Shadowy French figure in the Nelson Mandela story

The heritage and legacy of Nelson Mandela are the subject of great debate right now, and to discuss this euronews talked to Jean Yves Ollivier, codename “Mr Jacques” in the new French documentary “Plot for Peace”, which has just had its London premiere.

Sophie Desjardin, euronews:

“The film charts the progress of a French businessman who, on the sidelines and in the shadows, worked to free Mandela and bring down apartheid. It makes you the lead figure, and while I’m not going to give away spoilers, I’d like to evoke with you the man we have just lost.

On February 13 1990 when Mandela walked free after 27 years in jail and appeared in front of a crowd in Soccer City you came out with this phrase – ‘Mandela knows nothing about me and my secret history, but it’s bound up with his own’. You were there in the crowd, anonymous. What did you feel?”

Jean Yves Ollivier:

“It was extraordinary. It was the first time I saw him, the man I’d fought for for years and in whose cause I’d left no stone unturned was there, in front of me. The feeling that he didn’t know who I was did perhaps add to the emotions I was feeling.”

Sophie Desjardin:

“Nelson Mandela met you later, when he learned about your existence and your role in his life. Were you impressed by the meeting? What did you think of the man when you finally met him?”

Jean Yves Ollivier:

“First of all the fact I could shake his hand, stand beside him and talk was miraculous for me. He was still wearing a collar and tie at the time and hadn’t started wearing the multicoloured Madiba shirts yet. The received me very simply, because that was his style, and we chatted about his past, what I did, how I saw things, why I did what I did.

And then suddenly I realised I had forgotten my camera. That completely threw me, and I lost my composure somewhat. And when it came, as I knew it would, to the traditional moment when Nelson offered to have a photo taken with his guest I didn’t want to have to admit I’d forgotten it.

We didn’t have mobile phones at the time to help us react quickly, so I found myself saying ‘Thank you Mr. Mandela but I prefer to keep an image of you in my heart.’

This would prove to be a great shame as subsequently when I met him I wasn’t going to change my position, so I don’t have any photos of the two of us alone. It’s only when someone else has been around to snap one that I’ve had any of me and Mandela.”

Sophie Desjardin:

“It must be repeated that in the 1960s and well beyond, even well after his status as universal hero and man of peace was accorded, Mandela was seen as a terrorist by some. In your opinion how did he change the face and destiny of South Africa? “

Jean Yves Ollivier:

“Some very important people branded him a terrorist, like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but this was because Mandela belonged to the Marxist-Leninist camp, opposed to the Anglo-Saxon Conservatives.

So everything was done to blacken his image, his reputation, and his health, but very little stuck. Pressure mounted for him to be freed and in 1987 the South Africans begin a dialogue with Mandela, promising to free him if he renounces violence.

This Mandela refuses to do. And it should be noted that his freedom is announced by President FW de Klerk, who insists on the fact that the liberation is unconditional.

Mandela’s perception of violence is, however, a negotiation tactic. He knew that renouncing violence before being freed would make it harder to threaten violence later during negotiations, if they went badly. So I don’t think he was a violent man, he proved this himself. It was possible to find his position over violence ambiguous up to the moment when he makes his Soweto speech. After that there’s no doubt about his vision for a new, non-violent South Africa.”

Sophie Desjardin:

“How did the man that you knew manage to shed the skin of an African Nationalist who dreamed of throwing the white colonist back in the sea, into the emblem of heroic reconciliation that we celebrate today?”

Jean Yves Ollivier:

“First of all it’s because of his stature as leader. Don’t forget that at the end of the 1970s the ANC slogan is ‘Death to Apartheid’, and this is gradually replaced, in large part thanks to Winnie Mandela, by the far more positive ‘Free Mandela’.

From this moment on he incarnates the entire struggle in South Africa. The words ‘Free Mandela’ didn’t just call for one man’s liberation; they came to stand for the nation, and what a new South Africa would be like. So Mandela emerged from prison non-violent, and pacifist.”

Sophie Desjardin:

“What is Mandela’s particular heritage for South Africa and the African continent as a whole? Did any other African leader cultivate so many of their fellow presidents?”

Jean Yves Ollivier:

“I’m very happy you ask that question because his African policies and actions have been overlooked in comparison to what Mandela did at home. He’s much more than a South African leader. He set out on an ideological reconquest of the ideals of good governance throughout Africa. For example he commits to supporting democratic governments, and personally mediates disputes.

He leads the talks between Zaire’s President Mobuto and his successor Laurent Kabila.

Mandela intervenes in Burundi, writing to President Lissuba to encourage him to hold elections in Brazzaville.

So he was a democrat who saw it was vital for the rest of Africa to be democratic, especially as this would safeguard his own position in South Africa.”

Sophie Desjardin:

“For those people who want to learn more about this astonishing and captivating story, I suggest you go and see the documentary “Plot for Peace”. Thank you so much Jean Yves Olivier.”

Jean Yves Ollivier:

“I would just like to add in conclusion that Mandela was particularly interested in the individual, and everything around any individual. He would never miss asking about your family, your friends, or those you had introduced to him, and he would never enter into talks or quit them without establishing a continuity, a ‘leading-into’ or a ‘way forward’ once negotiations broke off.

He never left anyone with the impression they wouldn’t meet again, and he always prepared for the talks that were to come next. In this respect he was quite extraordinary.”
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