The mysterious Frenchman and the fall of apartheid

2014-08-07 18:45

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Documentary: Plot for Peace

Directors: Carlos Agulló and Mandy Jacobson

Featuring: Jean-Yves Ollivier, Winnie Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Pik Botha, Mathews Phosa, Joaquim Chissano, Denis Sassou Nguesso

We know a whole lot about World War 2, Vietnam and Auschwitz – thanks largely to Eurocentrism, American cultural imperialism and the History Channel.

We know a lot less, I suspect, about the war against apartheid and how southern Africa and Cuba bolstered the liberation, aiding the eventual ­toppling of PW Botha and the apartheid state.

A fascinating and slightly infuriating new documentary, Plot for Peace, tells that story. I strongly recommend that you go and watch it on circuit – but maybe take a nausea tablet to counter its glib rainbowism and ­underlying murkiness of character.

You’ll learn a fascinating history with one of the most impressive archive compilations we’ve seen in ages. Plot for Peace unpacks the Cold War struggle that saw the apartheid defence force try to extend its power from Namibia into Angola. It tracks the bloody conflict, negotiations and squabbles that resulted in South Africa withdrawing its troops from Angola and granting Namibia its independence.

How it chooses to do so is as a political thriller, selling itself as “a John le Carré-style” plot that focuses on the mysterious Frenchman “Monsieur Jacques” or Jean-Yves Ollivier. The producers ­secured a rare interview with Ollivier, the Algerian-born commodity broker who helped hook up the key players in the conflict and push for a negotiated settlement. He was given medals by a reluctant Botha and later by Nelson Mandela. He then shunned the limelight.

As fascinating as the interviews with Ollivier are, he is painted – for the sake of marketing – as key to unlocking Mandela’s prison cell and thus the transition to democracy. The sweat and blood of black South Africans is largely reduced to a series of devastating black-and-white archive visuals of township police brutality.

Ollivier’s motives are not sufficiently interrogated. We learn that he did what he did in a bid to bring stability in the region – in order to trade more easily, to see Mandela’s release and to save white South Africans from being “thrown into the sea”. He is bathed in rainbows.

The archive material in Plot for Peace was gathered by Nhlanhla Mthethwa for the Ichikowitz Family Foundation’s African Oral History Archive. Google searches on Ivor Ichikowitz will lead to reports with headlines like “arms dealer that flew Zuma”.

With access to several former presidents of the region, Cuban allies and the likes of Winnie Mandela, the cast of Plot for Peace is compelling.

Despite the uneasiness of how history is packaged here, with a heavy score and a History Channel slant, the truth is I haven’t stopped thinking about this film since I saw it.

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