As the death of Nelson Mandela has been dominating the news the past two days, I should mention this fascinating 1½-hour documentary that opened 2½ weeks ago in two Paris cinemas (and that I saw in the nick of time, as it’s already gone; it wasn’t a box office hit, needless to say). It tells an “untold story” of how the apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end, the story being the indefatigable, behind-the-scenes effort of a French businessman and adventurer, Jean-Yves Ollivier, to broker an agreement to end the South African cross-border war in Angola. The effort achieved fruition in 1988, resulting in the mutual withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from that country, which set in motion the process that led to the independence of Namibia the following year and, in 1990, the freeing of Mandela. Here’s the synopsis from the film’s website
THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND HISTORY, a well-kept secret behind the world-wide icon: Nelson Mandela’s release was a Plot for Peace. For the first time, heads of state, generals, diplomats, master spies and anti-apartheid fighters reveal how Africa’s front line states helped end apartheid. The improbable key to Mandela’s prison cell was a mysterious French businessman, dubbed “Monsieur Jacques” in classified correspondence. His trade secret was trust.
In the mid-1980s, township violence raged in South Africa and one of the Cold War’s most vicious proxy conflicts devastated Angola. “Total onslaught” was writ large across the horizon. It was then that a foreign commodity trader with connections to all stakeholders in the region became the lifeline for top-secret contacts. To build trust, he organized a vast prisoners’ exchange. A year later, in 1988, South Africa’s forces and 50,000 Cuban troops began withdrawing from Angola.
In John LeCarré style, the land of apartheid and the front line states come out of the Cold War long before the Berlin Wall crumbles. Within fourteen months, Mandela walks out of jail – a free man and, soon, South Africa’s first democratically elected President.
For the first time, the protagonists of this high-risk venture – African heads of state, battle-tested generals, international diplomats, secret service operatives, and anti-apartheid icons such as Winnie Mandela and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki – recount the true story of how the front line states put paid to apartheid.
“Monsieur Jacques” leads this action-packed documentary through a rugged landscape of moral dilemmas. To some, such as Thabo Mbeki and militants for transparency, he was a sanctions buster, a secret go-between, a French spy. For others, such as Winnie Mandela and Mozambique’s former President Joaquim Chissano, he is a trusted friend and a man of bold vision. “I shake the hand I cannot sever”, says Jean-Yves Ollivier. As a matter of fact, he was bestowed upon highest honours by both the last impenitent stalwart of apartheid, P.W. Botha, and the first President of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
As with most people not intimately connected with this aspect of the story, I knew nothing about Jean-Yves Ollivier. When I saw in the opening credits that the documentary’s historical consultant and scriptwriter was Stephen Smith—whose reporting and writing on Africa I’ve been following for the past 25 years—, I knew that it would be good. Jean-Yves Ollivier’s story is gripping. He was intrepid, knew Africa like the back of his hand, and had an ample carnet d’adresses—on the continent and in Paris, Washington, and other capitals. He is also a Pied-Noir from Algiers and in 1962, at age 17, spent five months in a French prison for politically related activities; he doesn’t detail these in the film but one may surmise that he had been in the OAS and had done things he may not wish to talk about. He recounts his first visit to South Africa in 1981, of the isolation of the country—both physically and as an international pariah—and how cut off the white population was from the rest of the world. He viscerally identified with the whites but knew that apartheid was untenable, that the system was doomed. As a Pied-Noir he felt it was imperative that South Africa not experience what Algeria had two decades earlier—with the calamitous demise of Algérie française—, that a transition to majority rule had to be negotiated and which would not result in an exodus of the white population. So he took it upon himself to persuade whites at the elite level and use his numerous contacts in the African frontline states to initiate a process of negotiation. The larger context was the Cold War and with Angola the principal regional theater. One of the leitmotifs in the discourse of white South Africans was the dread fear of communism, of what they saw as Soviet expansionism and their conviction that the ANC was part and parcel of this. This was also, of course, the view of the Reagan administration, and which Chester Crocker affirms in the film.
The interviews in the film—with the major actors on all sides—are exceptional, as is the narrative of the geopolitics of the region in the 1980s. An impressive job by directors Mandy Jacobson and Carlos Agulló, not to mention Stephen Smith. So if one is at all interested in the subject and has the opportunity to see the documentary, do so. The trailer, on the film’s website, is here.
BTW, Stephen Smith has an LRB blog post here on Nelson Mandela’s death. And here’s an assessment of Mandela’s legacy by Harvard anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, published on the Harvard Gazette website.