Nelson Mandela on his release from prison in 1990. Photo: Getty.
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Plot for Peace: the French businessman who helped end apartheid

A new documentary sheds light on the role played by Jean-Yves Ollivier, a secretive French businessman, in bringing peace to South Africa. But what does it tell us about the mechanics of conflict resolution?

Even when government aides helpfully leave their briefing paper in view of press cameras, the public are usually kept in the dark about the intricate workings of high-level diplomacy. But three decades on from the end of apartheid, a new documentary, Plot for Peace, sheds light on the shadowy, complex negotiations that brought about peace in South Africa. It homes in on a most unusual figure: Jean-Yves Ollivier, a French-Algerian businessman who helped broker political deals and bring together warring factions, often at considerable personal cost.

Leading African politicians and former presidents, including Winnie Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, PW Botha and Joaquim Chissano, all pay tribute to the vital role Ollivier played in securing the end of apartheid, and yet we might never have even known he existed were it not for the filmmaker Mandy Jacobson. While researching an African oral history project, she uncovered repeated mentions of a “Monsieur Jacques” (Ollivier’s pseudonym) and decided to investigate.

Ollivier initially turned down Jacobson’s request for an interview. “My life is full of secrecy and confidentiality, and I am having a nice life,” he says - but she convinced him that it was in the public interest to talk about his role as a secret envoy. And yet, the documentary leaves many questions about Ollivier unresolved. What was really his motivation? How did he build his fortune? Or, more broadly, isn’t there something fundamentally undemocratic about allowing so much power to concentrate in the hands of an unelected and completely unaccountable figure?

With his penchant for cigars, round tortoise-shell glasses and garishly printed braces, Ollivier is a natural for the camera. He’s also a complex hero: a charmer, a humanitarian and a pragmatist who speaks openly of breaking sanctions on South Africa as a businessman. “I am not a knight of the 12th century!” he tells me at one point. And it's true, you can’t build up a fortune in commodities in developing countries if you’re a pure idealist.

I met Ollivier, together with Jacobson, for lunch in London. “When you have eaten crickets and turtles you can manage to eat English food!” he joked. He says his upbringing in Algeria was formative: his family fled from Algeria to France after the country’s independence in 1962.“They didn’t give us time to adapt to the new Algeria, we just had to leave.” He has never returned, “I am afraid because there would be so much emotion,” he says.  Arriving in South Africa in the 1980s, Ollivier was struck by the parallels with Algeria, and felt the white community needed to understand that apartheid was fundamentally unsustainable.

“I have been very lucky in my life, I have had a big success with my business, and I felt I had been put in a position where I could do something to help,” he says of his decision to start calling on his contacts to start setting up peace talks and negotiations for prisoner exchanges.

Plot for Peace unfurls like a spy thriller, but its interest also lies in what it tells us about the mechanics of conflict resolution more generally. What, for instance, would make it possible to negotiate peace in Syria? Olivier believes the West has mishandled the Syria crisis. “Instead of calming the civil war we have encouraged the civil war by taking sides. If you take sides in a civil war you prolong the civil war because one of the parties knows he has to win to survive.” The trick to being a successful peace broker “is to first convince your interlocutor that you are not siding with his enemy, and then that you are also not siding with him.” Many might feel uneasy at the thought that one secretive businessman could have such influence on international affairs, but then it’s harder to dispute his results.  

 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.