A lot has already been said and written about the 2013 documentary Plot for Peace. Like its main character, Jean-Yves Ollivier, it has been showered with awards, for its depiction of an unknown contribution to the end of the gruesome Angolan war and ultimately, racial segregation in South Africa. Ollivier deserves this eulogy for applying intimate knowledge of African politics to his vision of smooth transition for White South Africa away from Apartheid.
Plot For Peace is the brainchild of Mandy Jacobson, documentary producer and chair of the African Oral History Archive, which unearthed the role of Ollivier. Employing experienced researchers and a gifted film crew from a mostly non-documentary fiction-based background, Jacobson’s Archive obtained support from the philantropic Ichikowitz Family Foundation. The Foundation was founded by South African drama-student turned defence entrepreneur Ivor Ichikowitz.[i] Plot For Peace offers a scurry through contemporary African history that will only whet the appetite of fans of historical reconstruction. Given its acclaim, some perspective on this (deserved) eulogy of Jean-Yves Ollivier is in order.
The movie is a fast-paced reconstruction of the efforts of one man, the enigmatic French businessman, Jean-Yves Ollivier, to build trust among the heads of state in Southern Africa. Ollivier claims to have been inspired by his forced childhood emigration in 1962 from newly independent Algeria, and his realisation in the early 1980s that white South Africans were setting themselves up for a similar fate. The fact that he was rewarded by both Apartheid South Africa and post-Apartheid South Africa speaks for his sincerity – even if his success points to a rather realist understanding of politics.
Ollivier’s astute orchestration of top-level discussions initiated a path away from the open military conflict in Angola. By 1980 this former Portuguese colony had become the battleground for White South African fears, Cuban ambitions, American interests, and Black African distrust. All this played out against a Cold War background in which all contenders had their own version of ‘just wars’. Aiming at a mainstream audience, the documentary races past the many actors involved in key engagements, such as the 1986 secret Kalahari Desert encounter between belligerent security heads, and the 1987 Maputo prisoner exchange. The success of these exchanges led to the 1988 Brazzaville conference that established the pull-out of South African and Cuban forces from Angola. At Brazzaville, ‘honest broker’ Ollivier again played a pivotal role, providing backroom mediation to the likes of South African Foreign Minister Roelof “Pik” Botha, and Denis Sassou-Nguesso, President of the Congo and acting head of the Organisation of African Unity.
Having exhausted the military solution to defeating the ANC and its supporters, there was no recourse for the system of Apartheid. The proponent of this strategy, Prime minister Pieter “Big Crocodile” Botha, stepped down in August 1989, a month after Gorbachev’s promise to non-intervention by the USSR. Majority rule in South Africa was by now a real possibility, but anxiety still abounded. The brutalities of South African police depicted in the first few minutes are evidence of the unique achievements of Nelson Mandela in bringing about lasting peace among an extremely divided population.
Plot For Peace puts key actors on record about these historic events. The movie does a great job reminding us of the viciousness of the apartheid regime, the cynical real politics that directed Cold war conflict, and the importance of key decisions and personalities in understanding state behaviour. Jean-Yves Ollivier and the production team have a keen eye for the absurdities that surround these events, for example showing him after the prisoner exchange on a deserted Maputo runway, left stranded by the press circus as well as his connecting flight.
With scant information on actors’ relative positions offered, the audience is left with more questions than answers. This is partly because of cinematic choices. Any film destined for theatres has to be time-conscious. The pace with which actors’ comments are exchanged is worthy of a Jason Bourne movie. Skilful cuts between actual footage, news reels, and interviews communicate the high stakes involved for all concerned. The highly personal approach also fits the narrative of the accidental hero – will our man beat the odds? The apparent reduction of actions by the US and France to individual officials does invite oversimplification. Also, certain important contexts and complexities are ignored, like the prior history of Portuguese decolonisation, the intricate constellation of the Organisation for African Unity, or concurrent Soviet-American tensions.
The influence of France, and dare I say it, Françafrique, is hinted on but deemphasized as the movie reaches its end. The post-screening debate this reviewer attended allowed more immediate aspersions. Having been presented with Ollivier’s importance, but kept guessing about his background, the audience expressed suspicion about the true allegiance of this ‘honest broker’. Perhaps they were anticipating the customary final Hollywood twist. In any case, the guest of honour was not telling. (Nor was the producer very forthcoming with information when attention was directed bluntly – and somewhat inappropriately – at the origins of the funding of her movie.) In the film, one actor suggests Ollivier was connected to the French Secret Service, but the truth is probably more mundane: that Ollivier did build his network and his fortune trading in Africa. Indeed, Ollivier on his website confirms the input of the leaders of Congo, Cameroun, Ivory Coast and Gabon, all longstanding members of the Francophone community. The similarities to the mechanisms used in the Gaullist era are remarkable.
Ollivier’s Algerian déjà-vu in South Africa, his relations with heads of state, his understanding of their interests and exposures, his ability to generate key support and see mutual benefits, and his success in monopolising flows of information, all have a very Foccartian ring to them. As he reminds us at the end, “History” is made from an infinite number of smaller histories, “mine among them”. It is in their selective retelling that they have their intended effect. Space does not permit a comparison of Ollivier’s motives and methods and those of the patriarch of French African post-colonial designs. In fact in his memoires Jacques Foccart sanctimoniously described Ollivier as ‘one of those agents of influence’, self-interested, exploiting his contacts within French and Southern African elites.[ii] Foccart’s snubbing perhaps stems from Ollivier’s presumed connections with the OAS, which violently opposed De Gaulle’s choice for decolonisation.
It would appear that Ollivier’s actions acquit and condemn him in equal measure. An air of intrigue remains around this old-school French trader-diplomat who struck a chord for peace with both white minority leaders and African radical and moderate leaders. Study of the origins of parallel networks in Africa and France continues to be rewarding for those interested in the history of Southern Africa, as well as for those who study France’s historic involvement there.
[i] Ichikowitz founded the Paramount Group in 1994. ‘Paramount Group is a world leader in defence and security innovation with an exceptional reputation for developing and delivering integrated solutions for defence, internal security and peacekeeping forces across the world.’ http://www.paramountgroup.biz/
[ii] Jacques Foccart and Pierre Gaillard, Foccart parle. Entretiens avec Philippe Gaillard, vol. 2 (Paris : Fayard, 1995), pp. 321-326, 436. ‘…un homme d’affaires du type de ceux qu’on appelle des agents d’influence. Il a de nombreux contacts en Afrique australe [et Matignon]…et il s’en sert.. [s]urtout pour son compte personnel, je crois…’ p.322.