In the business of peace

2014-08-12 00:00


WHAT did an Algerian-born French businessman have to do with South Africa’s journey to democracy? Well, quite a bit it seems, according to a new documentary, Plot For Peace.

In the mid-eighties, township violence raged in South Africa and one of the Cold War’s most vicious proxy conflicts was having a devastating effect on Angola.

Into this blood-soaked environment stepped a dapper little man, known only as Monsieur Jacques, who made it his business to get all the key stakeholders in the region talking to each other.

He organised a secret summit in the Kalahari, pulled strings to set up meetings between the leaders of the apartheid government and those governing the neighbouring states, and even helped organise a massive prisoner exchange.

In 1988, South Africa’s armed forces and 50 000 Cuban troops began withdrawing from Angola.

Two years later, the African National Congress, Pan Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party were all unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released unconditionally from prison after 27 years.

Jean-Yves Ollivier’s intriguing story emerged when co-director and producer Mandy Jacobson, an Emmy award-winning film-maker, was doing research for the African Oral History Initiative (AOHA), run by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation.

“I came across a clip from the SABC relating to Wynand du Toit, a captain in the South African army who was captured in Angola,” Jacobsen said.

“It was a huge embarrassment for the South African government, but what the clip showed was that an award was given to Monsieur Jacques, a mysterious Frenchman, for his help in getting Du Toit back.

“I thought: ‘What is a Frenchman doing helping South Africa on our borders?’ It made me curious, so I got in touch with Wynand, and also went back to Pik Botha to try and find out more about this guy.

“But when I finally managed to make contact with Jean-Yves himself, he didn’t want to tell his story. He told me: ‘I’ve sat on my story for the past 30 years, so why should I tell it now?’. But eventually he changed his mind and decided he did want to share his story for posterity.”

Watching Plot for Peace you can’t help wondering what Ollivier’s motivation was. I doubt very much he got involved for purely altruistic reasons. He was a businessman after all and was working in a pretty volatile region of the world.

Jacobsen believes that he decided to use the networks he had built up as a commodities trader to pull strings and get people talking. “I think he had a need to do business in a peaceful world and not a regional battlefield,” she added.

Ollivier says little on the subject in the film, but in one scene he tells the filmmakers: “When I arrived in South Africa in 1981, it felt like another planet. Whites did not understand that if they did not change and accept sharing the country they were headed for disaster.”

Plot for Peace, which was screened at the Durban International Film Festival last month, uses archive footage alongside interviews with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Pik Botha, Mozambique’s Joachim Chissano, Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, Fidel Castro’s “African hand” Jorge Risquet and American Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker to tell a thrilling tale, which would not be out of place in the pages of a John LeCarré novel.

Their first-hand accounts disclose both the official and the secret dealings between those at the helm of an apartheid state in its last moments and the Marxist regimes on South Africa’s borders.

To some, like Mbeki, Ollivier was a sanctions buster or perhaps even a French spy. For others, however, including Madikizela-Mandela and Chissano, he was a trusted friend and a man of vision. And it’s certainly true that he was honoured, uniquely, by both president P.W. Botha, and president Nelson Mandela for his efforts.

“With the prisoner exchange there were six countries who were not talking to each other, and he became the catalyst for bringing these different players together,” said Jacobsen. “It’s pretty amazing and I think gives people a window into the secret world of diplomacy.”

For Ivor Ichikowitz, chairperson of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation and funder of the archive, the film has helped bring to life a fascinating story.

“Plot for Peace is not just a story about or for Africa but for and about the world,” he said. “It demonstrates how through human beings interacting with trust and respect resolutions can be found to the world’s toughest problems.”

• Plot for Peace will be screened on SABC2 on September 14 as part of a series of programmes to celebrate Heritage month.

PLOT for Peace is one of several documentaries in The Rainbow Makers series, which have been made by the African Oral History Archive (AOHA), financed by the non-profit Ichikowitz Family Foundation.

The AOHA is dedicated to safeguarding the continent’s dynamic heritage for future generations.

Using some 150 interviews, to-date the project records and showcases the continent’s acclaimed or unknown history-makers, giving unprecedented access to all those who were at the heart of events that shaped Africa’s modern history.

Other films in the project include:

• The Foreign Minister: Pik Botha’s feisty and poetic reflections about his career as SA’s foreign minister;

• Women of Substance, Women of Style: A celebration of female struggle veterans, who talked the talk, walked the walk and looked good doing it;

• Back to the Drawing Board: A look at Dean Simon, one of the country’s most in demand visual artists, who interprets SA’s transition to democracy in 12 controversial drawings; and

• Jewish Memories of Mandela: A new perspective of Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle as seen through the lives and recollections of Jewish South Africans

For more on the Archive project, visit

Jean Yves Ollivier.

PHOTO: supplied

Former president Nelson Mandela and Jean-Yves Ollivier.

PHOTO: supplied

Jean-Yves Ollivier and Winnie Mandela in the mid-1980s.

PHOTO: supplied

Former president Nelson Mandela and Ivor Ichikowitz.

PHOTO: supplied

Captain Wynand du Toit, Pik Botha and Jean-Yves Ollivier. During the raid on the Cabinda oil refinery, Angola, on May 21, 1985, Du Toit was taken captive, and two other South African commandoes were killed. The rest of the commando unit evacuated successfully. Du Toit was released in an intricate prisoner exchange in Maputo, involving 133 Angolan soldiers, anti-apartheid activists, Klaas de Jonge, a Dutch anthropologist, and Pierre Andre Albertini, a French university lecturer.

PHOTO: supplied

V Jean-Yves Ollivier

“When I arrived in South Africa in 1981, it felt like another planet. Whites did not understand that if they did not change and accept sharing the country they were headed for disaster.”

When I arrived in South Africa in 1981, it felt like another planet. Whites did not understand that if they did not change and accept sharing the country they were headed for disaster.

MANDY Jacobsen is a multiple award-winning filmmaker. She works out of both New York and Johannesburg.

She won two Emmy awards for her documentary Calling the Ghosts: A Film about Rape, War and Women in Bosnia, and with the Bill Moyers team won the Peabody for PBS feature Facing the Truth.

She has produced and directed programmes in the United States, Brazil, Bosnia, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Cuba and South Africa, which have been broadcast on major networks worldwide, including CBS’s Sixty Minutes .

Jacobsen is the head of Indelible Media, a multi-media production company dedicated to showcasing African cinema and television for international broadcast and theatrical release.

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