Nelson Mandela on his release from prison in 1990. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

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. She is on Twitter as @SEMcBain.

Getty
Show Hide image

I am an immigrant – and I believe “migrant” is a far from neutral term

 A seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious because we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

I am an immigrant. I came to the UK 20 years ago from the US to teach philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where I am now a professor. My American accent remains very strong. I used to be surprised when, despite hearing me speak, people would express anti-immigration sentiments to me, with a clear expectation of agreement. I would tell them that I am an immigrant. “I don’t mean you”, they’d respond, surprised that I count myself as an immigrant.

This shows that seemingly neutral words – like "immigrant" – are not always used in a neutral way. The supposedly neutral word "migrant" is increasingly used by the media to describe the large numbers of desperate people travelling into and across Europe, fleeing war and persecution.

But this use has recently come under attack.

To some, this attack is baffling. A migrant is just a person who migrates, surely, and these people are migrating. What can be wrong with this truthful description? One thing that might be wrong with it, however, is that, according to the UN, that’s not what a migrant is:

The term 'migrant'… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor.

While maybe among the desperate risking their lives to escape places like Syria and Afghanistan, there is a person or two who has joined them for reasons of “convenience”, these people are surely vanishingly rare. According to the UN, then, it is simply factually wrong to call these people migrants.

But why, a more compelling objection goes, should we even care about language? People are dying and need help, and there goes the left again worrying about words. The reason to care about language is that the language we deliberate in shapes our deliberations. We’d see this without hesitation if racial slurs were being used to describe these people. And few people of good will would defend Katie Hopkins’ use of the term "cockroach". We know all too well how such clearly dehumanising words help put in place patterns of thought that make genocide possible. But "migrant"? "Migrant" is not a slur. 

Those who study the intersection of language and politics, however, have become increasingly aware that terms that seem innocent, like "migrant", can do some of the worst damage. This is because we are not aware of the ways that they are affecting our thought. Almost all of us, below our consciousness, are prone to ugly biases that we would reject if we were conscious of them. We see this in studies showing that people presented with the same CV judge it to be less attractive if the name at the top is a typically black one.

Apparently innocent words can come to function as dogwhistles, speaking to our unconscious in ways that our egalitarian conscious selves would reject if only we realised what was going on.

In America, the apparently race-neutral term "welfare" has come to be so strongly associated with black people that attitudes to any policy described using this term correlate with racial attitudes. Fascinatingly, adding an explicit reference to race removes this effect – if it’s too obvious, our conscious egalitarian selves step in. And this is why a seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious: it is not, as the UN recognises, actually a neutral term. But it seems like it is – which means we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

The suggested alternative terms are "refugee" – which calls attention to the fact that these people are fleeing intolerable conditions of violence; and the simple "human being" – which reminds us of our moral obligations. Either of these is an improvement on the inaccurate "migrant", which threatens to distort our discussions without our even realising it.

Professor Jennifer Saul is from the University of Sheffield's Department of Philosophy.