Talking of revolution in South Africa, the names Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, F W De Klerk, Joe Slovo and others all spring immediately to mind.
Jean-Yves Ollivier, perhaps not so much. Yet it was this unassuming French businessman who played a key part in creating the conditions for peace in South Africa, for the tyrannous wall of apartheid to be dismantled, and it is his surprising story that is told in this week’s Documentary of the Week, ‘Plot for Peace’.
Who was "the mysterious Frenchman" working behind the scenes in South Africa? 'Plot for Peace' explains...
Producer Mandy Jacobson came across 'Monsieur Jacques' through her African Oral History Archive Project, a foundation which collects testimonies of people on the continent.
"I found some footage of an award being given to Monsieur Jacques," she explains. "He was described as a "mysterious Frenchman". Then I saw this same mysterious Frenchman had been honoured by Mr Mandela. So suddenly there was a whole other chapter, another story to unravel."
Jean-Yves himself was surprised to be approached, telling me, "I have never considered what I have done as a story to be told. I didn’t realise it might interest other people." This, despite his bringing together the leading of opposing factions, used to warring with each other but suddenly finding themselves accepting his invitation to a camp in the Kalahari.
“I had no big plan,” he remembers.
"There was no big intention. I knew what the essence was. It was the way it was going. I was in a world where victory of one over the other would involve disasters for both.
"And my other conclusion was, there is no dialogue. At the time, Americans thought they were the only ones protecting South Africa from becoming a Marxist ally for the Russians, so there was blockage and everyone trying to force people to act for them. There was no dialogue, that was very clear, so my first intention was very simple, to create it."
Jean-Yves Ollivier's contribution was recognised much later by President Nelson Mandela
Both despite and no doubt because of his circumspect approach, Jean-Yves's tireless efforts brought together a surprising group of leaders in the Kalahari. "I thought if they could camp together, look at each other brushing their teeth in the morning, they might still be waging war, but they would at least remember they were all human," is how he remembers it.
‘Plot for Peace’ director Carlos Agulló explains that the challenge was to create a film that was neither too much history lesson, not too much biopic of one man, but to walk a thin line in between, see it through his eyes and tell the bigger story.
Despite this, Jean-Yves’s character comes across fully as a man who will not be daunted. Did he ever think he'd see Nelson Mandela freed and, just imagine, leading the country?
"You want it to happen," he reflects. "You don’t think whether you’ll see it or not, that’s your goal, and you have to be optimistic. You have to think, yes, we can do it. I wanted it to happen, and in my lifetime, so I did everything I could."
Years later, it was Winnie Mandela who told her then husband of the contribution made by Jean-Yves, and ensured he would finally be honoured by the man himself.
"He said to me, 'You have really played a good role, thankyou very much,'" is how Jean-Yves remembers that meeting.
All we ever hear in the news is about the failure of international attempts to bring together opposing factions around a table and watch them agree – why does Jean-Yves Ollivier think he succeeded where so many others have failed?
"Because I was not a public figure," he explains. "I was trying to make my success their success, and not trying to grab it.
"We are dealing with politicians, who need public success. Here, I was someone who was working quietly, and at the end of the day, I would get the benefit if they did. And if it was a failure, it wouldn't have mattered. But it wasn't."
So, 27 years later, this mysterious Frenchman could be forgiven for sitting back in his chair and reflecting on a job well done, but it seems not.
“No, I’m not the kind of person to put my tools down,” he says, beaming, and saying no more.
'Plot for Peace' is in selected cinemas across the UK. Watch the trailer below...
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