By Staff Reporter
The extraordinary part played by a French businessman in hastening the collapse of apartheid and Nelson Mandela‘s release from prison after 26 years is revealed in a documentary to be shown in British cinemas.
In the 1980s Jean-Yves Ollivier was a commodities trader who used business connections and private funds to negotiate an African maze. Under the codename Monsieur Jacques, he acted as an unofficial diplomat, influencing the course of talks between African and western political leaders.
At a time when all southern Africa was at war, he acted as an intermediary for secret, high-level contacts within the “frontline states” and South Africa. He negotiated prisoner exchanges, including that of two anti-apartheid militants held in South Africa and a South African, Wynand Du Toit, captured in Angola while attempting to sabotage oil installations.
When official talks between Angolans and South Africans were impossible, Ollivier convinced the Angolan president that by releasing Du Toit he could contribute to Mandela’s liberation.
He recalls: “I discovered an Africa where mistrust prevailed. No one else was able to open up a channel of communication … I managed my negotiation like a circle of dominos. I pushed one, causing the next to fall, and so on.”
The documentary, Plot for Peace, www.plotforpeace.com is “one man’s untold story of apartheid … omitted from history”, its co-director Mandy Jacobson said. It was only after she was struck by frequent mentions of a mysterious Monsieur Jacques in conversations with key players that she realised the part he had played, “working in the shadows in several seemingly unrelated events”. She tracked him down and persuaded him to be interviewed.
The film details official and secret dealings between apartheid and Marxist regimes along South Africa’s borders. It shows that the end of apartheid and Mandela’s release were intrinsically linked to the end of the Cold War – that, without the fall of the Berlin Wall and Cuban and South African troop withdrawals from Angola, Mandela would have remained in prison.
Ollivier’s behind-the-scenes bargaining ensured the withdrawal of some 50,000 Cuban soldiers stationed in Angola and the withdrawal of South African soldiers to within their own borders, paving the way for independence for Namibia, which had been occupied by South Africa up to then and used as a base to attack Angola.
The documentary was funded by Ivor Ichikowitz, a South African whose family’s foundation established the African Oral History Archive, a non-profit initiative preserving African history. www.africanoralhistory.com Like Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, AOHA collates those of hundreds who experienced South Africa’s dramatic changes.
Appreciation of Ollivier’s contribution came from high levels, bestowed by the last apartheid hardliner, PW Botha, and Mandela himself. Plot for Peace draws on previously unseen archival material and interviews with key figures, including apartheid’s longest-serving minister of foreign affairs, Roelof “Pik” Botha, and Mandela’s former wife, Winnie.