The Story You Don’t Know About the End of Apartheid

A new documentary, Plot for Peace, tells of the unlikely behind-the-scenes role of a white businessman who decided that apartheid needed to come to an end.

African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and wife, Winnie, raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster Prison Feb. 11, 1990, in Paarl, South Africa.
African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and wife, Winnie, raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster Prison Feb. 11, 1990, in Paarl, South Africa. ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

How history is told often depends on who tells it first, which also means it is their version of history. When it comes to the end of apartheid in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, a lot of what we know we learned from the South African leader’s 1995 autobiography, which was made into last year’s hit film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Now there is another version of that history as seen in the documentary Plot for Peace, which comes out in the U.S. at the end of October. The film tells the behind-the-scenes story of a man who played an integral role in the struggle to end apartheid. Why Jean-Yves Ollivier did what he did is as complicated as the story itself, but in the end, his actions set in motion the end of two wars, a set of peace agreements and the release of Mandela, which brought about the end of apartheid.

The African National Congress’ Mathews Phosa told The Root at the film’s screening at the Africa Center in Harlem that many young South Africans do not know their history, and that is why Plot for Peace is such an important movie. “There are those that think that the history of South Africa started with the release of Mandela, but there’s a long history behind it, and this movie contributes knowledge to the young South Africans,” says Phosa, a one-time ANC freedom fighter. “Our young people need to know where they are coming from to know where they are going.”

Ollivier’s history in the movement began when he was a 30-something international commodities trader living in France and working in Africa. He says he looked at apartheid and realized it “had to end” and that he could help make that happen. At the start, he says, he was met with skepticism. “Is it because I am a businessman that people question why I did this?” says Ollivier. Some of that skepticism may also have been because he was a white outsider. He told The Root that part of his motivation came from his family being exiled from their homeland of Algeria during that country’s civil war.

Ollivier says he knew that “without peace in the region, there could not be peace in South Africa.” So, through back channels, he helped engineer the 1987 prisoner exchange in Mozambique, which involved six African nations. He also helped broker the 1988 Brazzaville Protocol, which forced Cuban troops to leave Angola and paved the way for Namibia’s independence from South Africa. Through what has been described as a domino effect, that accord ended up leading to Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and the end of apartheid.

One of Ollivier’s greatest negotiating tools was being able to convince white South Africans that they would still have a place at the table and a country to call home when apartheid ended. In the end Ollivier was rewarded for his efforts by both the government of South Africa under apartheid and the government under Mandela afterward.

We sometimes think of good things happening because of people behaving in ethical ways through democratic processes, but this is a story of things happening behind closed doors, in undemocratic ways, with a lot of wheeling and dealing. At one point in the film, the historian Michael Ledeen says, “Africa is a place where one man can make a difference.”

Plot for Peace was produced by the African Oral History Archive, a nonprofit that is “dedicated to the safeguarding of the continent’s dynamic heritage for future generations.” The film was directed by Carlos Agulló and Mandy Jacobson. It is being supported by the Brazzaville Foundation—for peace and conservation. The idea for the foundation came from Ollivier and the president of the Republic of the Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who wanted not only to commemorate what happened 26 years ago through the Brazzaville Protocol but also to take those same negotiating tactics and apply them to current conflicts.

The foundation is supported by His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent and Phosa, who told The Root, “We need to have democratic governments on the continent and get rid of dictatorship. Therefore we should encourage peaceful solutions which allows different voices to be heard, and there must be peace for democracy to survive.”