“Plot for Peace” is a cleverly-built documentary which focuses on the role an enigmatic French businessman, Jean-Yves Ollivier, played in bringing about the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Replete with secret meetings, tense moments and a lot of backdoor diplomacy, the documentary has all the right elements to make a good thriller. In fact, I’m sure somewhere in Hollywood they’re casting for potential Mr. Olliviers right now. An important part of this story is the historic prisoner exchange which took place on Sept. 7 1987, between South Africa and Mozambique, involving 133 Angolan soldiers and several South African prisoners. Bringing together great footage with great interviews from key political figures of the time, “Plot for Peace” tells an interesting, little-known story, which can definitely shed a bit more light on the complexity of South African politics of the late 80’s. On Tuesday morning, in a beautiful hotel room, we talked about covert diplomacy, individual responsibility and the importance of playing cards with Mr. Ollivier, Carlos Agullo, the film’s director, and Mandy Jacobson, its producer.
SOAS SPIRIT (SS): How did you come about this project? It seems like the best kept secret in the world.
Mandy Jacobson (MJ): It’s certainly a long kept secret. I have the privilege of working for a foundation project called African Oral History Archive and our mandate is to preserve the stories of people who‘ve made a difference on the continent. Obviously we started in South Africa, where we’re based, and through that process of interviewing […] a lot of different role players, we also searched visual archive sources from different news media. Through [this] we discovered this clip about a prisoner exchange that had happened in the late 80s and the voiceover said “Monsieur Jacques was given an award for his contribution in the prisoner exchange”, and that prisoner exchange had certainly kept in the South African imagination; and then we discovered that the same Monsieur Jacques had been awarded an Order of Merit from president Nelson Mandela. So that was the start of the story, to then track down the mysterious businessman and to try and convince him to tell his story.
SS: Mr. Ollivier, you’ve brought such a contribution to the history of South Africa, and it’s been kept out of the public sphere up to now. Did you intend that?
Jean-Yves Ollivier (JYO): Oh definitely, I never thought that I would ever have to sit in front of you, to talk about that, and to prove it. I never took pictures, never made notes, because it was past and I was more interested in what would happen tomorrow than what happened yesterday. It was circumstance which has me talking, and of course the charm of Mandy [Jacobson] and Carlos [Agullo] had a big role in that. But the world has changed. I was living in a world where Google didn’t exist, there was no fax, there was no Internet; so you could enjoy the privilege to be anonymous and to live your own life without attracting the attention of others. Impossible today. And if you don’t tell your side of the story, you are opening the door for a misinterpretation of your actions, so it was time to talk. And also I have the duty towards the people who were my companions, my “plotters”. A lot of them were pushing me to tell the story, saying: “Jean-Yves, you are the only one who can, we are only parts of the story”, and “Why do you deny me the possibility to be known for what I have done?” So that also played a role. Also, the “plotters” were getting old. Some of them have gone. One of my big regrets is that if we would have started two, three years before, we would have had Mr. Mandela, I have no doubt about it. A little bit [presumptuous] perhaps, but I don’t doubt it. So I think the time had come.
SS: Is it important that it’s been told?
JYO: It’s very difficult for me to appreciate how important it is. If I look at the audience when I’m at the Q&A, it looks like they are happy to have been able to know the story. […] It’s up to you to decide whether it’s important or not, you are the young part of my audience.
MJ: History has many mothers and fathers, so the more we can talk about different people and events, but mostly people who made a difference, the more we learn about history, because we really haven’t learned that much from history if you look at the terrifying state of conflicts around the world. Here I am as a South African who didn’t know, didn’t even think or was schooled or educated to think about the contribution of regional diplomacy. We knew that the frontline states were housing victims of Apartheid, but we didn’t know about curious behind-the-scenes diplomacy that was helping people shift form ideological dogma. So I think there are a lot of very good reasons why these stories need to be told.
Carlos Agullo (CA): I think, when you tell a story about a certain period of time, an event or an individual, at the end, if it’s a human story, it becomes universal, and for younger audiences it becomes essential to understand that they have to do something and that an individual can do something. Obviously, not everyone can be in touch with presidents or get on a plane and zigzag the continent for nine months, but that doesn’t mean that your actions are less needed, less valuable. Each one has to find his way of helping, his way of taking part in the society, in the political life of a society and I think that’s very important to convey to young people who still don’t understand what their role is. They sometimes click ‘I like this cause’ or ‘I don’t like this cause’, but how do they participate in the society? I think it’s very inspirational.
SS: There’s a quote in the movie on how Africa is still a place where one individual can still have great influence. Is that a vulnerability, is it dangerous?
JYO: I cannot imagine that every individual will try to change things for the bad. Or that an individual will act negatively, unless he’s the devil himself. Human nature is positive and when an individual decides to do something, it’s always for better things, so where is the danger?
SS: I think not everyone has good intentions and that once you have a lot of power, you can easily be corrupted by that power. For example, there are many African countries with leaders in power for twenty years.
JYO: And what’s wrong with that? If they are good for the country and they are democratically elected?
SS: Some would say they aren’t democratically elected.
JYO: It’s a matter of argument. If there are elections, and you know, now you cannot have an election in Africa unless you have neutral observers. If those observers are given free access to an election, on what right can someone say that an election is not democratic? There is a tendency today to believe that in Africa, the only aim is corruption and dictatorship, but it doesn’t work like that.
CA: Many times I think it’s used as a pretext to intervene.
JYO: And to impose your own view. Let the Africans decide their own view. […] Aren’t we, by criticizing automatically what’s happening in Africa, are we not trying to interfere with something which is not our issue? It is time that the world stops to have only one aim, which is to replace the bad by the worst. It’s exactly what’s happening in the world right now.
MJ: It’s a wonderfully complex question, because the tyranny of the individual and the tyranny of the masses can end up being one and the same, and for me, what was really interesting about this story was that, yes it was an individual, it was Jean-Yves Ollivier, zigzagging across, but without the plot, without the people he was interacting with, he would never have succeeded. And even in South Africa, you join an anti-Apartheid movement, you do something different to try and make your world a better place, but it’s never just alone, it’s never just in that extreme ethic of one person and nothing else matters. And “Plot for Peace” is a beautiful example of how together, that alchemy makes a difference.
JYO: This is the message that I would like to reinforce – I was never alone. I was always with my friends.
SS: Nelson Mandela’s absence in the movie is conspicuous. Was that intended?
CA: To relate to the thriller feeling in a movie, you need to feel the main characters’ difficulties in his journey. To feel his difficulty you must be close to him and you must see the world as he saw it at that moment. As a non-South African, […] I didn’t even know, and I was very surprised that the image that we have of Mandela, when he came out of jail – that was the first time that people saw Mandela in 27 years. And the image that people were using in the Free Mandela Movement – that was the last picture of him taken before he was imprisoned. […] He had never been seen in public in 27 years. And that was really shocking for me. That’s why in the movie I think it’s good that while people are plotting and trying to liberate Mandela, you don’t ever see Mandela, because that’s the way it was. Nobody ever saw Mandela.
SS: Mr. Ollivier, you were born in Algeria. How has that influenced your view and your experience of the African continent?
JYO: Definitely, we all come with our background, our stories, our family and that will influence you. It’s a part of your life, whether you like it or not. The fact that I was born in Algeria gave me at least the feeling that … to see what I have seen and to live what I have lived, that we are heading for disaster. It will be the victory of one, because the other one will have been destroyed. Yesterday, in the Q&A, one South African journalist wanted to say that the bad things were [only done] by the whites. No, no, there were also bad things done by the blacks, and that’s why Mandela had this extraordinary idea of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. […] There were bad things [done] on both sides.
MJ: I think that what will always stand out for me was the line in the film where Jean-Yves says that: “I came to realize that I myself could be the other in different circumstances.” And if we really unpack that, it has profound implications on the way we think about conflicts today.
SS: The movie focuses a lot on the impact of covert diplomacy versus overt one. Why was covert diplomacy so necessary then?
JYO: Just for one reason. There were sanctions and I’m not ashamed to say that I was a sanctions booster because the sanctions bar any possibility of dialogue. It was not permitted to talk to those white people in Pretoria. Our French ambassador […] was in Pretoria and nobody was ever passing the door of the embassy because he was not allowed to talk to people. So what I did was to reopen channels of dialogue and by [doing] that I was bound to secrecy, because everybody would have been saying that I was [bypassing] the sanctions. I would have been condemned. The president [of the Republic of Congo] [Denis] Sassou-Nguesso was a Marxist Leninist. If it would have been known that he sent his minister of Foreign Affairs to this racist regime, what interpretations would the party have given to him? He would have been put in jail, he would have been excluded. He put his power at risk to follow me, so I had a duty to protect also those people who were doing things secretly, and to do it under cover.
SS: Is there still a need for covert diplomacy?
JYO: Yes, definitely. But don’t ask me to do it! Let’s take a very simple example. We have a hostage situation in Syria, especially with journalists, and not only French ones. The only way to get them out is though unofficial diplomacy; it cannot be an official diplomat. Someone has to go there secretly, accepted by the official party, so there is a need for this type of negotiation.
CA: The official diplomacy is so much about ideological dogma, but most times there are economic issues involved and because these mediators are many times businessmen, it makes it easier to go down to that level, without the recorder, and to talk broadly about what the real interests of the conflict are.
JYO: And the trust. The official diplomacy requests documents and signatures and stamps. I don’t need that, I don’t have one document signed. In the prisoner exchange, [there were] six countries [involved] and someone said: “Ok, on the 7th of September, you go to Maputo [capital of Mozambique], you bring your plane, your prisoners, and you go back with your own prisoners, in the middle of the war.” And there was not one document signed, not one.
CA: In the end, if the official sides don’t agree, you’ve done nothing. And I think for all these politicians and diplomats to engage with non-official people, it’s always a risk. […] They need to know that this person does not want to take the credit. If the thing doesn’t succeed, nobody will know; if it works well, they, as politicians, will take the credit. It’s essential that this is done undercover, to be able to achieve efficiency.
SS: There is a juxtaposition in the documentary of horrible violence, perpetrated by all, against all, with clean-cut images mostly of white men in a neutral background, which gives the impression of far removed leaders. Is that intended?
CA: There is a coldness to how the violence is treated in the film, no going down to the ground level, to the soldiers and getting to the emotional side of the people who were dying in the field; and I think that gives you a good feeling of how it would be like in a negotiation [setting].
JYO: A little anecdote. Mandela is about to meet ‘the Old Crocodile’ [P.W. Botha, South Africa’s president 1978-1989], the first image of Mandela after 27 years, his first photograph. Do you know what the only condition he put was? He asked for a good tailor, that was Mr Seti, and he asked for a custom-made suit, tie, white shirt. Because he didn’t want to be seen by the world as a convict, but as a dignified man, as a leader. And he kept on wearing ties for a long time, he started to move to what people call the Mandela shirt after he left power.
CA: But it is true that many of the officials were not as much in touch with the war, they were staying in their offices.
“Plot for Peace” is out in cinemas from March 14.