The selective memory of ‘Plot for Peace,’ documentary film about South Africa’s transition

At the opening of the documentary Plot for Peace, Jean-Yves Ollivier puts his story in the audience’s hands: “I know questions are already being asked and some are wondering how the audience will react, whether people will be gripped by my story. Well it’s up to the audience to decide.”

Plot for Peace tells the story of Ollivier, a French oil and coal trader, who intervened in southern Africa’s liberation wars. The film suggests that Nelson Mandela’s release from prison was the direct outcome of Ollivier’s game of cards, in which he used business contacts to bring together key players in the Cold War in southern Africa. According to the film, Ollivier’s crucial move was to organize the 1987 prisoner exchange of South African Major Wynand du Toit, who had been captured in Angola, in exchange for 133 Angolan soldiers held by the South African-supported UNITA. According to Ollivier, this exchange set in motion the wheels of negotiation that led to Mandela’s release three years later.

Former Mozambican Minister for Security and Cooperation and mining investor Jacinto Veloso is a bit skeptical that this negotiation was Ollivier’s disinterested “plot for peace.” Instead, he suggests that Ollivier operated. “…like any businessman. If he can intervene and get an advantage so much the better…” [6:36] Ollivier, born to a French family in Algeria and a teen during Algeria’s battle for independence, disregarded sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Yes, he saw apartheid as backward, but he judged embargoes as a counterproductive strategy, despite the anti-apartheid movement’s call for boycotts. The details of Ollivier’s business dealings are not surprisingly left out of Plot for Peace, but he admits he did business in “difficult countries which needed more than pricing.”

Plot for Peace was funded by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation. Ivor Ichikowitz (who Patrick Bond has called “Africa’s most aggressive arms dealing entrepreneur”) has been criticized for his close connections with the ANC, including Matthews Phosa (interviewed in the film about the ANC, Cuba, and Angola), Moeletsi Mbeki (former president Thabo’s brother) and Sandile Majali (best known for the Oilgate scandal). Many of the interviews in the film are from the African Oral History Archive, an Ichikowitz Family Foundation-funded project to collect interviews with important figures of the liberation struggle.

While the film compellingly presents back alleys, dark cars, and plane hopping, Ollivier’s strategizing is not surprising—and therefore less captivating. To its detriment, Plot for Peace divorces Ollivier’s actions from the numerous other behind-the-scenes negotiations by politicians and businessmen in the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. As early as 1985, Gavin Relly of the Anglo-American Corporation led South African businessmen to meet with Oliver Tambo and the ANC in exile in Zambia. The same year, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, the leader of the opposition Progressive Federal Party, also led a delegation to meet the ANC. Pieter de Lange, an academic and chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond, met with Thabo Mbeki and the ANC in New York in 1986; in 1987, Slabbert’s Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA) organized a meeting of high profile ANC exiles, including Mbeki. Mandela wrote in great length about his decisions to begin talks with apartheid officials from prison after rejecting conditional release in 1985. Mark Gevisser’s autobiography of Mbeki much more convincingly positions Mbeki as THE behind-the-scenes negotiator.

All this Plot for Peace leaves out, in favor of Ollivier’s maneuvers at the coal face of late Cold War intrigues. The film does effectively situate Ollivier’s card game within the Cold War context. But at times it too readily accepts apartheid explanations of their position as a bulwark against communism on the African continent. While the film opens with the violence in South Africa’s streets, little is done to explain it as anything other than the brutality of apartheid forces and hatred between whites and blacks. Ollivier speaks of the manner in which South Africa sought to destabilize the frontline states, but the film does not connect several of the key protagonists and interviewees of the film to the violence that they actually fostered. The documentary’s insiders include Foreign Minister “Pik” Botha—who once suggested to the TRC that language such as “track down and destroy,” “remove permanently from society,” and “obliterate” did not mean killing anti-apartheid activists—and General Neels van Tonder, head of Military Intelligence, who was responsible for organizing the training of Inkatha vigilante forces in Operation Marion.

Ultimately, the question about Plot for Peace is not as Ollivier asked, whether his story is gripping. But rather, why is this the story being told? What is not being shared here? And who gains from this rather selective telling?

Jill E. Kelly

JIll E. Kelly is assistant professor of African history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She is also on Twitter: @Jekjek19

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