, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ANC and their role to end Apartheid was barely mentioned. It became evident that this is just another film that depicts an African story through the eyes of a Western protagonist, one where African agency is predictably under-played. With the usual smattering of patronising language, Ollivier had ‘discovered an Africa where mistrust prevailed’, and where ‘a single individual can still have quite a great effect’.
A reoccurring clip in the documentary is that of Ollivier playing a solitaire card game, this metaphor was crudely used throughout the film to describe his work of picking roles for certain African leaders. Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of the Congo and former Chairman of Organisation of African Unity, pointed out that he worked with Ollivier because he felt African leaders should become involved in working towards peace in Southern Africa, as actors and not spectators. This point seemed to be missed by Ollivier who describes Sassou Nguesso as the perfect person for the role he had in mind.
On his website, Ollivier describes his work as the ‘diplomacy of influence’, the use of personal and business relationships to facilitate peace negotiations among political elites.
Peace-making is not saintly, individuals like Ollivier are needed to use their positions and influence to foster peace. It was his unique position that allowed him to gain credibility with opposing governments.
But as Ollivier said himself, this is one story, it is not the secret behind Mandela’s release. At the end of the film we see Ollivier satisfied with his accomplishments, mulling over ‘what will be the next game’.
I, for one, still look forward to hearing other voices who brought about the end of Apartheid from the African Oral History Archive’s series marking 20 years of South African Democracy (http://www.africanoralhistory.com/soon.htm).
Shushan Terwolde-Berhan is a recent graduate from the University of York, with an MA in Post War Recovery Studies. She’s currently an intern at the Royal African Society.
Plot for Peace was screened at Riverside Studios on the 10th March 2014.