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.

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.