Sophie McBain picks up politics, business and international development stories from around the globe

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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?

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

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.  

 

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